Anita Desai is a leading member of a generation of writers who have carved out a niche for Indian fiction in English—today a burgeoning literary arena with writers of Indian descent or origin chiming in from around the world. Through sensitive psychological probing and sharp social critique, her novels chart the emotional lives of people struggling to find meaning and stability within the framework of a society in transition.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Cosmopolitan Childhood in Northern India Anita Mazumdar was born on June 24, 1937, in the hill resort of Mussoorie in northern India, to Dhiren N. Mazumdar, a businessman, and his German wife, Antoinette Nime Mazumdar. Because of her mixed parentage, Mazumdar learned German, English, and Hindi. Early in childhood, she did not experience her hybrid identity as a
Clash of cultures, although at the time questions of hybrid identity were particularly pertinent in India, which gained its independence from Great Britain and separated from largely Muslim Pakistan in 1947 (when Anita was ten). The young Anita’s mother lent a European element to what Desai would later describe as the family’s otherwise ‘‘very, very Indian home’’: she told the children German fairy tales, sang and played ‘‘O Tannenbaum’’ on the piano at Christmas, and played recordings of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus
Mozart, and Edvard Grieg on the gramophone. Books by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and Heinrich Heine were on the bookshelves. The parents’ friends included Germans, Hungarians, French, Russians, and Britons, and the young Anita’s early years were thus shaped by an unusually lively cultural interplay—even for India, itself vibrantly multicultural.
The Writer of the Family As a German married to an Indian, Antoinette Mazumdar was twice removed from the English ‘‘raj,’’ whom both she and her husband hated. She rejected the English practice of sending children away to boarding schools at ‘‘home’’ in England, and Anita was educated by the Grey Sisters of the Cambridge Mission at Queen Mary’s Higher Secondary School. Anita wrote her first story at seven. Her early scribblings were viewed with some amusement by her family. Later, when she began to publish, amusement gave way to pride. In 2002, long after her marriage and change of name, Desai recalled being labeled ‘‘the writer in the family,’’ a role she accepted because she ‘‘really never considered another.’’ After completing her schooling at Queen Mary’s, Mazumdar attended Miranda House, a women’s college on the campus of Delhi University. She published occasional pieces in the college magazine, and in 1957 her short story ‘‘Circus Cat, Alley Cat’’ appeared in the New Delhi periodical Thought. That year, she obtained a bachelor’s degree with honors in English
literature and won the Pershad Memorial Prize for English. For the next year she worked at Max Mu¨ller Bhavan, the German cultural institute in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata). During this period, tensions between India’s Hindu and Muslim populations ran high, as the division of British India into India and Pakistan had been a historically traumatic event—with perhaps half a million people killed and over 12 million left homeless—from which the country has still today not entirely recovered.
The Secret Writer On December 13, 1958, she married Ashvin Desai, a business executive, with whom she had four children: Rahul, Tani, Arjun, and Kiran. Recalling this marriage, she later wrote, ‘‘The world I entered on marriage was completely uncomprehending of a life of literature. I continued to write but almost in secret, without anyone observing me at work at my desk so as not to create an open conflict.’’
After publishing two pieces in local magazines, Desai’s first novel, Cry, the Peacock, was published in 1963. From her first work, readers see the stream-of-consciousness influence of Virginia Woolf on a writer who was seeking to create above-average characters ‘‘driven to some extremity of despair,’’ she once told interviewer Yashodhara Dalmia. Such despair is also experienced by the protagonists of Desai’s second novel, Voices in the City (1965). In Bye-Bye, Blackbird (1971), Desai moved away from the existential angst of her first two novels to explore the clash of Eastern and Western cultures in an English setting.
International Acclaim and Concerns with Globalization Desai’s fifth novel Fire on the Mountain (1977) brought her international fame. The British Royal Society of Literature awarded her the Winifred Holtby Prize for the novel in 1978, and the work won the National Academy of Letters Award in India the same year.
In 1978, Desai published Games at Twilight and Other Stories. The book was well received in the United Kingdom, and in 1979 the novel won Desai the Sahitya Akademi award. In 1980 Desai published Clear Light of Day, perhaps her most autobiographical work to date. The novel was short-listed for the prestigious British Booker Prize. In 1982 Desai published The Village by the Sea: An Indian Family Story. In an interview with Feroza Jussawalla and Reed Way Dassenbrock, she elaborated on her sense of an altered India, calling it ‘‘a place of increasing violence and of tremendous change. .. an economic revolution, of course, more than a political one at the moment, a place where life has become extremely difficult to endure.’’ The revolution she was responding to, both in the interview and in the book, was the revolution brought about in Indian life by economic globalization—a process that many have criticized for its insensitivity to the lives of the people who are being ‘‘modernized.’’
