India, of her memories

Finding warmth in Fire on the Mountain in a cosily cold Indian winter is probably one of my early memories of Anita Desai and reading books at large. Immersing into the world she creates is nothing less than luxury, those who have devoured her books will agree. Sometimes dreamy, sometimes disturbing, her writing has been rich in language. Even though she has been known to choose her words carefully, she has never refrained from an overuse in order to make her pages moving pictures. But in person, she speaks with careful thought and minimal words.

Born to a German mother and Bengali father, Anita is among the first ‘Indian writers in English’, a term bestowed on Indian writers back in the ’40s and ’50s who chose to write in English rather than Hindi or any of the other Indian languages. She is also among those Indian writers, whose works have garnered international recognition but still remain lesser known in the country. Vivid portrayals on different facets of India, her books have only been revived in recent years and made available for access to Indian readers. What has it been like for her to write books, which have essentially been Indian but have catered to an international audience? “This was a great discussion in the ’50s. Since Indian publishers were interested in publishing only textbooks, we didn’t have much of a choice but to send our manuscripts abroad. Things changed in the ’80s,” she tells us.

Despite publishing constraints back home, Fire on the Mountain earned her the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award in 1978. She went on to win the Guardian Children’s Fiction prize for her ’82 novel The Village by the Sea: an Indian family story. In addition, she has been shortlisted thrice for the Booker Prize. As a writer, Anita has always believed in “drawing from her inner self” and thus, her writings have mainly revolved around personal memories and her observations on life. How easy it is to rely solely on memories though? We ask. “It is not easy. There is always doubt and fear. Because with memories, no matter how vivid, they are slipping away. One has stepped away from them,” she says. Just like she has from India. Living now in a small village on the outskirts of New York, Anita continues to write about the India of her past, the India where she grew up. But she admits to not having the same fondness for the country anymore. “I keep going back as I have family there. But I am not very comfortable with the place now. I haven’t lost a country as much as I have lost the time,” she takes a thoughtful pause and continues, “India is engulfed by speed and progress. People live such different lives there. I feel I should now step out of it and I think I have stepped out too.”

She must have lost the time she cherished but that doesn’t keep her from reliving her memories through writing. After taking a detour with Fasting, Feasting, in which she explored the American culture, she is back to narrating Indian stories with her latest release The Artist Of Disappearance. “I gave up writing on America because it was something I don’t understand very well. You need familiarity,” she stresses.

At the age of 76, the dreaminess in Anita’s eyes and voice is unmistakable. And when we mention her daughter – Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Kiran Desai – her voice takes on a much more endearing tone. “All my four kids resisted writing first. They were like ‘oh you writers have such boring lives. We will do something more exciting’. But once Kiran started writing, she couldn’t stop. I share a good companionship with her. We share ideas. Earlier I had no one to share my writing with,” she says.

Talking about Kiran, she also observes how young women writers today are “much more aware of their society”. “They don’t write in a state of unconsciousness as we used to. And that awareness forms a part of their thinking and writing process,” she says, transporting me back to the same warmth of her books as we part.


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