Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 872

Desai is widely recognized as one of the leading Indian novelists writing in the English language. R. K. Dhawan notes that Desai's novels ‘‘have drawn worldwide attention and she stands in the forefront in the world of fiction.'' B. Ramachandra Rao refers to Desai as "one of the most fascinating original writers in Indo-Anglican writing today.’’ Both Seema Jena and R. S. Sharma state that Desai is "one of the most promising novelists writing in English today in India.'' Usha Bande concurs that Desai is "one of the most serious yet appealing novelists on the Indian-English firmament.’’ Critics generally agree that, as Rao has said, Desai is ‘‘one of the most significant of the Indo-Anglican novelists.’’ Dhawan has stated that Desai"has added a new dimension to the Indian English fiction.’’ Dhawan explains that, whereas previous Anglo-Indian novelists (Indian novelists writing in English) have focused on the external world of Indian culture, Desai"is interested in the psychic life of her characters and her novels reveal that her real concern is with the exploration of the human psyche.’’ Rao points to Desai's focus on character over story, which, he says, "makes her work something very unusual in Indo-Anglican fiction. It gives to the Indo-Anglican novel a poetic depth, a psychological sophistication which were lacking.'' Jena concurs that Desai"has tried to introduce a modern psychological vein and projects a sensibility generally not encountered in other Indo-Anglican writers of fiction.’’ Sharma notes that Desai's '' sensitive handling of the craft of fiction has brought her both popular appreciation and critical acclaim,'' and that she "has established herself as one of the significant voices in Indo-Anglican fiction.’’

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Primarily a novelist, Desai has published one collection of short stories, Games at Twilight (1978), which includes ‘‘Studies in the Park.’’ Sharma explains that Desai's short stories ‘‘show the same tendency towards a psychological exploration of states of 'being,' that we observe in her longer fiction, but they are more tightly organized and compact.'' Sharma notes that in most of the stories in Games at Twilight' "the protagonist happens to be a young adolescent struggling to come to grips with the adult world. The stories capture that moment in their life when reality intrudes in their world of innocence like a hot blast and destroys their complacent acceptance of what appears to them to be real.''

Sharma concludes that Desai' s short stories "have a freshness that makes them a significant contribution to the art of short-story in Indian writing in English.''

Desai is known for stories and novels which focus on the internal life of her characters rather than on plot or story. These characters struggle to forge a sense of individuality in the context of oppressive family and societal expectations. As Jena notes, ‘‘Her main concern is to depict the psychic state of her protagonists, at a crucial juncture in their lives.'' In discussing the short stories of Games at Twilight, Rao states, ‘‘These characters have secret inner lives which make them unique and they react against the inane routine of everyday life.'' Rao goes on to say that the characters in these stories "are all struggling and sensitive individuals protesting against the drabness and dullness of a life of conformity. These characters are not creatures of habit and, although they differ from one another in degree, they are of the same kind. They are stubbornly unyielding and carefully protect the vision of the secret world of passion and beauty.''

Critics also note Desai's use of language and description in conveying the internal monologues of her characters through a stream-of-consciousness flow of words. Jena explains that Desai ‘‘has forged
a style supple and suggestive enough to convey the fever and fretfulness, the eddies and currents in the stream of consciousness of her characters. The grapple with thoughts, feelings and emotions is reflected in the language, syntax and imagery.’’ Sharma points to Desai' s rich imagery and her keen observation of the world around her, pointing out that Desai"observes every sight and sound with an uncommon intensity. Nothing escapes her eyes, not even the legs of a spider.’’

Rao describes the "imagist" style in Desai's use of language and description in the short stories as a "technique of evoking a mood or atmosphere by carefully piling up innumerable details of the colours, the smells and the sights of Indian life.’’ Rao notes, however, that "this technique which is quite effective in the novels has obvious drawbacks when employed in the short story. Owing to its shorter length, the short story does not offer enough space for Anita Desai to build up the tempo or to evoke the mood as she does in her novels.’’ Nonetheless, Rao's assessment of Desai's style in the short stories is primarily positive: ‘‘Within these obvious limitations imposed by the short story as an art form, Mrs. Desai does succeed in giving us very poetic descriptions of the heat and the dust, the beauty and the sordidness of the environment in which her protagonists live. Mrs. Desai's gift for the telling phrase, and her uncanny ability to see the unusual and the unfamiliar are displayed in the short stories as well.’’

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