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by Bamber Gascoigne

Anita Desai (b. 1937) - formerly Anita Mazumdar


Indian novelist and short story writer, especially noted for her sensitive portrayal of the inner life of her female characters. Several of Anita Desai's novels explore tensions between family members and the alienation of middle-class women. In her later novels Desai has dealt with such themes as German anti-Semitism, the demise of traditions, and Western stereotypical views of India.

"Even though his cigarette stank  it was a local one, wrapped in a tendu leaf, fierce enough to make his head swim  he could smell the distinctive Indian odour  of dung, both of cattle and men, of smoke from the village hearts, of cattle food and cattle urine, of dust, of pungent food cooking, of old ragged clothes washed without soap and put out to dry, the aroma of poverty." (from Baumgartner's Bombay by Anita Desai, A Mariner Book, 2000, p. 110)

Anita Desai was born in Mussoorie, a hill station north of Delhi, the daughter of a D.N. Mazumdar, a Bengali businessman, and the former Toni Nime, of German origin. At home she spoke German, as well as Bengali, Hindi, and English. When asked about her mixed parentage, Desai said: "I feel about India as an Indian, but I suppose I think about it as an outsider." (Anita Desai by Elaine Yee Lin Ho, 2005, p. 1)

Desai began to write in English at the age of seven, and published her first story a few years later. At the age of nine, she read Wuthering Heights – the book had a lasting impact on her. Another very important work for her was Albert Camus' The Stranger, which she read over and over again. Desai was educated in Delhi at Queen Mary's Higher Secondary School and Miranda House, Delhi University, where she received in 1957 a B.A. in English literature. In the following year she married Ashvin Desai, a businessman; they had four children.

Desai started to write short stories regularly before her marriage. Speaking of how she felt being a writer in her earlier days, Desai said, "It is like being deep inside a dark cave, quite alone." ('"On being an Indian writer today"' by Anita Desai, in Name Me a Word: Indian Writers Reflect on Writing, edited by Meena Alexander, 2018, p. 222) As a novelist she made her debut with Cry, the Peacock (1963), about an introvert, superstitious woman, Maya. Following an astrologer's prediction, she kills her husband, Gautama, to liberate herself. This novel was published in Britain by Peter Owen, a publisher specializing in literature of the British Commonwealth and continental Europe. Desai earned £300 from the book; translation rights to a Romanian writer were sold for ten pounds. 

Voices of the City (1965), Desai's next work, was a story about three siblings, Amla, Nirode, and Monisha, and their different ways of life in Calcutta. Amla sees the city as a monster, Nirode sacrifices everything for her career, and Monisha cannot bear her stifling existence in the household of a wealthy old Calcutta family. Both of these early novels also touched the subject of discriminatory marriage system. Bye, Bye, Blackbird (1971) and Where Shall We Go This Summer (1975) were published only in India. Fire on the Mountain (1977), set in Kasuli, a hill station, focused on three women and their complex experiences in life.

While living in Old Delhi, Desai's neighbour was the writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; her devotion to her literary work encouraged Desai to continue with her writing, in spite of feelings of isolation and loneliness. Both Desai and Jhabvala had similarities in their family background: Jhabvala's mother was from German-Jewish ancestry.

Clear Light of Day (1980), a Booker Prize Finalist, was selected in Defining Moments in Books: The Greatest Books, Writers, Characters, Passages and Events That Shook the Literary World (2007), edited by  Lucy Daniel. Desai wove in the story the history of Delhi with a middle-class Hindu family.

The central character is Bim (short for Bimla) Das, a history professor, an independent woman. Bim's memories of the family past dominate her sterile existence, she feels betrayed by her unambitious sister Tara, and replays her memories in the decaying family mansion in Old Delhi. Their mentally retarded brother-in-law plays old records. Tara do not understand why Bim doesn't want anything to change, when she rejects the hopeless atmosphere of the house. "It seemed to her that the dullness and the boredom of her childhood, her youth, were stored here in the room under the worn dusty red rugs, in the bloated brassware, amongst the dried grasses in the swollen vases, behind the yellowed photographs in the oval frames – everything, everything that she had so hated as a child and that was still preserved here as if this were the storeroom of some dull, uninviting provincial museum." (Ibid., A Mariner Book, 2000, pp. 20-21) The summer of 1947 has divided the nation and the family – Hindus and Muslims are torn apart by Partition. Through Tara's and Bim's consciousness Desai looks the same events from different points of views.