A particularly notorious example of this insensitivity was the Bhopal disaster of 1984, when a Union Carbide pesticide plant released tons of gas into the air, killing somewhere between three and eight thousand people instantly, and an estimated twenty thousand or so more over the long term (with another one to six hundred thousand still injured today, over two decades later). Union Carbide paid some minimal reparations, and Dow Chemical Company, which now owns Union Carbide, has refused to revisit the issue, disavowing any responsibility for the history of its subsidiary. Although Village by the Sea was published before the Bhopal disaster, it was prescient in its concern with the effects of international economic pressures in an India desperate for capital. The novel won the Guardian Prize for Children’s Fiction in 1983 and was adapted for television by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1992.
Whereas her novels had been primarily woman-centered up to this point, in her next novel, In Custody (1984), Desai moved to write from a male point of view. While focusing on the protagonist’s process of incurring resentment and being exploited as he takes a hiatus to seek out his guru, the novel addresses the politics of language in postcolonial India, where the dominance of Hindi threatens the Urdu language and culture with extinction. In Custody was also short-listed for the Booker Prize.
No More Secret Writing Sessions Desai has been honored with accolades that include fellowships, visiting professorships, and prestigious awards such as the Tara-knath Das Award for Contributions to Indo-American Understanding in 1989 and the 1990 Padma Shri, one of the highest national awards in India. After her third novel was short-listed for the Booker Prize, Fasting, Feasting (1995), and the 1999 Moravia Prize for Literature in Rome, Desai continued to explore Indian issues in an international context.
Early in her career, Desai was compelled to write in secret to avoid conflict with her husband’s family; today her daughter Kiran is also a novelist. ‘‘This makes,’’ Desai has explained, ‘‘for a great intimacy and companionship between us, the first I have ever experienced.’’ Today, Desai spends most of the year in the United States, where she is a professor emeritus of humanities at the Massachusetts Institue of Technology (MIT). Having left India only late in life, she does not consider herself part of the Indian Diaspora, but she is certainly seen by many as one of contemporary India’s greatest literary figures.
Works in Literary Context
Desai was a voracious reader of the books on her parents’ shelves, including the works of the Bronte¨s, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Marcel Proust. Gradually she gravitated toward
poetry, which became a major influence on her work. From Japanese and Chinese poetry she absorbed the art of fine detail and subtle description. Sufi poetry, especially that of Rumi, and the work of modern Russian poets, including Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, and Osip Mandelshtam, figure in her list of favorites. In an interview with Pandit, Desai described these writers as the ‘‘gurus’’ from whom she learned the art of writing.
Suggestion Versus Statement As a stylist, Desai is known for her intense and suggestive use of imagery. In In Custody, for example, backward, decaying, and dreary Mirpore functions as an image of contemporary India. The most powerful element in Voices in the City is that of Calcutta, with its many evocative landmarks. At times the imagery lends a poetic quality to her prose. Madhusudan Prasad remarks that Desai’s novels have a ‘‘mosaic textual density’’ because ‘‘Desai’s imagery is wedded to her rich lyricism.’’ Images recur with cumulative effect as Desai eschews blunt, direct statements, instead using suggestion to highlight thematic issues.
Toward an Environmental Psychology Desai evokes the sights, sounds, and smells of Calcutta and other cities, but her focus remains psychological: The city is often a force that controls the mental states of its inhabitants. Desai calls up internal states of mind while recording sharply detailed impressions of social interactions. She uses imagery to create a sharply defined concrete reality that suggests more abstract possibilities.
Over the course of her novels, Desai has evolved from chronicling the inner lives of her characters to an awareness of the links between individual psychology and the social and cultural environment. The protagonists of her novels are often caught in a struggle between desire for
freedom and the call of duty or responsibility, often expressed through family relationships. She also explores the problems faced by women in contemporary India, particularly middle-class women expected to lead lives of quiet domesticity in a rapidly changing world. In Voices in the City, for example, Otima, who is associated with the powerful, destructive Hindu goddess Kali, explodes the myth of motherhood by rejecting her children and retreating to her childhood home in Kalimpong.
