Anita Mazumdar was born on 24 June 1937 in the hill resort of Mussoorie in northern India to Dhiren N. Mazumdar, a businessman, and his German wife, Antoinette Nime Mazumdar. Her earliest memories are of the home in Old Delhi where she grew up with her brother and two sisters; of the "dozens of houses" she has lived in, Desai told Lalita Pandit in a 20 October 1990 interview (published in 1995), she remembers this one the most vividly: "I think children experience their homes in a way adults do not. Adults may think of the rooms and the furniture, but children actually experience them." Because of her mixed parentage, Mazumdar learned German, English, and Hindi. At this stage she did not experience her hybrid identity as a clash of cultures. Desai told Feroza Jussawalla and Reed Way Dassenbrock in 1992: "As a child, I did not see any conflict in our location in India. Everyone considered my mother very well-adjusted to Indian life and not as a foreigner or an outsider. It was only later, with hindsight, that I began to see her as one and understand her situation." The mother lent a European element to 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.
As a German married to an Indian, Desai wrote in response to an unpublished 2002 questionnaire, Antoinette Mazumdar was "twice removed from the English raj," which both she and her husband hated.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. At first about half of the girls in the school were from Muslim families, most of the remainder being Hindu, and the Urdu language, a repository of Islamic culture in India, became familiar to Mazumdar through her exposure to this environment. Desai's novel In Custody (1984) testifies to her lingering affection for Urdu culture, which was soon eroded by the dominance of Hindi.
Mazumdar 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. Responding to the 2002 questionnaire, Desai wrote that she was labeled "the writer in the family," a role she accepted because she "really never considered another."
Mazumdar was a voracious reader of the books on her parents' bookshelves, including the works of the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen , Charles Dickens , Thomas Hardy , Fyodor Dostoevsky , Marcel Proust , and Rainer Maria Rilke . 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 Mandel'shtam, figure in her list of favorites. In the interview with Pandit, Desai described these writers as the "gurus" from whom she learned the art of writing. As for Rabindranath Tagore, she confessed to Pandit: "I had the usual Indian child's response to Tagore, that he was something I had to read in school and not for any great interest or pleasure."
On 15 August 1947 the subcontinent became independent of British rule and was partitioned into two countries along religious lines: mainly Hindu India and mainly Muslim Pakistan. All of the Mazumdars' Muslim neighbors fled across the border to Pakistan, and every Muslim girl in the school was gone. "It seemed to me completely unnatural and an abnormality that there should be a society so divided," Desai told Jussawalla and Dassenbrock. Of postpartition India she said, "It disturbs me immensely to think that it's a country with a monolithic religion, a monolithic society. It's no longer the composite society I knew."
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 Müller Bhavan, the German cultural institute in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata). On 13 December 1958 she married Ashvin Desai, a business executive; they have four children: Rahul, Tani, Arjun, and Kiran. Over the next few years the family moved frequently, living in Calcutta, Bombay (now known as Mumbai), Kalimpong, Chandigarh, Delhi, and Pune. "The world I entered on marriage was completely uncomprehending of a life of literature," she wrote in response to the 2002 questionnaire. "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." "Tea with the Maharani" appeared in the London magazine Envoy in 1959, and "Grandmother" in Miscellany in Calcutta in 1960. On the unpublished questionaire Desai recalled that her children thought that their mother's books appeared "as if by magic," since nobody was aware of her writing them.
Desai's first novel, Cry, the Peacock (1963), is clearly influenced by the writings of Virginia Woolf . It is the interior monologue of Maya, the pampered daughter of a rich Brahmin, who marries the lawyer Gautama. Obsessively attached to her father, she expects her husband to be a father substitute; but he is a cold, rational man who does not understand her. Morbid thoughts plague her, because an albino astrologer had predicted during her childhood that four years after her marriage, she or her husband would die: "In the shadows I saw peacocks dancing, the thousand-eyes upon their shimmering feathers gazing steadfastly unwinking upon the final truth--Death. I heard their cry and echoed it. I felt their thirst as they gazed at rain-clouds, their passion as they hunted for their mates. . . . Agony, agony, the mortal agony of their cry for lover and for death." She finally kills Gautama by pushing him off a parapet, then commits suicide.
