She was one of four children: she had a brother and two sisters, all raised in what was a British colony in their youth. Desais father D. N. Mazumdar was a Bengali engineer. Her mother, Toni Nime, was German and met Mazumdar in Germany, then emigrated to India in the 1920s. Desai has said that it was exposure to her mothers European core that allowed her to experience India as both an insider, and an outsider. Although Desai was formally educated in English, she was raised speaking both Hindi and German in her home in Old Delhi.
She attributes some of the diversity of her fictional characters to having lived among a mix of Hindu, Muslim, and Christian neighbors while growing up. In the 1996 Contemporary Novelists, Desai revealed to critic Bruce King that she began writing early, saying, I have been writing since the age of seven, as instinctively as I breathe. At the age of nine, she began her publishing career when a submission she made to an American childrens magazine was accepted and published.
At the age of ten, Desai had a life changing experience as she watched her society ripped apart by the violence born of the Hindu Muslim conflict during the division of British India into the nations of India and Pakistan. Her Muslim classmates and friends disappeared without explaination, all of them fleeing from Hindu violence. British Writers Matin described how the stupefying bloodshed and violence . . . erupt[ing] from the dream of independence informed the tone of her early fiction. Education Desais formal education was in the English language, and her writing was always in English as a result.
She attended British grammar schools, then Queen Marys Higher Secondary School in New Delhi. She was accepted at Miranda House, an elite womens college in Delhi, and in 1957 at the age of 20 she received a B. A. with Honors in English Literature from Delhi University. Already hard on the heels of her dream of being a writer, she published her first short story the same year she graduated, in 1957. Desai continued to compose and publish short fiction, working for a year in Calcutta and marrying business executive Ashvin Desai on December 13, 1958. They had four children, sons Rahul and Arjun, and daughters Tani and Kiran.
Life as a Writer While raising her children, Desai maintained her efforts as an author, and completed her early novels while her family grew. The Desais lived in Calcutta from 1958 to 1962, then moved to Bombay, Chandigarh, Delhi, and Poona. Each new location provided an additional rich back drop for the young authors fiction. Desai became a freelance writer in 1963, and has retained this as her occupation ever since. She addressed her craft in the King interview, [Writing] 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 process of discovering the truth. Desai contributed to various prestigious literary publications, including the New York Times Book Review, London Magazine, Harpers Bazaar and Quest. Her first novel, Cry, the Peacock (1963), was published when she was 26 years old. In 1965 she published her second novel, Voices in the City, which revealed Calcutta as seen by a group of aristocratic siblings, and she left India for the first time to visit England. While in Europe, Desai gathered material for her third novel, Bye Bye, Blackbird (1971).
She directed her focus inward, experimenting with both content and form. 974 saw the release of her first attempt at juvenile literature, The Peacock Garden, and the next two years yielded another adult novel, Where Shall We Go This Summer? (1975), followed by another juvenile venture titled Cat on a Houseboat (1976). Although her first three adult novels were not favorably reviewed, her later work garnered growing attention for what the 1999 Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century critic Janet Powers refered to as a sensitivity to subtle emotions and family reverberations . . . [an] intuitive awareness [that] emanates from a distinctly feminine sensibility.
Her next three adult novels gained her international recognition. Her 1977 novel, Fire on the Mountain, featured three female protagonists each subdued or damaged in some way coming to terms with how place effects their realities. In 1978 she published Games at Twilight, a collection of short stories and the 1980 novel Clear Light of Day, a study of Delhi that combines fiction with history to explore the lives of a middle class Hindu family. In 1982, she released another childrens piece titled The Village by the Sea, followed two years later by another adult novel, In Custody (1984).
Desai entered the scholarly world in a position as the Helen Cam Visiting Fellow at Girton College in Cambridge University, England from 1986 to 1987. She came to the United States in 1987 and served as an Elizabeth Drew Professor at Smith College from 1987 to 1988 and a Purington Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College from 1988 to 1993. In 1988 she wrote another novel, Baumgartners Bombay, and by 1989 her status as a significant postcolonial novelist had been cemented in literary circles. Fame, however, appeared far off due to the post 1947 prejudice against Anglophone literature, particularly that written by female authors.
In 1993 Desai took as post as Professor of Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has remained there ever since. In 1992, Desais childrens book The Village by the Sea was adapted and filmed as a six part miniseries by the BBC, and in 1993 she co authored an adaptation of her novel In Custody that was filmed by Merchant Ivory and released in 1994. Desai wrote two more novels Journey to Ithaca (1995) and Fasting, Feasting (1999) and one more short story collection, Diamond Dust (2000). Critical Reception
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. Her use of image and symbol is sophisticated, and Contemporary Authors critic Anthony Thwaite points out that thanks to her mastery of the literary image, she is such a consummate artist that she [is able to suggest], beyond the confines of the plot and the machinations of her characters, the immensities that lie beyond them the immensities of India. It is British Writers A. Michael Matins belief that this focus on the poetic language one of Desais hallmarks has resulted in a decided lack of critical treatment of her work as a postcolonial author, because critics find her style to be Eurocentric rather than traditionally Indian in nature.
Matin hopes that future scholarship will grant Desai the place she deserves among the postcolonial greats. Contemporary Novelists King identifies two types of Desai novels: those about what men do, and those about what women feel. The Bloomsbury Guide further supports this by defining Desais fiction as novels that frequently depict the attempts of urban middle class women to harmonize the needs of the self with the demands traditionally made of Indian women by the family, caste, and society. The connection between family members, and the way the cultural experience of Indian women in particular affects those connections emerges as a recurring theme in Desais work as she deals with contemporary Indian life, culture clashes between the East and the West, generational differences, and practical and emotional exile.
Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Centurys Powers identifies a frequent female character type in Desais fiction, a newly heroic and thoroughly modern model of the saintly Indian woman. Those qualities that enabled the traditional woman to survive in an arranged marriage are those of Desais independent woman, who is autonomous, yet bound up with caring for others. Powers believes that although Desai offers negative examples of women unable to realize their own needs because of oppression by traditional customs, she also presents the difficulties faced by newly liberated women in giving their lives purpose.
The feminist message, that women are senselessly harmed by denial of opportunities for self realization, comes through loud and clear; but so does the question of what an independent womans identity might be. In an essay titled Indian Women Writers, Desai stated that criticism is an acquired faculty, and that Indian women have always been discouraged from harboring what is potentially so dangerous. Desais own work uses a sharp eye to address the changes that have complicated Indian society since independence in 1947, and the trouble outsiders face when trying to grasp the intricacies of Indian culture.
Powers feels that, read chronologically, Desais novels demonstrate her constant experimentation and progressive maturation as a writer, treating issues like the emotional poverty of the liberated woman, and the demise of a rich cultural tradition. Desais descriptive skill is widely acclaimed by critics, despite disagreement regarding her content. Contemporary Authors critic Pearl Bell states that although Desais novels are quite short. . . . they convey a sharply detailed sense of the tangled complexities of Indian society, and an intimate view of the tug and pull of Indian family life.
Contemporary Authors reviewer A. G. Mojtabai agrees, noting that Desais novels delineate characters, settings, and feelings intricately, yet economically, without extraneous detail or excessively populated scenes. Properly observed, a roomful of people is crowd enough, and in the right hands as Anita Desai so amply illustrates world enough. Her elegant and lucid novels have enjoyed a broad audience outside her native India, a reality that has exposed more people to her unique view, but perhaps deterred her ascension to the top of the Indian literary realm.