With her inner eye she saw how her own house and its particular history linked and contained her, as well as her whole family . . . giving them the soil in which to send down their roots. . . . always drawing from the same soil, the same secret darkness. That soil contained all time, past and future. . . . It was where her deepest self lived, and the deepest selves of her sisters and brothers and all those who shared that time with her.
— Clear Light of Day
Biography / Criticism
Born to a German mother and an Indian father on June 24, 1937, Anita Desai spent much of her life in New Delhi. Growing up she spoke German at home and Hindi to friends and neighbors. She first learned English when she went to school. It was the language in which she first learned to read and write, and so it became her literary language. When asked why English remains her literary language, she said, "I think it had a tremendous effect that the first thing you saw written and the first thing you ever read was English. It seemed to me the language of books. I just went on writing it because I always wanted to belong to this world of books" (CLC).
Desai received a BA in English Literature and graduated with honors from the University of Delhi. She started publishing her work shortly after her marriage to Ashrin Desai on December 13, 1958.
Desai is part of a new literary tradition of Indian writing in English which dates back only to the '30s or '40s. She explains that this is because "at one time all literature was recited rather than read and that remains the tradition in India. It is still rather a strange act to buy a book and read it, an unusual thing to do" (CLC). Her new style of writing is also different from that of many Indian writers, as it is much less conservative than Indian literature has been in the past. For these reasons, she says, she is not widely read in India, mainly in Indian universities if at all.
Throughout her novels, children's books, and short stories, Desai focuses on personal struggles and problems of contemporary life that her Indian characters must cope with. She maintains that her primary goal is to discover "the truth that is nine-tenths of the iceberg that lies submerged beneath the one-tenth visible portion we call Reality" (CLC). She portrays the cultural and social changes that India has undergone as she focuses on the incredible power of family and society and the relationships between family members, paying close attention to the trials of women suppressed by Indian society.
Desai is praised for her broad understanding on intellectual issues, and for her ability to portray her country so vividly with the way the eastern and western cultures have blended there. She has received numerous awards, including the 1978 National Academy of Letters Award for Fire on the Mountain, the first of her novels to be brought to the United States. The story is of a remote, isolated woman and her equally withdrawn great-granddaughter as they are forced together in hills surrounded by violence and fire. In 1983 she was awarded the Guardian Prize for Children's Fiction for The Village by the Sea, an adventurous fairy tale about a young boy living in a small fishing village in India. She was awarded the Literary Lion Award in 1993, and has also been named Helen Cam Visiting fellow, Ashby fellow, and honorary fellow of the University of Cambridge.
In addition to her writing, Desai has raised four children: Rahul, Tani, Arjun, and Kiran. She has been a member of the Advisory Board for English, and of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She has also worked as an educator at colleges including Mt. Holyoke, Smith, and Girton College at Cambridge University.
Works by the Author
- The Zigzag Way (2004)
- “When on Route 80 in Ohio,” in Away: the Indian Writer as an Expatriate, edited by Amitava Kumar (2004)
- “Bicultural, Adrift, and Wandering,” in The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work. (Ed. Marie Arana. New York: Public Affairs, 2003. 120-25. )
- Digiunare, Divorare (2001)
- Diamond Dust (2000, 2001)
- Fasting, Feasting (2000)
- Journey to Ithaca (1995, 2001)
- Baumgartner's Bombay (1988, 2001)
- In Custody (1984, 2001)
- The Village by the Sea (1982, 2001, 2002)
- Clear Light of Day (1980, 2001)
- The Peacock Garden (1974)
- Where Shall we go this Summer? (1975)
- Games at Twilight (1978, 2001)
- Fire on the Mountain (1977)
- Bye-Bye, Blackbird (1968)
- Voices in the City (1965)
- Cry, the Peacock (1963, 1980, 2000)
Works about the Author
- Baena, Rosalía. “The Condition of Life and Art in Anita Desai's In Custody.” Commonwealth Essays and Studies 22.2 (2000 Spring): 59-68.