"Poor Raman was placed in one of the lower ranks of the companies' hierarchy. That is, he did not belong to a British concern, or even to an American-collaboration one, but merely to an Indian one. Oh, a long-established, prosperous and solid one but, still, only Indian. Those cigarettes that he passed around were made by his own company. Somehow it struck a note of bad taste amongst these fastidious men who played golf, danced at the club on Independence Eve and New Year's Eve, invited at least one foreign couple to every party and called their decorative wives 'darling' when in public." (from 'The Farewell Party,' in Games at Twilight, Penguin Books, 1982, p. 90)

In many novels, the characters are members of the Anglicized Indian bourgeoisie, whose marital problems are in the forefront. They often adopt escapist ways to cope with the everyday life or world outside comfortable living. Sita in Where Shall We Go This Summer, pregnant with her fifth child, takes refuge from her marriage on the magical island homestead of her deceased father. Nanda Kaul in Fire on the Mountain withdraws into a private world of self-willed isolation. Reviewing the short story collection Games at Twilight (1978) Victoria Glendinning defined Desai as "a writer's writer in that anyone who has ever set pen to paper must ask himself just what it is about the writing that makes the story so memorable". ('Anita Desai,' in World Authors 1975-1980, edited by Vineta Colby, 1985, p, 182)

From the mid-1980s Desai started to examine more closely the life of the unprivileged and the themes of social responsibility. Desai has denied that her novels are reflections of Indian society or politics. In Custody (1984) is Desai's ironic story about literary traditions and academic illusions. The central characters are Nur, an Urhi poet, who has fallen on hard times, and Deven, a professor of Hindi, who realizes that the beloved poet is not the magical genius he has imagined. Disappointments haunt men and women from a story to another. Prema, middle-aged Delhi English teacher in the novella 'Translator Translated' concludes: this is how I must look to them – a tired woman going home from work with nothing to look forward to, nothing to smile about." (in The Artist of Disappearance, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, pp. 89-90)

Desai's own German half of the parental heritage is in the background of Baumgartner's Bombay (1988) – her first language was German. The novel tells of a retired Jewish businessman has escaped in his youth the Nazis to India and stayed there in poverty, taking care of stray cats. Baumgartner, one of the many displaced and dispossesed characters that populate Desai's novels, feels himself as an outsider in the multinational Bombay. "His eyes were short-sighted and blinked half-shut against the glare that thrust itself in at the door and so he did not notice that watchman's expression as he passed him on his perch under the wooden board that bore the tenants' names – Hiramani, Taraporevala, Barodekar, Coelho, da Silva, Patel – mumbled 'Good morning, salaam', and went down the steps into the street with his bag, uncertain as ever of which language to employ. After fifty years, still uncertain, Baumgartner, du Dummkopf." (Ibid., A Mariner Book, 2000, p. 110) A German hippie enters Baumgartner's life and his reclusive existence is shattered.

Before Baumgartner's Bombay, Desai made little references to political, economic, and religious themes, which underpin, for instance, the work of Salman Rusdie. The novel can be regarded as an answer to critics, who have argued that Desai's concern is the westernized middle-class and therefore their problems are more close to those of Western readers than to majority of Indian people.

Some of Desai's stories have a mythic dimension, most evident in Cry, the Peacock. Nevertheless, Desai has been referred to as "the Mother of the Indian psychological novel genre." Journey to Ithaca (1995) examined the nature of pilgrimage to India through three characters – Mateo and Sophie, young Europeans, and Mother, a charismatic and mysterious woman, whose story is an earlier version of their own.

Fasting, Feasting (1999), shortlisted for the Booker Prize, contrasted American and Indian culture, and male and female roles. Arun studies in Massachusetts, his sister Uma lives in India in a small provincial city. Uma lives with her parent whom she calls MamaPapa. "It was hard to believe they had ever had separate existence, that they had been separate entities and not MamaPapa in one breath. . . . MamaPapa themselves rarely spoke of a time when they were not one. The few anecdotes they related separately acquired great significance because of their rarity, their singularity." (Ibid., A Marine Original, 1999, p. 5) Uma's attempts to leave home and marry create a disaster. The novel was a finalist for the 1999 Booker Prize. In The Zigzag Way (2004), Desai departed from her familar settings and placed the story of identity and self-discovery in Mexico.

