Anita Desai Biography
Anita Desai comments:
Nationality: Indian. Born: Anita Mazumbar, Mussoorie, 1937. Education: Queen Mary's Higher Secondary School, New Delhi; Miranda House, University of Delhi, B.A. (honours) in English literature 1957. Career: Since 1963 writer; Purington Professor of English, Mount Holyoke College, 1988-93; professor of writing, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1993—. Helen Cam Visiting Fellow, Girton College, Cambridge, 1986-87; Elizabeth Drew Professor, Smith College, 1987-88; Ashby Fellow, Clare Hall, Cambridge, 1989. Since 1972 member of the Sahitya Academy English Board. Awards: Royal Society of Literature Winifred Holtby prize, 1978; Sahitya Academy award, 1979; Guardian award, for children's book, 1982; Hadassah Magazine award, 1989; Tarak Nath Das award, 1989; Padma Sri award, 1989; Literary Lion Award, New York Public Library, 1993. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1978; Girton College, Cambridge, 1988; Clare Hall, Cambridge, 1991. Agent: Deborah Rogers, Rogers Coleridge and White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN, England.
Cry, The Peacock. Calcutta, Rupa, n.d.; London, Owen, 1963.
Voices in the City. London, Owen, 1965.
Bye-Bye, Blackbird. New Delhi, Hind, and Thompson, Connecticut, InterCulture, 1971.
Where Shall We Go This Summer? New Delhi, Vikas, 1975.
Fire on the Mountain. New Delhi, Allied, London, Heinemann, andNew York, Harper, 1977.
Clear Light of Day. New Delhi, Allied, London, Heinemann, andNew York, Harper, 1980.
In Custody. London, Heinemann, 1984; New York, Harper, 1985.
Baumgartner's Bombay. London, Heinemann, 1988; New York, Knopf, 1989.
Journey to Ithaca. New York, Knopf, 1995.
Fasting, Feasting. London, Chatto & Windus, 1999; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
Games at Twilight and Other Stories. New Delhi, Allied, and London, Heinemann, 1978; New York, Harper, 1980.
Diamond Dust: Stories. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Circus Cat, Alley Cat," in Thought (New Delhi), 1957.
"Tea with the Maharani," in Envoy (London), 1959.
"Grandmother," in Writers Workshop (Calcutta), 1960.
"Mr. Bose's Private Bliss," in Envoy (London), 1961.
"Ghost House," in Quest (Bombay), 1961.
"Descent from the Rooftop," in Illustrated Weekly of India (Bombay), 1970.
"Private Tuition by Mr. Bose," in Literary Review (Madison, NewJersey), Summer 1986.
Fiction (for children)
The Peacock Garden. Bombay, India Book House, 1974; London, Heinemann, 1979.
Cat on a Houseboat. Bombay, Orient Longman, 1976.
The Village by the Sea. London, Heinemann, 1982.
Anita Desai: A Study of Her Fiction by Meena Belliappa, Calcutta, Writers Workshop, 1971; The Twice-Born Fiction by Meenakshi Mukherjee, New Delhi, Arnold-Heinemann, 1972; The Novels of Mrs. Anita Desai by B.R. Rao, New Delhi, Kalyani, 1977; Anita Desai the Novelist by Madhusudan Prasad, Allahabad, New Horizon, 1981; Perspectives on Anita Desai edited by Ramesh K. Srivastava, Ghaziabad, Vimal, 1984; The Mind and Art of Anita Desai by J.P. Tripathi, Bareilly, Prakash, 1986; Stairs to the Attic: The Novels of Anita Desai by Jasbir Jain, Jaipur, Printwell 1987; The Novels of Anita Desai: A Study in Character and Conflict by Usha Bande, New Delhi, Prestige, 1988; Language and Theme in Anita Desai's Fiction by Kunj Bala Goel, Jaipur, Classic, 1989; Voice and Vision of Anita Desai by Seema Jena, New Delhi, Ashish, 1989; Virginia Woolf and Anita Desai: A Comparative Study by Asha Kanwar, New Delhi, Prestige, 1989; The Fiction of Anita Desai edited by R.K. Dhawan, New Delhi, Bahri, 1989; Symbolism in Anita Desai's Novels by Kajali Sharma, New Delhi, Abhinav, 1991; Anita Desai's Fiction: Patterns of Survival Strategies by Mrinalini Solanki, Delhi, Kanishka, 1992; Human Bonds and Bondages: The Fiction of Anita Desai and Kamala Markandaya by Usha Pathania, Delhi, Kanishka, 1992; 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, University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993; The Novels of Margaret Atwood and Anita Desai: A Comparative Study in Feminist Perspectives by Sunaina Singh. New Delhi, Creative Books, 1994; Anita Desai As an Artist: A Study in Image and Symbol by S. Indira. New Delhi, Creative Books, 1994; A Critical Study of the Novels of Anita Desai by N. R. Gopal. New Delhi, Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 1995; Women and Society in the Novels of Anita Desai by Bidulata Choudhury. New Delhi, Creative Books, 1995; The New Woman in Indian English Fiction: A Study of Kamala Markandaya, Anita Desai, Namita Gokhale & Shobha De by Sharad Shrivastava. New Delhi, Creative Books, 1996; Six Indian Novelists: Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, R. K. Narayan, Balachandran Rajan, Kamala Markandaya, Anita Desai by A. V. Suresh Kumar. New Delhi, Creative Books, 1996.
