A conversation with Anita Desai, and some notes on her work
[Statutory warning: long, bifurcated post – some thoughts on Anita Desai’s writing followed by a Q&A. Apologies in case there’s some overlapping between the two elements. I wrote it as a flowing piece - a profile-cum-interview - for Business Standard Weekend but since there isn’t a word-constraint here I prefer to spread it out and play with the format.]
Long before the publication of Midnight’s Children brought alive new possibilities for Indian writers wanting to express themselves in English, decades before Arundhati Roy’s Booker win, the advent of the big publishing houses, hefty advances, the elevation of the fashionable young writer to pop-celebrity status, and the occurrence, once highly improbable, of the words “author” and “glamorous” in the same sentence, there was Anita Desai – Anita Desai, contributing short stories to a literary magazine while still in college in the 1950s; writing diligently at her desk for a few hours each day; sending her manuscripts to England because Indian publishers at the time weren’t interested in contemporary fiction; juggling the unsocial writer’s life with some very social demands, such as those of raising four children.
Desai, who turned 70 earlier this year, has lived mainly in the US for the past two decades. She was in Delhi last week because the Sahitya Akademi has made her one of its lifetime fellows – and because Random House India has marked the occasion by reissuing three of her finest novels (Clear Light of Day, In Custody and Baumgartner’s Bombay) in elegant, minimalist new designs perfectly suited to the work of someone who continues to live by the discipline of the writing process itself, rather than by the stardust that sometimes sticks to the high-profile writer. (Eventually all of her books will be collected in this format, conceptualised by Random House India editor-in-chief Chiki Sarkar; the concept resembles the Library of America’s...
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