- Ball, John Clement. “'A City Visible but Unseen': The (Un)Realities of London in South Asian Fiction.” Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics 21.1-2 (1998): 67-82.
- Bazin, Nancy Topping. “Alcoholism in Third-World Literature: Buchi Emecheta, Athol Fugard, and Anita Desai Source.” The Language of Addiction. Ed. Jane Lilienfeld and Jeffrey Oxford. New York, NY: St. Martin's, 1999. 123-32 Year: 1999
- Chakravarty, Radha. “Figuring the Maternal: 'Freedom' and 'Responsibility' in Anita Desai's Novels.” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 29.2 (1998 Apr): 75-92.
- Chanda, Geetanjali Singh. “Mapping Motherhood: The Fiction of Anita Desai.” Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering 4.2 (2002 Fall-Winter): 73-83.
- Chapman, Jeff, Pamela S. Dear and John D. Jorgenson, ed. Contemporary Authors New Revision Series 53. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997.
- Chatterjee, Chandra. “The 'Unfettered Vacuum': A Postcolonial Reading of Anita Desai's Journey to Ithaca and Fasting, Feasting.” Convergences and Interferences: Newness in Intercultural Practices/Ecritures d'une nouvelle ère/aire. Thamyris: Intersecting Place, Sex, and Race Series 8. Ed. Kathleen Gyssels, Isabel Hoving, and Maggie Ann Bowers. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi, 2001. 121-32.
- Choudhury, Bidulata. Women and Society in the Novels of Anita Desai. New Delhi: Creative Books, 1995.
- Fludernik, Monika. “Cross-Mirrorings of Alterity: The Colonial Scenario and Its Psychological Legacy.” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 30.3 (1999 July): 29-62.
- Gee, Maggie. “Anita Desai in Conversation with Maggie Gee.” Wasafiri: The Transnational Journal of International Writing 42 (2004 Summer): 7-11.
- Hassan, Khwaja Moinul. “Anita Desai's Confrontation with the Question of Identity in the 20th Century.” Contributions to Bengal Studies: An Interdisciplinary and International Approach. Ed. Enayetur Rahim and Henry Schwarz. Dhaka, Bangladesh: Beximco, 1998. 422-27.
- Kapur, Usha. “A Probe into Female Individuality: Anita Desai's Successful Attempt at Viewing an Introvert Heroine against the Social Backdrop of Calcutta.” Panjab University Research Bulletin (Arts) 31.1-2 (2000 Apr-Oct): 25-27.
- Lee, Kyungsoon. “The Discourse of Nationalism and Gendered Subjectivity: Anita Desai's Clear Light of Day.” Studies in Modern Fiction 8.2 (2001 Winter): 137-60. (Korean)
- Liotard, Corinne. “Otherness in Anita Desai's Baumgartner's Bombay.” Flight from Certainty: The Dilemma of Identity and Exile. Ed. Anne Luyat and Francine Tolron. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi, 2001. 112-22.
- Khanna, Shashi. Human Relationships in Anita Desai's Novels. New Delhi: Sarup and Sons, 1995.
- Kohli, Devindra. “The Embrace of Recognition: Landscape, Memory and Identity in Anita Desai.” Crabtracks: Progress and Process in Teaching the New Literatures in English. Ed. Gordon Collier and Frank Schulze-Engler. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi, 2002. 155-70.
- Matin, A. Michael. “Anita Desai (1937- ).” British Writers: Supplement V Ed. George Stade Sarah Hannah Goldstein. New York, NY: Scribner's, 1999. 53-76.
- Nandan, Jyoti. “The Complicity of Colonised Women in Anita Desai's Fire on the Mountain.” Resistance and Reconciliation: Writing in the Commonwealth. Ed. Bruce Bennett, Susan Cowan, Jacqueline Lo, Satendra Nandan, and Jennifer Webb. Canberra, Australia: Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS), 2003. 201-13.
- Parker, Michael and Roger Starkey, ed. Postcolonial Literature: Achebe, Ngugi, Desai, Walcott. New York City: St. Martin's, 1995.