I have been writing, since the age of 7, as instinctively as I breathe. It is a necessity to me: I find it is in the process of writing that I am able to think, to feel, and to realize at the highest pitch. Writing is to me a proccess of discovering the truth—the truth that is nine-tenths of the iceberg that lies submerged beneath the one-tenth visible portion we call Reality. Writing is my way of plunging to the depths and exploring this underlying truth. All my writing is an effort to discover, to underline and convey the true significance of things. That is why, in my novels, small objects, passing moods and attitudes acquire a large importance. My novels are no reflection of Indian society, politics, or character. They are part of my private effort to seize upon the raw material of life—its shapelessness, its meaninglessness, that lack of design that drives one to despair—and to mould it and impose on it a design, a certain composition and order that pleases me as an artist and also as a human being who longs for order.
While writing my novels, I find I use certain images again and again and that, although real, they acquire the significance of symbols. I imagine each writer ends by thus revealing his own mythology, a mythology that symbolizes his private morality and philosophy. One hopes, at the end of one's career, to have made some significant statement on life—not necessarily a water-tight, hard-and-fast set of rules, but preferably an ambiguous, elastic, shifting, and kinetic one that remains always capable of further change and growth.
Next to this exploration of the underlying truth and the discovery of a private mythology and philosophy, it is style that interests me most—and by this I mean the conscious labour of uniting language and symbol, word and rhythm. Without it, language would remain a dull and pedestrian vehicle. I search for a style that will bring it to vivid, surging life. Story, action, and drama mean little to me except insofar as they emanate directly from the personalities I have chosen to write about, born of their dreams and wills. One must find a way to unite the inner and the outer rhythms, to obtain a certain integrity and to impose order on chaos.
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If the male triumvirate—Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, and R. K. Narayan—can be seen as the first generation of Indian writers in English, Anita Desai, who published her first novel in 1963, might usefully be described as in the vanguard of the second-generation of Indian writers in English, and—along with Kamala Markandaya and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala—among the first generation of Indian women writing in English. The daughter of a Bengali father and a German mother, her mixed background has enabled Desai to view India from something of an outsider's perspective, to see India both as Indians and as a non-Indians see it.
Desai has published novels, collections of stories, and books for young readers. In all these works, Desai has set about interpreting her country for outsiders.
The world of Desai's fiction is largely a domestic one. She is interested primarily in the lives of women in India since Independence, the lives of women in the modern Indian nation state, rather than the history or politics of the subcontinent on a more extensive scale.
Her early novels, to Where Shall We Go This Summer?, focus in various ways on the disharmony and alienation women frequently experience in marriage. And although novels like Voices in the City and Bye-Bye Blackbird in particular give the impression of being about the lives of their male characters, the focus inevitably shifts to the female characters and the limitations the patriarchal world places on them (as daughters, wives, or mothers).