Works in Critical Context
As the Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement (2005) suggests, ‘‘Despite the fact that Desai does not view herself as a political writer, her social commentary is considered to be powerfully and accurately rendered in her fiction.’’ Yet Desai perhaps has not gotten the critical attention her novels merit. Bye-Bye, Blackbird (1971) received a mixed response from critics, who had come to expect intense psychologizing and rich, poetic prose from Desai. In Perspectives on Anita Desai, Prasad complains that the novel lacks dense imagery, while others, including S. Krishnamoorthy Aithal, recognized that the novel places Desai within the ranks of postcolonial writers impelled to explore the politics of the Indo-British cross-cultural encounter. The more recent Journey to Ithaca also received mixed reviews.
Journey to Ithaca (1995) Journey to Ithaca is set during the hippie influx into India in the 1970s. Sophie, a German woman, accompanies her Italian husband, Matteo, on his journey to India in search of peace. In this novel, Desai’s shift from an individual to international perspective is even more pronounced—the narrative spans three continents and traces the lives of protagonists from Egypt, Europe, and India. New York Times critic Richard Bernstein praises Desai’s ‘‘remarkable eye for substance, the things that give life its texture.’’ But others—like Gabriele Annan in the Times Literary Supplement—complain that ‘‘The narrative is full of gaps and improbabilities, as well as cliche´s. . . the dialogue is stagey and unconvincing.’’ Bhaskar Ghose, however, argues in Biblio that the elegance of Desai’s craft ‘‘ultimately gives a definition to the story which could have been diffuse, or drearily familiar in the hands of a weaker artist. Within the body of her work, this novel must rank as one of the most ambitious and most tightly crafted works that Anita Desai has undertaken.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Several of Desai’s favorite themes include youth, age, and death; the minutiae of human relationships; art and life; illusion and reality; time and change; cultural differences; and the pressures of survival in an increasingly difficult world. Desai considers these themes in the context of Indian cultures and histories. In your study group, choose a theme and investigate its real-life context in Desai’s India. Share your findings with peers. For instance, who in a given context ‘‘should’’ be the repository of wisdom? What happens (or what is expressed differently) when a story is told from the perspective of an individual not expected to be a purveyor of wisdom? How do characters display feelings of alienation as Indians in a mixed culture?
2. Desai centers much of her writing on postcolonial India and the politics of the Indo-British cross-cultural encounter. What makes an encounter truly ‘‘cross-cultural’’? Consider Desai’s descriptions of interactions between a variety of different characters; what makes some of these interactions cross-cultural and others not? How do you think Desai would define the boundaries of culture, and why? Support your thesis with detailed analysis of concrete passages from Desai’s fiction.
3. Desai has noted that most of her novels describe the lives of women before the feminist movement gathered momentum in India. Investigate the goals of feminist literary
criticism, and consider how you might apply such a reading to a Desai novel. What has this mode of reading helped you to notice that you might not have otherwise?
‘‘Anita Desai.’’Encyclopedia of World Biography
Supplement, volume 25. Thomson Gale, 2005. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008.
Desai, Anita. ‘‘A Fire Had to be Lit,’’ in The Writer on Her Work: New
Essays in New Territory, Volume 2. Ed. Janet Sternburg. New York: Norton, 1991, pp. 97–103.
Jussawalla, Feroza and Reed Way Dassenbrock. ‘‘Anita Desai,’’ in their Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992, pp. 157–79.
Pandit, Lalita. ‘‘A Sense of Detail and a Sense of Order: Anita Desai Interviewed by Lalita Pandit,’’ in Literary India:
Comparative Studies in Aesthetics, Colonialism, and Culture. Eds. Pandit and Patrick Colm Hogan. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995, pp. 153–72.
Prasad, Madhusudan. Anita Desai: The Novelist. Allahabad, India: New Horizon, 1981.
Ghose, Bhaskar. ‘‘Review of Journey to Ithaca.’’ Biblio
(December 1996). Bernstein, Richard. ‘‘Review of Journey to Ithaca.’’ New
York Times (August 30, 1995). Dalmia, Yashodhara. ‘‘An Interview with Anita
Desai.’’Times of India (April 29, 1979): 13. Annan, Gabriele. ‘‘Review of Journey to Ithaca. Times
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