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Anita Desai: A Booker Prize Finalist

Anita Desai (left) in conversation with her Booker Prize winning daughter Kiran Desai.

By Sowmya Nandakumar

Novelist Anita Mazumdar Desai was born in Mussoorie, India, on June 24 1937, to a German mother, Toni Nime and a Bengali businessman, D.N. Mazumdar. Growing up, she spoke German at home and four languages outside home, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu and English. German was her first language but she started learning to read and write English in school at the age of seven. Since then it became the language of her short stories and novels. Desai read the classic, Wuthering Heights, at the age of nine and apparently recollects that as being a story that strongly moved her always.

Desai got her education in Delhi at the Queen Mary’s Higher Secondary School and Miranda House, Delhi University. In 1957 she received her B.A in English literature. She started writing short stories regularly. In 1958 she married Ashvin Desai, a businessman – the director of a computer software company and author of the book: Between Eternities: Ideas on Life and The Cosmos.

In 1963 Desai published her first novel, Cry The Peacock. This is the story of rebellious woman who kills her husband to liberate herself. This was followed by Voices of  The City in 1965, a story about the very different lives of three siblings living in Kolkata. Fire on The Mountain, focusing on the complex life and experiences of three women, was published in 1977. It won the Sahitya Akademi Award (National Academy of Letters Award) and the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize in 1978.

Anita Desai was the recipient of the Neil Gunn Prize for International Literature, from the Scottish Arts Council.

Desai is known for writing on women centric issues and themes. She is reputed for being able to portray with sensitivity and finesse, the personality, characteristics and emotions of her female characters. Many of her characters belong to the anglicized Indian bourgeoisie and often, their marriages and marital problems are in the forefront of these stories. These characters try to deal with the monotonies of their lives by resorting to some form of escapism. In Fire on the Mountain, one of the characters retreats in to a private world of isolation; In Where Shall We Go This Summer, published in 1977, the character Sita, is pregnant with her fifth child and takes shelter from her marriage in her deceased father’s magical island.

Clear Light of Day (1980) told the story of siblings, Bimala and Tara, woven in with Delhi’s history, the partition and its many consequences. This book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Desai won the Guardian Award for Children’s Fiction for the novel The Village by the Sea (1982).

From the mid-1980s Desai started to look at social issues and problems in society. Her novels, characters and situations reflect Indian society and politics. In 1984 Desai wrote In Custody, (also short listed for the Booker Prize) revolving around the many life disappointments of the three central characters. In 1993, In Custody, was directed by Ismail Merchant, with a screenplay by Shahrukh Husain, and produced by Merchant Ivory Productions. Starring Shashi Kapoor, Shabana Azmi and Om Puri, the film won the 1994 President of India Gold Medal for Best Picture and Stars.

In 1988, Desai’s German lineage came through in her writing when she wrote Baumgartner’s Bombay, the story of a retired Jewish businessman who escaped the Nazis in his youth, to India, and stays there in poverty, taking care of stray cats. In 1993 Desai became member of the faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and taught creative writing. She also won the Neil Gunn Prize, (named after the prolific Scottish novelist and dramatist, Neil Gunn) for International Literature from the Scottish Arts council.

In 1995, she wrote Journey to Ithaca, which explores a pilgrimage to India through the perspectives of three people, two young Europeans, Mateo and Sophie, and Mother, a mysterious woman.

In 1999, Desai wrote Fasting, Feasting, which contrasts American and Indian cultures, and gender roles.  The story is about Arun, who studies in Massachusetts, and his sister Uma who lives back home in India, with their parents, in a small city. Uma attempts to leave home and get married. This raises pandemonium! This novel was a finalist for the Booker Prize in 1999. She won the Alberto Moravia Prize for Literature in 2000 and Benson Medal of Royal Society of Literature in 2003.

In 2004, Desai’s In the Zigzag Way, was set very differently from her usual terrain of story telling. This story set in Mexico, explores identities. Her latest book was The Artist of Disappearance, which came in 2011.

Since the 1950s Desai has lived in New Delhi, Calcutta, Bombay, and other Indian cities. She has held several prestigious positions in acclaimed literary institutions. She has been member of the Advisory Board for English of the National Academy of Letters in Delhi and a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in London. She has taught at Girton College and Smith College in England, and at Mount Holyoke College in the United States.

Desai and her husband Ashvin have have four children, Rahul, Tani, Arjun and Kiran. Kiran Desai, following in the footsteps of her mother is a Booker Prize winning novelist.


To read a conversation between Anita and Kirna Desai, mother and daughter, visit



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