[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 January 2005, 11:27 GMT
Anita Desai -- a life in literature
Anita Desai
One of modern India's earliest, and perhaps best, literary exports
In a Hardtalk Extra interview broadcast on 21 January, Gavin Esler talks to Anita Desai, about her long literary career and the events that shaped it.

Ever since the phenomenal success of Salman Rushdie, Indian literature has been in vogue, a mainstream hit in the west. Under the collective title of "Post-colonial literature", it has established itself on the school and university syllabuses.

Anita Desai was one of the pioneering "post-colonial" Indian writers. She began her publishing career in the 1960s with works in English like Cry, The Peacock and Voices in the City.

Her more recent works, like Fasting, Feasting, have been short-listed for the Booker Prize and confirmed her international reputation.

Desai now lives in the United States, teaching at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, though she continues to visit India once a year. Her most recent book is set in Mexico and is called The Zig-Zag Way.

Private Writing

Anita Desai said that there was no literary scene in India as such when she started out. There were certainly no literary celebrities.
I realised over the years that it's quite frightening for children to see their mother having a different life
Anita Desai

Desai said that she was "writing in privacy, even secrecy" and that it "seemed very lonely".

She said that looking back now they were "wonderful years to develop at your own pace".


Anita Desai had to combine her literary experiments with being a mother in a traditional Indian household. She said that she learned to write around the school timetable:

"I realised over the years that it's quite frightening for children to see their mother having a different life and I took great care to hide my writing away in a desk."

She said a mother's literary pursuits could be disturbing because children "think that they know their mother and know really what she's thinking and then to discover her mind is actually elsewhere, it's not a comfortable feeling for them".

Imperial legacy

Growing up in India, with a German mother, Anita Desai was familiar with many languages, including German, English and Hindi.

She told Hardtalk Extra that it was "not a conscious decision" to write in English.

She said it became "the language of books for me", because it was the first language in which she learned to write at school. Hindi and German were only "spoken languages" for her.

Asked about the decision of her friend fellow novelist Amitav Ghosh to turn down the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2001 - because it was a "memorialisation of empire", only considering works in English - Desai said:

"English is one of the fourteen officially recognised languages in India after all and the Commonwealth Prize is not given to translations.

"I don't see if you have any historical sense how you can turn your back on history - it's not for us to reject history, but it is for us to transform it and I suppose the Commonwealth is a transformation of the old Empire."

Living in America

Anita Desai has taught in the United States since 1987. She now divides her time between America, Mexico and India.

It's not for us to reject history, but it is for us to transform it
Anita Desai
She told Hardtalk Extra how the events of September 11th had profoundly changed American society.

"America has been completely traumatised and a kind of paranoia has set in", she said.

She added that for "outsiders [and] foreign elements, it is a very frightening place now."

HARDtalk Extra can be seen on Fridays on BBC World at 04:30 GMT, 11:30 GMT, 15:30 GMT, 19:30 GMT and 00:30 GMT.

It can also be seen on BBC News 24 at 04:30 and 23:30

Bruce Oldfield -- fashion legend
04 Jan 05 |  Hardtalk

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific