Anita Desai’s parentage strikes one as pretty interesting. Born to a German mother and an Indian father on June 24, 1937, Desai (then Majumdar) was brought up in New Delhi. Her father, a Bengali, was native of Dhaka, Bangladesh but had decided to settle down in New Delhi. At home, she grew up speaking German and Hindi to friends and neighbors. English was the first language she first learned to read and write and that way it became her literary language. Once asked why English remains her literary language, her reply came thus: “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 to be the language of books. I just went on writing it because I always wanted to belong to the world of books.”
Anita Desai has said that she sees India through the eyes of her mother, as an outsider, but her feelings for India are her father’s, of someone born in India. This mixed parentage went a long way in shaping her cosmopolitan attitude as reflected in her writings. It is with such an advantage of a double perspective that she takes to fiction-writing. Desai belongs to a new literary tradition of Indian writing in English which dates back only to the ’30s and ’40s. 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. The themes of nostalgia, alienation, cultural longing, multiculturalism, and hybridity found their way into Desai’s writings before these ideas came into vogue in the works of the later writers of the Indian diaspora.
Throughout her works, 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 over the decades since Independence as she focuses on the incredible power of family-bonds and society and the interrelationships between family members, simultaneously remaining keenly watchful of the trials and suppression endured by Indian women.
Desai is widely appreciated and applauded for her broad discernment 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 the hills surrounded by fire and violence.
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 of 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.
- Cry, The Peacock (1963)
- Voices in the City (1965)
- Bye-Bye Blackbird (1971)
- Where Shall We Go This Summer? (1975)
- Fire on the Mountain (1977) (Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and Sahitya Akademi Award)
- Games at Twilight (1978) (Short stories)
- Clear Light of Day (1980) (Booker Prize Shortlisted)
- The Village By The Sea (1982) (Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize)
- In Custody (1984) (Booker Prize shortlisted)
- Baumgartner’s Bombay (1988) (Hadassah Prize)
- Journey to Ithaca (1995)
- Fasting, Feasting (1999) (Booker Prize shortlisted)
- Diamond Dust (2000) (Short stories)
- “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)
- The Zigzag Way (2004)
- The Artist Of Disappearance (2011) (Three novellas)