Critics saw the work as marking an important phase in the development of the Indian novel in English: a shift away from the recording of external realities to a focus on the inner world of the protagonist. The poetic quality of Desai's prose also drew critical attention. Reviewers noted her use of symbols such as the peacocks, the moon, a dust storm, and Toto, Maya's dog. They also pointed to her use of myth, from the predictions of the astrologer to Gautama's discussions of the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita. The mythic mode was taken to provide a counterpoint to the harsh realities propelling Maya toward neurosis, murder, and suicide. More-recent studies, however, focus on Desai's refusal to conform to traditional structures of belief. Fawzia Afzal-Khan, for instance, describes Cry, the Peacock as the product of a struggle between the romantic aesthetics of mythmaking and the critical-realist insistence on the writer's commitment to reality.
In a 1979 interview with Yashodhara Dalmia, Desai claimed that she seeks to construct "characters who are not average but have been driven into some extremity of despair and so turned against, or made a stand against, the general current." Such despair is experienced by the four protagonists of Desai's second novel, Voices in the City (1965): Nirode, a young man; his sisters, Monisha and Amla; and their mother, Otima. The work is divided into four sections; each is named for one of the main characters and records the anguish he or she suffers. The three siblings resent their mother's negligent attitude toward them and her affair with Major Chadha. Nirode's artistic sensibility rebels against the routine of his journalistic work; unable to find professional stability, he becomes a drifter, moving through relationships with a vacuum at the heart of his existence. The novel evokes the milieu of the Indian urban elite in the 1950s, a modern society that clung to traditional views on women's roles. Equally estranged from her mother and her husband, Monisha commits suicide. Taking up commercial art to earn economic independence, Amla remains alienated from her work. Through Monisha the novel questions the ideology of the Hindu family, and through Amla it reveals the fragility of the apparent independence of the emancipated New Woman. 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. The Kali myth also symbolizes the suppressed but potent sexuality of the women in the novel.
The most powerful element in the work is the city of Calcutta, with its landmarks Howrah, Chowringhee, the Grand Hotel, Fort Williams, the Victoria Memorial, and Cathedral Park. In Anita Desai: The Novelist (1981), Madhusudan Prasad describes the novel as "an epic on Calcutta." Desai evokes the sights, sounds, and smells of Calcutta, but her focus remains psychological: the city is a force that controls the mental states of its inhabitants.
In Bye-Bye, Blackbird (1971), Desai moves away from the existential angst of her first two novels to explore the clash of Eastern and Western cultures in an English setting. Dev, a newcomer to England, is traumatized by his experiences of racial discrimination but eventually becomes an Anglophile. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Adit Sen, who is married to an Englishwoman: at first well adjusted to life in England, he begins to feel disillusioned and alienated; he decides to return to India, where he hopes to reconnect with a life free of false pretenses. A third perspective is provided by Sarah Sen, who seeks a balance between the two halves of her identity as a secretary in an English school and as the wife of an Indian. To accompany Adit on his journey of repatriation she must relinquish the English part of herself and grant primacy to her Indian side.
Bye-Bye, Blackbird received a mixed response from critics, who had come to expect intense psychologizing and rich, poetic prose from Desai. In Perspectives on Anita Desai (1984), edited by Ramesh K. Srivastava, Prasad complains that the novel lacks dense imagery, while in the same volume Vinod Bhushan Gulati finds the transformation of Dev and Adit unconvincingly abrupt. Others, however, including S. Krishnamoorthy Aithal in the Srivastava volume, recognized that the novel places Desai within the ranks of postcolonial writers impelled to explore the politics of the Indo-British cross-cultural encounter.