Bye-Bye Blackbird, which moves out of India to look at wider postcolonial issues of displacement, is the most accomplished of Desai's early novels. Ostensibly a typical third-world immigrant novel focusing on the lives of Dev and Ajit, two Indians in Britain, and the racial discrimination with which they have to contend, it is ultimately more about the alienation Ajit's wife, Sarah, suffers in her own country following her marriage to an Indian and her changed position in relation to the (British) nation state.
Desai's exquisitely crafted fifth novel (and probably her most powerful work to date), Fire on the Mountain, brings a definite sense of politics to her hitherto essentially family-focused dramas. It is another female-centered narrative that portrays the lives of three women—the elderly Nanda Kaul, her great-granddaughter Raka, and Nanda Kaul's lifelong friend Ila Das—who one by one retreat to Carignano, a small villa in the Himalayan hill station of Kasauli, to escape the brutal patriarchal worlds in which they have each lived. Criticism of Fire on the Mountain has tended to focus on Desai's detailed study of her three female characters—particularly her presentation of Nanda Kaul—without paying sufficient attention to her attack on patriarchal oppression, which, Desai forcefully suggests in this novel, not only limits the opportunities given to women in India, but mentally and physically damages them.
In Clear Light of Day, although the fires of Partition riots burn in the background, Desai's interest is again firmly focused on the difficulties facing a woman who attempts to assert her identity within the family framework, on the relationships Bim, the central female character, has with the various members of her family. It is about the fragmentation of a family played out against the backdrop of a fracturing nation.
In Custody, in many respects a delightful and sad comedy in a Narayanish sort of vein, marks a broadening of Desai's oeuvre. The novel plots the disillusionment of Deven, a young Hindi lecturer at a college in the small town of Mirpore, and the various calamities that befall him after he is persuaded to go to Delhi to interview his hero, India's greatest living Urdu poet, Nur—only to find himself being dragged deeper and deeper into Nur's unsavory world. For all its comedy, there is a certain despair in this novel, which presents the decline of Muslim Urdu culture in the North of India in the years following Independence and Partition.
Despair of a different hue characterizes Baumgartner's Bombay. Here, through a series of flashbacks, Desai looks at the life of a now-elderly German Jew who fled to India fifty years earlier in the 1930s to escape the Nazis, and who stayed on after Independence only to be murdered in Bombay by a German youth he tried to help. It is another brilliant portrait of alienation.
Desai continues her interest in Europeans in India in Journey to Ithaca. The novel focuses on Matteo, a guru-seeking Westerner in India, his wife Sophie, and the charismatic Mother that Sophie desperately struggles to keep him from. This incursion into territory so definitively mapped by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is Desai's least successful novel.
The various strands that can be traced through her previous nine novels are brought together in near perfect synthesis in Fasting, Feasting. In keeping with her earlier novels, there is a return to a focus on the family, and in particular the lot of women trapped in traditional family structures in a rapidly changing postcolonial world. At the same time Desai extends her interest in the West in this cleverly structured novel. Fasting, Feasting is an almost plotless novel that looks at the lives of two daughters and the son of a traditional Indian family in the modern world. The novel opens with Uma, the eldest daughter now in her forties, still at home and firmly under the authority of her parents. Through a series of flashbacks, the first part of the novel looks at how Uma came to be in this position. It is a view of a traditional Hindu family, including arranged marriages. The second part of the book shifts abruptly to the United States. If in the first part India is presented for Western eyes, in the second part the tables are effectively turned and America is viewed through Indian eyes when Arun, in the U.S. on a college scholarship, finds himself living with the Patton family during summer vacation. It is a carefully balanced novel of contrasts: between East and West; lack and excess; lack of ambition (for Uma and Melanie) and too much ambition (for Arun and Rod). It further explores the gendered condition of the nation state, both in Indian and the U.S.
Desai is undoubtedly one of the major Indian English writers of her generation. If her reputation was established on her early portraits of domestic disharmony in traditional Indian families and the suffering of women in a largely patriarchal world, her later novels demonstrate that she writes equally well about the world of men, about Indians abroad, and about Westerners in India. Above all, she demonstrates again and again how gender issues are central to politics and the nation as well as in the family.
—Ralph J. Crane