Anita Desai

Desai was a voracious reader of the books on her parents’ shelves, including the works of the Bronte¨s, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Marcel Proust. 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 Mandelshtam, figure in her list of favorites. In an interview with Pandit, Desai described these writers as the ‘‘gurus’’ from whom she learned the art of writing.

Suggestion Versus Statement As a stylist, Desai is known for her intense and suggestive use of imagery. In In Custody, for example, backward, decaying, and dreary Mirpore functions as an image of contemporary India. The most powerful element in Voices in the City is that of Calcutta, with its many evocative landmarks. At times the imagery lends a poetic quality to her prose. Madhusudan Prasad remarks that Desai’s novels have a ‘‘mosaic textual density’’ because ‘‘Desai’s imagery is wedded to her rich lyricism.’’ Images recur with cumulative effect as Desai eschews blunt, direct statements, instead using suggestion to highlight thematic issues.

Toward an Environmental Psychology Desai evokes the sights, sounds, and smells of Calcutta and other cities, but her focus remains psychological: The city is often a force that controls the mental states of its inhabitants. Desai calls up internal states of mind while recording sharply detailed impressions of social interactions. She uses imagery to create a sharply defined concrete reality that suggests more abstract possibilities.

Over the course of her novels, 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. The protagonists of her novels are often caught in a struggle between desire for freedom and the call of duty or responsibility, often expressed through family relationships. 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. In Voices in the City, for example, 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.

Works in Critical Context

As the Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement (2005) suggests, ‘‘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.’’ Yet Desai perhaps has not gotten the critical attention her novels merit. Bye-Bye, Blackbird (1971) received a mixed response from critics, who had come to expect intense psychologizing and rich, poetic prose from Desai. In Perspectives on Anita Desai, Prasad complains that the novel lacks dense imagery, while others, including S. Krishnamoorthy Aithal, recognized that the novel places Desai within the ranks of postcolonial writers impelled to explore the politics of the Indo-British cross-cultural encounter. The more recent Journey to Ithaca also received mixed reviews.

Journey to Ithaca (1995) 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. In this novel, Desai’s shift from an individual to international perspective is even more pronounced—the narrative spans three continents and traces the lives of protagonists from Egypt, Europe, and India. New York Times critic Richard Bernstein praises Desai’s ‘‘remarkable eye for substance, the things that give life its texture.’’ But others—like Gabriele Annan in the Times Literary Supplement—complain that ‘‘The narrative is full of gaps and improbabilities, as well as cliche´s. . . the dialogue is stagey and unconvincing.’’ Bhaskar Ghose, however, argues in Biblio 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.’’

Responses to Literature

1. Several of Desai’s favorite themes include 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. Desai considers these themes in the context of Indian cultures and histories. In your study group, choose a theme and investigate its real-life context in Desai’s India. Share your findings with peers. For instance, who in a given context ‘‘should’’ be the repository of wisdom? What happens (or what is expressed differently) when a story is told from the perspective of an individual not expected to be a purveyor of wisdom? How do characters display feelings of alienation as Indians in a mixed culture?

2. Desai centers much of her writing on postcolonial India and the politics of the Indo-British cross-cultural encounter. What makes an encounter truly ‘‘cross-cultural’’? Consider Desai’s descriptions of interactions between a variety of different characters; what makes some of these interactions cross-cultural and others not? How do you think Desai would define the boundaries of culture, and why? Support your thesis with detailed analysis of concrete passages from Desai’s fiction.

3. Desai has noted that most of her novels describe the lives of women before the feminist movement gathered momentum in India. Investigate the goals of feminist literary criticism, and consider how you might apply such a reading to a Desai novel. What has this mode of reading helped you to notice that you might not have otherwise?


‘‘Anita Desai.’’Encyclopedia of World Biography

Supplement, volume 25. Thomson Gale, 2005. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008.

Desai, Anita. ‘‘A Fire Had to be Lit,’’ in The Writer on Her Work: New Essays in New Territory, Volume 2. Ed. Janet Sternburg. New York: Norton, 1991, pp. 97–103.

Jussawalla, Feroza and Reed Way Dassenbrock. ‘‘Anita Desai,’’ in their Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992, pp. 157–79.

Pandit, Lalita. ‘‘A Sense of Detail and a Sense of Order: Anita Desai Interviewed by Lalita Pandit,’’ in Literary India: Comparative Studies in Aesthetics, Colonialism, and Culture. Eds. Pandit and Patrick Colm Hogan. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995, pp. 153–72.

Prasad, Madhusudan. Anita Desai: The Novelist. Allahabad, India: New Horizon, 1981.


Ghose, Bhaskar. ‘‘Review of Journey to Ithaca.’’ Biblio

(December 1996). Bernstein, Richard. ‘‘Review of Journey to Ithaca.’’ New

York Times (August 30, 1995). Dalmia, Yashodhara. ‘‘An Interview with Anita

Desai.’’Times of India (April 29, 1979): 13. Annan, Gabriele. ‘‘Review of Journey to Ithaca. Times

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