Anita Desai, a celebrated Indian novelist and the Emerita John E. Burchard Professor of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has left an indelible mark on the world of literature. Her remarkable career and contributions to the literary landscape have earned her accolades, awards, and a cherished place in the hearts of readers worldwide.
Anita Desai was born on June 24, 1937, in Mussoorie, India, to a remarkable and unconventional couple. Her father, D. N. Mazumdar, was a Bengali businessman, while her mother, Toni Nime, was a German immigrant. Their union in pre-war Berlin, a time when intercultural marriages were rare, was a testament to their love and the spirit of breaking boundaries.
Shortly after their marriage, the family moved to New Delhi, where Anita Desai was raised alongside her two elder sisters and a brother. Her upbringing was a rich tapestry of languages and cultures. She grew up speaking Hindi with her neighbours, German at home with her mother, and was also fluent in Bengali, Urdu, and English.
English, however, became her literary language as she first learned to read and write it at school.
Desai's literary journey commenced at an astonishingly young age. She began writing in English when she was just seven years old and published her first story at the tender age of nine. This early passion for storytelling laid the foundation for a prolific writing career.
Her educational journey led her to Queen Mary's Higher Secondary School in Delhi. In 1957, she obtained a B.A. in English literature from the Miranda House of the University of Delhi. The following year, she married Ashvin Desai, a renowned director of a computer software company and author. This union blessed her with four children, including the Booker Prize-winning novelist Kiran Desai.
Desai's life as a mother was also intertwined with her literary endeavours. Her four children were often taken to Thul, near Alibagh, for weekends. It was in this serene setting that Anita Desai penned her celebrated novel "The Village by the Sea." The novel not only earned her accolades but also won the prestigious 1983 Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, an award judged by a panel of esteemed British children's writers.
Anita Desai's writing career has been characterised by its depth and diversity. Her literary journey took off in 1963 with the publication of her debut novel, "Cry The Peacock." Her influence extended beyond her own work, as in 1958, she, along with P. Lal, founded the publishing firm Writers Workshop.
One of her most autobiographical works, "Clear Light of Day" (1980), takes readers on a journey of self-discovery and transformation. Set in the same neighbourhood in which she grew up, the novel explores themes of memory, identity, and personal growth.
Desai's contributions to literature continued with "In Custody" (1984), a Booker Prize-shortlisted work that delves into the life of an Urdu poet in his declining days. In 1993, she embraced a role as a creative writing teacher at MIT, furthering her influence in the world of literary arts.
In 1999, her novel "Fasting, Feasting" earned her a place as a finalist for the Booker Prize, increasing her popularity and acclaim among readers and critics alike. Her writing journey continued with "The Zigzag Way" (2004) and her collection of short stories, "The Artist of Disappearance" (2011).
Beyond her own novels and stories, Anita Desai has shared her expertise in creative writing as a teacher at institutions like Mount Holyoke College, Baruch College, and Smith College. Her literary contributions have earned her prestigious honours, including being a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and Girton College, Cambridge.
Desai's literary works have transcended the boundaries of the written word and made their way to the silver screen. In 1993, her novel "In Custody" was adapted into an English film of the same name by Merchant Ivory Productions. Directed by Ismail Merchant and featuring a screenplay by Shahrukh Husain, the film received the 1994 President of India Gold Medal for Best Picture and starred acclaimed actors like Shashi Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, and Om Puri.
Anita Desai's literary legacy has also been recognised through numerous awards and honours. Notable among these are the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1978 for her novel "Fire on the Mountain" and the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize. She has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times in her illustrious career. In 2014, she received the Padma Bhushan, one of India's highest civilian awards, in recognition of her outstanding contributions to literature.
Anita Desai's novels, from "Cry, The Peacock" to "The Artist of Disappearance," have captivated readers with their exploration of human emotions, complex relationships, and the intricacies of culture and society. Her enduring influence on Indian literature, her dedication to storytelling, and her ability to seamlessly weave together various facets of life have solidified her status as a literary luminary.
As an Indian novelist whose words resonate not only with her homeland but also with a global audience, Anita Desai's contributions continue to inspire aspiring writers and captivate readers with her powerful narratives. Her journey as a writer, mother, and educator exemplifies a life dedicated to the art of storytelling.