Vacationing on the island of Manori, off the coast of Bombay, Desai chafed under the everyday duties that could not be shaken off even on holiday. She jotted down a note that began: "A long short story about a woman packing up, shutting the house and going off with her three children to spend a holiday in their shack on Manori. Her husband, busy with his own life, seems hardly to notice their departure, leaving her frozen with anger at her neglect and loneliness." The woman wanders about the beach until her loneliness "burns away, burns her up, leaving a cool, grey detachment like a flake of ash where her heart had been." When the husband arrives unexpectedly to confess how much he has missed them, she is furious with him for shattering her calm; but eventually she "relents, admits to a continuation of the agonies of living."
When Desai returned to this idea long afterward, it outgrew the limits of a short story and became the novel Where Shall We Go This Summer? (1975). Sita is a sensitive, introverted woman so overwhelmed by the violence in the world that she is reluctant to give birth to the child in her womb. Already a mother of four, she also feels trapped in her marriage to the worldly, practical Raman. Taking two of her children, Sita abandons her home and escapes to Manori. Sita's dead father was a charismatic leader who had tried to set up a utopian primitivist community on Manori; shorn of his presence, the island of his dreams has lost its magic and appears as a bleak and difficult terrain where sheer survival is a challenge. Suggestions of incest lurk beneath descriptions of the father's relationship with Sita's older sister, Rekha. Disillusionment sets in, and Sita returns to her husband.
Desai wrote her fifth novel, Fire on the Mountain (1977), while living in Bombay. Overwhelmed, she says in "A Fire Had to be Lit" (1991), by "the onslaught of a great and abrasive city, its unrelieved ugliness, squalor, and noise," she tried to recapture the sights, sounds, and smells of Kasauli, a hill resort where she had spent the summer as a child. "To do that, I had to send my eight year-old self out into the hills again." Nanda Kaul is an old woman who lives in self-chosen seclusion in a haunted house called Carignano on a hilltop in Kasauli. Her solitude is disrupted when her great-granddaughter, Raka, comes to stay with her. Raka describes herself as "shipwrecked and alone." A bond develops between the old woman and the solitary child. A third figure enters the narrative: Ila Das, the welfare officer whose arid life and violent death shatter the apparent calm of Carignano, exposing the turbulent emotions that lurk beneath the surface of this mountain idyll. (The character of Ila Das is based on a woman who occasionally visited Desai's mother in Delhi. Her shrill voice and odd behavior amused the children. Later, in Kasauli, they heard that she had been raped and murdered in a nearby village.) Fire on the Mountain brought Desai 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 title story uses children's games to suggest the aggression and competitive self-assertion that often underlie adult behavior. In "Studies in the Park" Suno, a student under family pressure to perform well in his examinations, has an epiphany that transforms his attitude to life. Parental insensitivity is also the theme of "Pineapple Cake," in which a child resents being forced to participate in events organized by adults. "A Devoted Son" reverses the perspective, presenting a father's protest against the tyrannical dietary regime prescribed by his doctor son. "Sale" and "The Farewell Party" expose the materialism of the privileged classes. "Surface Textures" and "Pigeons at Daybreak" suggest that happiness has a different definition for each person. Violence lurks in all of the stories, thinly concealed beneath a veneer of innocence and decency.
Games at Twilight and Other Stories was well received in the United Kingdom. Hermione Lee in The Observer (13 August 1978) described the stories as "absolutely first rate," while Mary Hope in The Spectator (22 July 1978) found them "delicately composed." Indian reviewers were less impressed. Shiv K. Kumar in The Humanities Review (July-December 1981) criticized Desai's "overzealous concern with the medium of communication, regardless of the nature of experience embodied in each story." In 1979 Desai won the Sahitya Akademi award for Fire on the Mountain.