- Pathania, Usha. Human Bonds and Bondages: The Fiction of Anita Desai and Kamala Markandaya. New Delhi: Kanishka Publishers, 1991.
- Peacock, J. Sunita. “Nanda Kaul's Departure from Patriarchal Indian Society in Fire on the Mountain.” Commonwealth Novel in English 9-10 (2001 Spring-Fall): 11-29.
- Salgado, Minoli. “Anita Desai.” A Reader's Companion to the Short Story in English. Ed. Erin Fallon, R. C. Feddersen, James Kurtzleben, Maurice A. Lee, and Susan Crawley-Rochette. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001. 133-42.
- Sen, Sharmila. “Urdu in Custody.” South Asian Review 22 (2001): 57-70
- Stanley, Deborah H. , ed. Contemporary Literary Criticism (CLC) 97. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997.
- Valjento, Jenni. “Staying, Leaving, Returning: The Interconnectedness of Female Identities in Anita Desai's Clear Light of Day.” Atlantic Literary Review 3.2 (2002 Apr-June): 210-19.
Works in Languages other than English
- Hry za soumraku: Sbírka povídek. Trans. Helena Nebelová. Praha: Odeon, 1986.
- Nebelová. Praha: Odeon, 1986.
- Un héritage exorbitant. Trans. Paulette Vieilhomme-Callais. Paris: Stock, 1985.
- Le jeûne et le festin. Trans. Anne-Cécile Padoux. Paris: Mercure de France, 2001.
- Jeux au crépuscule: nouvelles. Trans. Anne-Cécile Padoux. Paris: Denoël, 1995.
- La claire lumière du jour. Trans. Anne-Cécile Padoux. Paris: Denoël, 1993.
- Un village près de la mer. Trans. Paulette Vielhomme-Callais. Paris: Gallimard, 1987.
- Où irons-nous cet été. Trans. Anne-Cécile Padoux. Paris: Denoël, 1995.
- Le jeûne et le festin. Trans. Anne-Cécile Padoux. Paris: Mercure de France, 2001.
- Le feu sur la montagne: roman. Trans. Paulette Vielhomme-Callais. Paris: Stock, Year: 1986.
- Le Bombay de Baumgartner. Trans. Paulette Vielhomme-Callais. Paris: Stock, Year: 1991.
- Avak yahalom: ve-sipurim aherim. Trans. Ziva Yavin. Tel Aviv, Israel: Matar, 2001.
- Ta`aniyot, ta`anugot. Trans. Shaul Levin. Yehuda, Israel: Kineret, 2003.
- Sulagata parvata. Edition: Prathama samskarana. Nayi Dilli: Sahitya akadami, 1992.
- Moron wala bagh. Trans. Vimala Mohan. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1993.
- The village by the sea = Samudra tata ka eka gamva. Merath: Vimala Mohan, 1991.
- Deri no shijin. Trans. Akira Takahashi. Tokyo: Mekon, 1999.
- Atash dar kuhistan. Trans. Azar Alipur. Tihran: Yasaman, 1994.
- Viaje a Ítaca. Trans. José-Luis Fernández-Villanueva. Barcelona: Destino, 1997, 1998.
- Ayuno festín. Trans. Gian Castelli. Madrid: Alianza, 2000.
- Clara luz del día. Trans. Gian Castelli. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 2001.
- En custodia. Trans. Jesús Zulaika. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 2003.
- Polvo de diamante: y otros relatos. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 2002.
Sawnet.Org: Anita Desai
A brief biography of Anita Desai, audio clips, and a bibliography.
The British Council: Contemporary Writers
A biography and critical perspective on Desai.
Professor George P. Landow's Postimperial and Postcolonial Literature Site
This site, created and maintained by Professor Landow of Brown University, includes biographical information about Desai as well as links to critical essays about Desai's work written by Landow himself. One may also research through this site the more general critical theory associated with postcolonial interpretation.
Report a dead link or suggest a new one by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
This page authored and submitted by Rebecca Julik. It was updated by Lauren Curtright on 1/5/05.