Anita Desai: Author whose word imagery evokes characters, moods

By, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Mar 04, 2021 06:44 PM IST

In 1978, author Anita Desai received the Sahitya Akademi Award for her novel Fire on the Mountain and in 1983 was conferred the Guardian Fiction Prize.

Born in Mussorie on June 24, 1937 to Dhiren N Mazumdar, a businessman and his German wife, Antoinette Nime Mazumdar, Anita Mazumdar grew up speaking German, Hindi and English. Her parents moved to New Delhi, where Desai was raised with two elder sisters and brother. She began to write in English at the age of seven and published her first story at the age of nine.

Anita Desai has written more than a dozen adult and children’s books, the most notable being Fire on the Mountain. Illustration: Gajanan
Anita Desai has written more than a dozen adult and children’s books, the most notable being Fire on the Mountain. Illustration: Gajanan

Education, personal life

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Anita Mazumdar attended the Queen Mary’s Higher Secondary School in Delhi and completed B.A. in English literature in 1957 from Miranda House college in the University of Delhi. She won the Kiwhen Pershad Memorial Prize for English instituted by St. Stephen’s College.

She published occasional pieces in the college magazine and in 1957 her short story titled Circus Cat, Alley Cat appeared in the New Delhi periodical named Thought.

In 1958, she worked at Max Muller Bhavan, the German cultural institute, in Calcutta. During the same year, she married Ashwin Desai, a business executive, and they had four children (Kiran Desai, one of her daughters, won the Man Booker Prize in 2006). Desai lives in the United States, where she is the John E. Burchard Professor of Writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.


In 1958, she collaborated with P Lal to launch the publishing firm Writers Workshop.

The suppression and oppression of women in India were the subjects of her first novel, Cry, the Peacock (1963), and a later novel, Where Shall We Go This Summer? (1975).

She considers Clear Light of Day (1980) her most autobiographical work as it is set during her coming of age and also in the same neighbourhood in which she grew up.

She has written more than a dozen adult and children’s books, notably Fire on the Mountain (1977), for which she received the National Academy of Letters award in India, Clear Light of Day (1980), and The Village by the Sea (1983), which received the Guardian Prize for Children’s fiction.

In 1984, she published In Custody – about an Urdu poet in his declining days – which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Her novels In Custody and Baumgartner’s Bombay (1988) exemplify her liberal ideas and interest in the outsider.

The 1999 Booker Prize finalist novel Fasting, Feasting increased her popularity. Her novel The Zigzag Way (2004) tells the story of an American academic who travels to Mexico to trace his Cornish ancestry.

Desai also wrote short fiction, and her collections include Games at Twilight, and Other Stories (1978) and Diamond Dust, and Other Stories (2000) and children’s books including The Village by the Sea (1982).

The Artist of Disappearance (2011) included three novellas that examined the collateral abandonment and dislocation wrought by India’s furious rush toward modernity.

Awards, recognition

Desai has been honoured with fellowships, visiting professorships and prestigious awards such as the Taraknath Das Award for Contributions to Indo-American Understanding in 1989 and the 1990 Padma Shri.

Her novel Fire on the Mountain (1977) won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, and Clear Light of Day (1980), In Custody (1984) and Fasting, Feasting (1999) were shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Anita Desai is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Girton College, Cambridge and Clare Hall, Cambridge.

Interesting Facts

1. Anita Desai’s strengths as writer include the craft of creating images through her writing that evoke character and mood. She paints a portrait of lives impacted by the quest for identity and purpose.

2. In 1993, her 1984 novel In Custody was adapted by Merchant Ivory Productions into an English film by the same name, directed by Ismail Merchant, with a screenplay by Shahrukh Husain. It won the 1994 President of India Gold Medal for Best Picture and stars Shashi Kapoor, Shabana Azmi and Om Puri. The book laments the gradual corrosion of culture and tradition in the face of modernity.

3. Anita’s father first met her German mother while he was an engineering student in pre-war Berlin, and they got married during a period when it was still unusual for an Indian man to marry an European.

4. The author and professor has taught at Cambridge, Oxford, Smith, Mount Holyoke, and MIT. She also became a member of the Royal Society of Literature and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Source: Wikipedia,,

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