In 1980 Desai published Clear Light of Day , perhaps her most autobiographical work to date. Many of the characters are based on her memories of her neighbors in Old Delhi, and the house in which much of the novel is set is modeled on her childhood home there. In 1992 Desai told John Clement Ball and Chelva Kanaganayakam about the inception of the novel: "the image I began with was one of a tunnel. I thought it would be interesting for my characters in their old age to start digging this hole in their past and to tunnel backwards . . . in order to uncover the very roots of their lives." Sisters Tara and Bim are reunited after a long separation. Tara is married to Bakul, a diplomat, and takes pride in being a wife, mother, and hostess. Bim is single and teaches at a women's college in Delhi. The sisters relive their childhoods, evoking the ethos of Old Delhi before, during, and after the partition. They remember life in the old house with their brothers, Raja and Baba; the negligence of their invalid mother; the dominance of their father; the loving care of Mira Masi, the widowed aunt who became their substitute mother; and Hyder Ali, a Muslim who lived across the street. After the deaths of their parents, the siblings drifted apart. Tara married Bakul and went abroad. Raja, nursed back to health by Bim after suffering from tuberculosis, left for Hyderabad. Mira Masi committed suicide, leaving Bim to take care of the autistic Baba. Bim is filled with rage and frustration at her circumstances until, in a final epiphany, she recognizes the bonds of love that connect her with all those who share her past: "Bim could see as well as by the clear light of day that she felt only love and yearning for them all, and if there were hurts, these gashes and wounds in her side that bled, then it was only because her love was imperfect and did not encompass them thoroughly enough."
Desai has insisted that she deliberately avoided writing a partition novel, because too many books had already been written on the subject. But Clear Light of Day is haunted by the shadow of the partition, especially in the description of Hyder Ali's move from Delhi to Hyderabad, a city with a larger Muslim population, in 1947. The decaying house in Old Delhi becomes a symbol of the passing of an older way of life to make room for a new and changing world. The novel was short-listed for the prestigious British Booker Prize.
Change is also the theme of The Village by the Sea: An Indian Family Story (1982), a novel for children set in the fishing village of Thul, outside Bombay. Hari and his sister Lila bear the burden of supporting their poverty-stricken family, which consists of their drunken father, ailing mother, and two younger sisters. Near their hut is the vacation home of Sayyid Ali, a rich Bombay businessman. While Hari and Lila struggle with the scarcity of food, the rising price of medicine, and their father's alcoholism, Sayyid Ali indulges in his hobby of bird-watching. Hari goes to Bombay with a group of villagers to protest a government plan to convert their village into an industrial complex for the production of chemical fertilizer. The villagers are afraid of losing their livelihood; Sayyid Ali supports their cause, though for a different reason: he wants to prevent the pollution of the village. In Bombay, Hari learns to repair watches, a skill he hopes to use when Thul acquires a new population of engineers. He also hopes to start a poultry farm to cater to the needs of the expected newcomers.
Desai's novel highlights the importance of adapting to change but also draws attention to the gap between rich and poor in contemporary Indian society--between Hari's efforts to evolve survival strategies in a rapidly changing world and Sayyid Ali's romantic desire to preserve the old, agricultural way of life. In the dedication Desai claims that the story is entirely factual. In the interview with Jussawalla and Dassenbrock she described her sense of an altered India: "It seems to me a place of increasing violence and of tremendous change. . . . It's an economic revolution, of course, more than a political one at the moment. My sense of it is a place where life has become extremely difficult to endure." Village by the Sea won the Guardian Prize for Children's Fiction in 1983 and was adapted for television by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1992.
One of the stories in Games at Twilight and Other Stories is "The Accompanist," about a man who accompanies a sitar maestro on the tanpura. Desai develops the idea of a disciple's self-effacing devotion to his master in more depth in her novel, In Custody , in which she moves away from her earlier woman-centered narratives to write from a male point of view. Deven, a mediocre college teacher in the small town of Mirpore, has romantic ideals about the greatness of poetry and becomes obsessed with preserving for posterity the life and works of Nur, the greatest living Urdu poet. He travels to Delhi to meet Nur and is devastated to find the poet living in squalor and self-indulgence. He clings to his ideals, however, and struggles to complete his project. In the process he incurs the resentment of his wife, Sarla, and is taunted, deceived, and exploited by his friend Murad, his colleague Siddiqui, and the great Nur himself. The novel addresses the politics of language in postcolonial India, where the dominance of Hindi threatens the Urdu language and culture with extinction. Backward, decaying, and dreary Mirpore functions as an image of contemporary India. In Custody was short-listed for the Booker Prize.
