Desai, Anita Mazumdar

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Desai, Anita Mazumdar

Desai, Anita Mazumdar (1937- ) Bengali writer and journalist

Feminist author, essayist, and scholar, Anita Desai applies realism and irony to her views of the postcolonial Indian subcontinent. Born Anita Mazumdar of German-Bengali parentage in Mussoorie, India, she grew up in Delhi during World War II, when her mother feared for her safety and abandoned ties to her homeland. Desai's childhood was a blend of fierce Delhi heat on lazy afternoons in the garden, Muslim festivals, and her mother's German lullabies and the piano solos of Franz Schubert. Desai spoke Hindustani in public and German at home, but she chose the British English she learned in school as a literary vehicle. From the oral tradition of Bengali FABLES and ghost stories, CREATION LORE, recitations of the BHAGAVAD GITA, and Grimms' fairy tales (see GRIMM, JACOB, AND GRIMM, WELHELM), she mastered the art of STORYTELLING. When she was 10 years old, India obtained its freedom, a liberation that deeply affected women's lives. After attending Queen Mary's Higher Secondary School and then graduating from Miranda House, Delhi University in 1957, she married Ashvin Desai, a businessman, in 1958; they had four children. Anita Desai had begun writing even before her marriage, and in 1963 she made her debut as a novelist with Cry, the Peacock.

In addition to lecturing on English literature and creative writing at Cambridge University, Smith College, Mt. Holyoke College, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Desai writes Indo-Anglian adult and children's lore, essays, and book reviews for the New York Times Magazine, New York Times Book Review, and Washington Post. In her work, she focuses on exploring social and spiritual disharmony and despair. Like the themes and motifs of the Antiguan author JAMAICA KINCAID and the Nigerian novelist CHINUA ACHEBE, Desai examines imperialist dilemmas from multiple perspectives. In Voices in the City (1965), she reflects on the complexity and anarchy of Calcutta, the third-largest metropolis in India. Of the restlessness of youthful urbanites in the early 1960s, she later regretted that “nothing had come of it, only violence, and the streets were littered with its casualties, the city itself almost perpetually in darkness … the graveyard of the ideals and dreams of an independent and renewed India” (Dutta and Desai 2003, x).

Desai has attacked both colonialism and Indian nationalism for silencing women and for limiting their horizons to traditional boundaries, two subjects of Cry, the Peacock and of the awardwinning Fire on the Mountain (1977), a study of female disillusion. Her perusal of Hindu atavism in Baumgartner’s Bombay (1988) echoes the pathos of RUDYARD KIPLING'S peasant society in KIM (1901) and the colonial barbarities of JOSEPH CONRAD'S HEART OF DARKNESS (1899) with visions of “an ancient and backward land … the land of snakes and fakirs” (Desai 1989, 53). The layered cultures of Bombay predictably startle the newcomer Hugo, an aged German-Jewish exile: “India flashed the mirror in your face… . You could be blinded by it” (85). In 1993, Merchant Ivory Productions filmed In Custody (1984), a comic lamentation for the demise of Urdu as the intellectual and court language of nawabs and moghul emperors. The book on which it was based was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.


Desai, Anita. Baumgartner’s Bombay. New York: Knopf, 1989.

------- . In Custody. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.  . Voices in the City. New Delhi: Orient

Paperbacks, 1965.

Dutta, Krishna, and Anita Desai. Calcutta: A Cultural and Literary History. Oxford: Signal Books, 2003.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Empire and Poetic Voice: Cognitive and Cultural Studies of Literary Tradition and Colonialism. New York: State University of New York Press, 2004.