Elizabeth Ostberg
February 12, 2000.

Notes on the Biography of Anita Desai

 

Anita Desai was born in 1935 in Delhi to a German mother and a Bengali father. She grew up speaking German at home and Bengali, Urdu, Hindi and English at school and in the city streets. She has said that she grew up surrounded by Western literature and music, not realizing until she was older that this was an anomaly in her world where she also learned the Eastern culture and customs. She married a businessman at twenty-one and raised several children before becoming known for her writing. Her first book, Cry,the Peacock was published in England in 1963, and her better known novels include In Custody (1984) and Baumgartner's Bombay (1988). She once wrote: "I see India through my mother's eyes, as an outsider, but my feelings for India are my father's, of someone born here" (Griffiths).

She never considered trying to first publish in India because there was no publisher in India who would be interested in fiction by an Indian writer (Jussawalla) and it was first in England that her work became noticed. U.S. readers were slower to discover her, due, she believes to England's natural interest in India and the U.S.'s lack of comprehension regarding the foreignness of her subject.

But Desai only writes in English. This, she has repeatedly said,was a natural and unconscious choice for her: "I can state definitely that I did not choose English in a deliberate and conscious act and I'd say perhaps it was the language that chose me and I started writing stories in English at the age of seven, and have been doing so for thirty years now without stopping to think why "(Desai).

She is considered the writer who introduced the psychological novel in the tradition of Virginia Woolf to India. Included in this, is her pioneer status of writing of feminist issues. While many people today would not classify her work as feminist, she believes this is due to changing times: "The feminist movement in India is very new and a younger generation of readers in India tends to be rather impatient of my books and to think of them as books about completely helpless women, hopeless women. They find it somewhat unreal that the women don't fight back, but they don't seem to realize how very new this movement is" (Jussawalla).

Also, she says, her writing is realistic: "Women think I am doing a disservice to the feminist movement by writing about women who have no control over their lives. But I was trying, as every writer tries to do, even in fiction, to get at the truth, write the truth. It would have been really fanciful if I had made [for example, in Clear Light of Day] Bim and Tara modern-day feminists "(in Griffiths).

Desai considers Clear Light of Day, her most autobiographical book, because she was writing about her neighborhood in Delhi, although the characters are not based on her brothers and sisters. What she was exploring in this novel, she has said, was the importance of childhood and memories as the source of a life. She had wanted to start the book at the end and move backwards, into the characters' childhood and further, into the childhood of their parents etc., but in the end: "When I had gone as far back as their infancy the book just ground to a halt; it lost its momentum. It told me that this was done, that I couldn't carry it further. But I still have a sense of disappointment about that book, because the intention had been different" (Jussawalla). The character of Raja is identified with her in the sense that he is so immersed in all different types of literature and culture, and is so concerned with protecting the multicultural heritage of India. His worries about the Muslim neighbor family is not just about them particularly, but rather worry about the loss of all that the Muslim culture and literature contributes to India.

While Desai has taught for years at Mount Holyoke and MIT, and spends most of the year outside of India, she does not consider herself part of the Indian Diaspora. Although she does not fit in the Indian box anymore (Griffiths) as she said, she considers herself lucky for having not left India until late in her life, because she feels that she has been drifting away from it ever since: "I can't really write of it with the same intensity and familiarity that I once had." Yet she cannot feel at home in any other place or society (Griffiths).

 

Sources:

Desai, A. Clear Light of Day. London: Penguin Books, 1980
Desai, A. "The Indian Writer's Problems" Perspectives on Anita Desai. ed. Ramesh K. Srivastava. Ghaziabad: Vimal Prakashan, 1984.1-4.
Griffithsm, Sian. ed. Beyond the Glass Ceiling: Forty Women Whose Ideas Shape the Modern World. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996
Jussawalla, Feroza and Reed Way Dassenbrock, ed. Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.