The Bengali writings of Tagore had not interested Desai when she was a child, but in the 1980s she grew better acquainted with his work. In 1985 she wrote the introduction to The Home and the World, Surendranath Tagore's translation of his uncle's 1920 novel Ghare-baire. That same year she published the article "The Rage for the Raj," a critique of the tendency in the 1980s to romanticize British rule in India in ways that reinforce false stereotypes about Indian culture.
Desai was the Helen Cam Fellow at Girton College of the University of Oxford in 1986-1987 and the Elizabeth Drew Visiting Professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1987-1988. In 1988 she became Purington Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Up to this point her published work had expressed the Indian aspect of her identity, but for years she had wanted to write a book that would bring to the fore her associations with German culture. In Bombay she observed an old man who shuffled around feeding stray cats on the streets. An acquaintance informed her that the man was German and was quite wealthy. When he died, Desai was asked to translate a packet of letters in German that were among his effects. Though the letters were bland and uninformative, their stamps identified them as having been sent from a Nazi concentration camp. (Desai said in the Pandit interview, "I read that Jews in concentration camps during the Holocaust were allowed to write a certain number of letters during the early years at least. These letters were stamped with the numbers they bore in the camps.") Desai felt compelled to imagine a history for their sender. Drawing on her mother's bedtime stories about prewar Germany, on her own extensive reading of Holocaust literature, and on accounts of camps in England and Canada where Germans were interned during World War II, she wrote Baumgartner's Bombay (1988). Alex Aronson, a professor at Haifa University in Israel who had been interned in India, shared his memories with her and read and commented on her manuscript.
Hugo Baumgartner, a Jewish fugitive from the Nazi camps in Germany, is captured in India and incarcerated for six years in a British internment camp; German Jews were held in the camps, because the British considered all Germans enemies. After the war comes the partition, and Baumgartner's Muslim business partner is ousted by the dominant Hindus. The death of his Hindu partner leaves him once more vulnerable in a postcolonial nation that looks askance at Europeans. In his struggle for survival Baumgartner is supported by his German friend Lotte. After he is murdered by a young German, she discovers some letters near his body. The messages are brief, uninformative, and repetitious; for instance, "Are you well? I am well. Do not worry. I have enough. Have you enough?" Their significance lies in what they do not say; their very existence bears silent witness to horrors that they do not describe. Their impact depends on the reader's historical knowledge of the Holocaust. The dates on the letters stop abruptly in February 1941.
Desai had already received considerable acclaim in India and the United Kingdom, but Baumgartner's Bombay brought her recognition in the United States: India was of limited interest to American readers, but the Jewish material in the novel appealed to the literary establishment. The novel was awarded the Hadassah Prize in New York City in 1989.
In 1989 Desai was the Gildersleeves Professor at Barnard College in New York City and the Ashby Fellow at Clare Hall at the University of Cambridge, and she received the Taraknath Das Award for Contributions to Indo-American Understanding. That year she published the essay "Indian Fiction Today," in which she seeks to identify the distinguishing features of contemporary Indian literature and notes the newfound confidence of Indian writers in English after the publication of Salman Rushdie 's Midnight's Children (1981). In the essay "A Secret Connivance" (1990) she dismantles the myth of the Mother Goddess, which, she says, dominates the Indian public imagination and obscures the actual oppression of women in contemporary Indian society. In the same year she gave a talk at the University of Toronto in which she traced the tradition of women's writing in India from ancient times to the present; the talk was published in 1992 as "Women and Fiction in India."
In 1990 Desai received the Padma Shri, one of the highest national awards in India. In 1992 she was a visiting scholar at the Rockefeller Foundation in Bellagio, Italy, and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the American University of Cairo. In 1993 the New York Public Library honored her with the Literary Lion Award. In 1993 she became the John E. Burchard Professor of Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The Scottish Arts Council awarded her the Neil Gunn Prize for International Literature in 1994.
In her essay "Tagore" (1994) Desai assesses the continued relevance of the Bengali poet. Describing Tagore as a tormented personality who "never thought that his life measured up to his ideal of perfection," Desai says: "his ghost is still a restless one as if it were in search, in true ghostly tradition, of something that had been mislaid and needed to be found again, or remained unfinished and sought fulfillment."
Desai's move to the United States brought a change in her perspective. Baumgartner's Bombay had shown her renewed interest in the international themes she had ignored since Bye-Bye, Blackbird; in Journey to Ithaca (1995) the shift to an international perspective is even more pronounced. The narrative spans three continents and traces the lives of protagonists from Egypt, Europe, and India. Desai told Jussawalla and Dassenbrock that her interest in cross-cultural identities "coincided with my own leaving India for large portions of the year and living much more abroad now. In a way, that intervenes with my Indian life. It's like a screen that has come between me and India. I can't simply ignore this experience abroad--it's too overwhelming, it demands to be dealt with, somehow grappled with."
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. The Mother, the charismatic head of an Indian ashram, casts her spell on Matteo. Jealous, Sophie sets out to trace the Mother's life story and expose her as a fraud. Sophie's journey takes her to Egypt and Paris and back to India, but the quest for the Mother's true identity turns out to be a search for self-knowledge for Sophie. At the end of the novel she sets out on one more journey: to find Matteo, who has disappeared.
Journey to Ithaca is a richly allusive novel that draws on Indian and Western literatures and mythologies. In spite of the overt internationalism of the text, however, the focus remains on India as the place of self-discovery. But India is presented through Western eyes, a perspective Desai has increasingly adopted in her writings. Responding to the 2002 questionnaire, she wrote: "I remain Indian; I carry my Indian background, upbringing and memories with me wherever I go. I do travel a good deal and am certainly interested in the views foreigners have of India and have written of them. Now that I live abroad much of the time, this has become my subject."
The novel received mixed reviews. In The New York Times (30 August 1995), Richard Bernstein praised Desai's "remarkable eye for substance, the things that give life its texture. Nothing escapes her power of observation, not the thickness of the drapes that blot out the light in a bourgeois Parisian home, or the enamel bowl in the office of an Indian doctor." On the other hand, Gabriele Annan complained in TLS: The Times Literary Supplement (2 June 1995) that "The narrative is full of gaps and improbabilities, as well as clichés . . . the dialogue is stagey and unconvincing." Bhaskar Ghose, however, argued in Biblio (December 1996) 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."
Desai's next novel, Fasting, Feasting (1999), approaches the cross-cultural theme through a two-part narrative charting the divergent experiences of a young woman in India and her brother in the United States. In the first part the central character is Uma, the plain and awkward older daughter in an Indian household. Unable to bring off an arranged marriage, Uma remains trapped in the family home, dominated by her parents and under the shadow of her attractive and ambitious sister Aruna, who is able to capture a "suitable" groom in the marriage market. Uma is forced to abandon her studies to help take care of her baby brother, Arun, and, later, to look after her aging parents. All of her attempts at self-expression are frowned on, including her childhood escape to the ashram with her aunt Mira Masi, her outing with her charming but "wild" cousin Ramu as an adult, and her desire to accept a job offer. Outwardly compliant, Uma nurses an inner rage that is expressed in angry silence and in fits in which she collapses, frothing at the mouth. She finds solace only in the hymns sung by nuns at the convent school she attends as a child, the rituals performed by Mira Masi, and the poetry of Ella Wheeler Wilcox.