Since the 1950s Desai lived in New Delhi, Calcutta, Bombay, and other Indian cities. She was member of the Advisory Board for English of the National Academy of Letters in Delhi and a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Besides being an internationally renowned author, she taught at Girton College and Smith College in England, and at Mount Holyoke College in the United States. In 1993 she became a creative writing teacher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Desai spent there for one semester each year and the rest of her time in India.

Desai was elected in 1978 Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in London. Her several awards include the 1978 National Academy of Letters Award for Fire on the Mountain, the Guardian Award for Children's Fiction for the novel The Village by the Sea (1982), the Neil Gunn Prize (1993),  the Alberto Moravia Prize for Literature (2000), Benson Medal of Royal Society of Literature (2003), the Padma Shri Award from the Indian Government (2003), and the Padma Bhushan Award (2014).

For further reading: South Asian Writers, Latin American Literature, and the Rise of Global English by Roanne L. Kantor (2022); Human Relationships in the Novels of Anita Desai: A Revisit through Feminist Lens by Rashmi Rekha Saikia (2021); 'Anita Desai' by Shirley Chew, in The Novel in South and South East Asia since 1945, edited by Alex Tickell (2019);  '"On being an Indian writer today"' by Anita Desai, in Name Me a Word: Indian Writers Reflect on Writing, edited by Meena Alexander (2018); Subjected Subcontinent: Sectarian and Sexual Lines in Indian Writing in English by Eiko Ohira (2016); "Home Fiction": Narrating Gendered Space in Anita Desai's and Shashi Deshpande's Novels by Ellen Dengel-Janic (2011); Postnational Feminisms: Postcolonial Identities and Cosmopolitanism in the Works of Kamala Markandaya, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Anita Desai by Hena Ahmad (2010)  Existential Dimensions in the Novels of Anita Desai by Anita Inder Singh (2008); Refractions of Desire: Feminist Perspectives in the Novels of Toni Morrison, Michèle Roberts and Anita Desai by Jayita Sengupta (2006); Anita Desai by Elaine Yee Lin Ho (2005); Novels of Anita Desai by Sandhyarani Dash (1997); Five Indian Novelists; B. Rajan, Raja Rao, R.K. Narayan, Arun Joshi, Anita Desai by V.V.N. Rajendra Prasad (1997); Cultural Imperialism and the Indo-English Novel: Genre and Ideology in R.K. Narayan, Anita Desai, Kamala Markandaya, and Salman Rushdie by Fawzia Afzal-Khan (1993); Anita Desai's Fiction by M. Solanki (1993); Symbolism in Anita Desai's Novels by K. Sharma (1992); Virginia Woolf and Anita Desai by A. Kanwar (1989); Voice and Vision of Anita Desai by S. Jena (1989); The Novels of Anita Desai by U. Bande (1988); Stairs to the Attic by J. Jain (1987); Perspectives on Anita Desai by R.K. Sarivastava (1984); Anita Desai the Novelist by M. Prasad (1981); Anita Desai by R.S. Sharma (1981); The Novels of Mrs. Anita Desai by B. Ramachandra Rao (1977)

Selected works:

  • Cry, the Peacock, 1963
  • Voices in the City, 1965
  • Bye-Bye, Blackbird, 1971
  • The Peacock Garden, 1974
  • Where Shall We Go This Summer?, 1975
  • Cat on a Houseboat, 1976
  • Fire on the Mountain, 1977
  • Games at Twilight and Other Stories, 1978
    - Hämärän leikkejä (suomentanut Riitta Oittinen et al., 1991)
  • Clear Light of Day, 1980
  • Village by the Sea, 1982
    - TV series 1991, screenplay by James Andrew Hall, prod. Griffin Productions, starring Saeed Jaffrey
  • In Custody, 1984
    - film 1993, prod. Merchant Ivory Productions, Channel Four Films, screenplay by Anita Desai, dir. Ismail Merchant, starring Shashi Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Om Puri,
  • Baumgartner's Bombay, 1988
  • Journey to Ithaca, 1996
  • Fasting, Feasting, 1999
  • Diamond Dust, 2000
  • The Zigzag Way: A Novel, 2004
  • The Artist of Disappearance: Three Novellas, 2011
  • Anita Desai's Fire on the Mountain, 2014 (edited with an introduction by Amar Nath Dwivedi)
  • The Complete Stories, 2017
  • The Village by the Sea, 2019 (originally published in 1982; New York: New York Review Books)

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