When I saw the name Anita Desai on the AWRF 2013 programme, I knew I’d move heaven and earth to get to Auckland to see her. I first discovered her work in my 20s and have pounced with delight on any new title that’s appeared since. I find her gentle wisdom captivating and her point of view intriguing. To think I’ve had the opportunity to talk in person to one of my favourite authors still hasn’t sunk in yet. I’m so in awe of her!
Anita Desai was born in pre-Partition Dehli to an Indian father and a German mother. Although she didn’t realise it at the time, her home life was different to others around her. She listened to music from around the world and there were books on the shelves. She describes Indian culture as ‘rich, loud and complex’ with a strong oral tradition of storytelling in which it was considered rude to withdraw with a book.
She learned English when she was at school and chose to write in the language she considers more flexible, more elastic than other languages. English contains many different influences and can be adapted to suit an author’s needs. When she started to write those around her saw this as ‘a harmless eccentricity, a nice quiet thing to do, not like being a dancing girl.’
And thank goodness she was given the opportunity to write. Anita Desai has been shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize, with Clear Light of Day (1980), In Custody (1994) and Fasting, Feasting (1999). She has set the bar high for new Indian authors who are receiving attention from the western publishing world today.
The Artist of Disappearance is the author’s latest work. It contains three novellas and proved to the ‘the most intense writing process I have ever been through’. The stories came to her virtually complete in themselves.
The novella form enables an author to take a section from the lives of the characters in which they undergo change. Unlike the short story, the form requires no neat conclusion. Novellas are like a slice of time from which readers draw their own conclusions.
Western literature is often preoccupied with the triumph of the individual over circumstances. The work of Anita Desai tells a different story. Her characters are not in control of life and her stories contain the awareness that ‘one is swept along by the tide of one’s own temperament and of history which is more powerful that you or I.’
My conversation with Anita Desai will follow.