The second part of the novel is set in Massachusetts, where Uma's brother Arun goes to pursue his education. Though he feels an alien in the United States, he also relishes his solitariness as an escape from the stifling attention of his parents. Spending the summer with the Pattons in their suburban home, he finds the atmosphere extremely cool and detached in contrast to the overwhelming pressures of a traditional Indian family. He discovers that freedom, affluence, and small luxuries coexist strangely with self-denial and psychological power games. Her cooking rejected by her own husband and children, Mrs. Patton showers her affection on Arun, developing an obsessive determination to feed him her own versions of vegetarian food and dragging him to the supermarket on shopping expeditions. Mr. Patton, meanwhile, eats meat, ignoring the reactions of the other members of the family. There is little communication between parents and children: the son, Rod, trains compulsively for football, while his sister, Melanie, manifests her anger and loneliness in sullenness and bouts of bulimia.
In this overwrought atmosphere Arun grasps the underlying similarity between family dynamics in the apparently different cultures of India and the United States. He finds Uma's silent rage replicated in Melanie's behavior and muses: "How strange to encounter it here, . . . where so much is given, where there is both license and plenty." Desai is unsparing in her critique of family values and social customs in India and the United States, using a transnational narrative to highlight both cultural differences and invisible parallels between "East" and "West." Fasting, Feasting was her third novel to be short-listed for the Booker Prize. In 1999 she won the Moravia Prize for Literature in Rome.
Desai's Diamond Dust and Other Stories (2000) is dedicated to her students in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at MIT. The settings of the stories range from Canada to India to Latin America, and the characters are of various nationalities. The title piece, subtitled "A Tragedy," is set in a staid neighborhood of New Delhi: Mr. Das's grief for his lost dog shows that tragedy today resides in the minute, the everyday, and the unheroic. In "Royalty" Raja, a visiting dilettante from Oxford, revives romantic memories in the middle-aged Sarla until disillusionment brings with it an acceptance of her advancing age and recognition of the stability of her relationship with her husband. Age and isolation are also the themes of "Winterscape," in which a pair of old ladies from India disturb the equilibrium of an intercultural marriage in Canada. The clash of tradition and modernity underlies "Tepoztlan Tomorrow," set in a backward town in Mexico. A hint of the supernatural animates "The Man Who Saw Himself Drown." The link between art and reality and the artist's struggle to create beauty out of ugliness and squalor are explored in "The Artist's Life" in the context of racial tensions in Massachusetts. "The Rooftop Dwellers" describes the attempted rebellion of Moyna, a young woman determined to live independently in the hostile environment of a colony in suburban New Delhi.
Several of Desai's favorite themes are reworked in Diamond Dust and Other Stories: 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. The stories set child's-eye perspectives against the perceptions of old age. They are permeated by a sense of people's alienation from each other and from their environments, their need for love, and their encounters with small but significant experiences that open the windows to wisdom. Most noticeable is the internationalism of Desai's subject matter, signaling her refusal to remain pigeonholed within convenient definitions of what constitutes "Indian" writing.
Desai assumed emeritus status at MIT in 2002. Her refusal to be pigeonholed as an Indian writer is borne out by The Zigzag Way (2004), which is set in Mexico. Seen through the eyes of Eric, a visiting student from Boston, Mexico appears vibrant, mysterious, and full of contradictions. Drawn into a search for his roots, Eric learns about his Cornish grandfather, who had come to Mexico in search of his own roots, and his grandmother, who died in childbirth. The history of Mexico, its colonial past challenged by the gradual rise of the spirit of revolution, forms the backdrop to Eric's quest for his identity. His journey takes him to a ghost town once inhabited by gold miners. He reads in the library of the town's study center, which is presided over by the formidable Doña Vera, the "Queen of the Sierra" and champion of the indigenous Huichols. Past and present alternate in the three narratives that intertwine in the novel: Eric's, Doña Vera's, and that of Eric's grandmother, Betty. The strands come together on the Day of the Dead, when Eric encounters the swirling, fluid reality of Mexican culture. An aura of the supernatural hangs over the story, becoming explicit when Eric sees figures from the past conversing with the spirit of his grandmother. His journey into the past leads to no certitudes, but through his Mexican experience Eric learns a great deal about himself.
Reviewers agreed that The Zigzag Way is more about Mexico than about any specific character or characters. According to Claire Messud in the New Statesman (6 September 2004), "Desai's primary interest is manifestly the country itself, its landscape and the curious details of its history, rather than the individuals with whom she has peopled it." According to Melissa Dene in The Guardian (2 September 2004), "The Zigzag Way is an unfashionably quiet, subtle book, in which history and landscape are more important than character and denouement." The descriptive brilliance of Desai's narrative led Liz Hoggard to speculate in The Observer (29 August 2004) about a movie version of the novel: "At her best, Desai approaches the Mexican landscape like a master cinematographer."
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. In responding to the 2002 questionnaire Desai noted that her daughter "must have imbibed the discipline of writing without being aware of it; her working habits are almost exactly like mine. This makes for a great intimacy and companionship between us, the first I have ever experienced."
Desai is a fellow of the British Royal Society of Literature, an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a member of the New York chapter of the writers' organization PEN. In addition to her creative and academic pursuits, she has undertaken sociological projects that reflect her humanitarian concerns. They include a report for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) on family welfare in Indonesia (1983); a report for the United Nations Decade of Women in Norway; and a report on the effect of foreign aid on culture and civilization for the UN in Denmark.
In the course of her long career 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. She told Pandit: "It is the confrontation of the inner and the outer that interests me as a novelist. The outer world is dominated by certain forces, the individual's force is enigmatic, variable, an imponderable." The forces beyond the individual's control include society, tradition, history, and culture. "In the Indian society, tradition takes precedence over the individual," she told Pandit. Speaking of her craft in the 2002 interview, Desai emphasized her treatment of time: "Time (history) is the fourth dimension. . . . The present makes little sense unless one looks into the past and considers the future." In Desai's novels time is both personal and historical--an interior awareness as well as an exterior force beyond individual control.
Desai's distinctive literary style evokes internal states of mind while recording sharply detailed impressions of social interactions, using imagery to create a sharply defined concrete reality that suggests more-abstract possibilities. At times the imagery lends a poetic quality to her prose. In Perspectives on Anita Desai, Prasad remarks that her novels have a "mosaic textual density" because "Desai's imagery is wedded to her rich lyricism." Images recur with cumulative effect as Desai uses suggestion rather than overt statement to highlight thematic issues or to make rhetorical points.
Among the issues highlighted in Desai's fiction are family relationships and the impact of family dynamics on the individual psyche. 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. Many of Desai's female protagonists rebel against their circumstances, only to compromise in the end. Asked about this point in the 2002 questionnaire, Desai noted that most of her novels describe the lives of women before the feminist movement gathered momentum in India and added: "Of course I have written largely--although not exclusively--about women and women's worlds, simply because that is what I know best. But it is not all that interests me or that I deal with in my writing." Desai also disclaims any overt preoccupation with the politics of postcolonialism, because, as she told Ball and Kanaganayakam, "For the most part I've lived in India, in a home where cultures combined rather than clashed." Desai is also unwilling to be considered a writer of the Indian diaspora, she said in response to the 2002 questionnaire, because it "is not my theme and I'm not very interested in what I read of it." Nevertheless, exile is a major theme in Desai's fiction from Nirode's alienation from the culture of his own city to Baumgartner's loneliness in Bombay and the cultural isolation suffered by Arun in the United States.
In a response to the 2002 questionnaire Anita Desai claimed that "it is my intention, when I write fiction, to explore and reveal the nine-tenths of the truth that lies submerged beneath the one-tenth visible tip of the iceberg." Throughout her fiction she searches for imaginative ways of constructing realities that are too complex to be depicted directly. For her, she wrote in response to the questionnaire, the writer's role in the world is "observing that world, searching for ways to comprehend and understand it, explore it and reveal what you perceive as truth."
Chakravarty, Radha. "Anita Desai." South Asian Writers in English, edited by Fakrul Alam, Gale, 2006.