London, Sep. 03, 2004
Writer Anita Desai says "modern-day India is slipping away
from me", and has set her new novel, "The Zigzag Way",
Desai released the book at the Edinburgh book festival last week.
She currently shuttles between Boston, Mexico, Cambridge and Delhi,
but says her visits to India have become less frequent.
"To my friends and family in India, I am becoming a ghost,"
she told The Guardian.
In a lengthy feature on Desai, the newspaper remarked that "at
an age when most writers are descending deeper into their own
fictional worlds, into meditations on age, identity and the bankruptcy
of the modern world, Desai is exploring lives increasingly remote
from her own".
During her annual visits to India, to see her husband and eldest
son, Desai says she feels more and more a stranger.
"One likes to imagine that things have stood still, but so
much happens. I have become an observer, and not a participant.
And so much has happened to me that to them, my friends and family
in India, I am becoming a ghost."
"The Zigzag Way" is set in Mexico and Cornwall, and
is narrated by a young American writer, a man who travels without
really knowing why.
Desai said this was more and more her own experience.
"There are two ways of travelling: there is the stumbling,
directionless kind, and there is the more efficient sort, where
you know exactly where you are going and how long it will take.
But I think most things in my life have come about through chance,
through serendipity," she told the newspaper.
Desai is said to have developed a passion for Mexico. She first
went there six years ago, and immediately felt its affinity with
"It's such an ancient country, you feel every stone has a
history to tell. Mexico and India share a history of colonialism
- 300 years of Spanish and British rule - along with this much,
much longer past that goes back into myth.
"Physically, we're alike, too: I am constantly taken for
a Mexican," she said.
Speaking about her initial years in India - she left India at
45 - Desai said: "My whole life was about family and neighbours:
it was very difficult for a woman to experience anything else.
"I was bored, and I needed to find more range, which is
why I started to write about men in books like 'Baumgartner's
Bombay' (in which a German Jew flees the war in India) and 'In
Custody' (in which a college lecturer goes in search of a famous
"Men led lives of adventure, chance and risk. It just wasn't
possible to write that from an Indian female perspective."
Desai has been shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize.
According to her, Congress president Sonia Gandhi was right not
to have taken over as the prime minister.
"It was a role she inherited and not one she chose. She would
have been used as a tool by the party. The Gandhi-Nehru dynasty
could have gone on and on forever, but I think she was very wise
to break it.
"And it's really magnificent news that a government I so
much disapproved of has been voted out," she told The Guardian.
Anita Desai was born in 1935 in Delhi to a German mother and
a Bengali father. She grew up speaking German at home and Bengali,
Urdu, Hindi and English at school and in the city streets. She
has said that she grew up surrounded by Western literature and
music, not realizing until she was older that this was an anomaly
in her world where she also learned the Eastern culture and customs.
She married a businessman at twenty-one and raised several children
before becoming known for her writing. Her first book, Cry,the
Peacock was published in England in 1963, and her better known
novels include In Custody (1984) and Baumgartner's Bombay (1988).
She once wrote: "I see India through my mother's eyes, as
an outsider, but my feelings for India are my father's, of someone
born here" (Griffiths).
She never considered trying to first publish in India because
there was no publisher in India who would be interested in fiction
by an Indian writer (Jussawalla) and it was first in England that
her work became noticed. U.S. readers were slower to discover
her, due, she believes to England's natural interest in India
and the U.S.'s lack of comprehension regarding the foreignness
of her subject.
But Desai only writes in English. This, she has repeatedly said,was
a natural and unconscious choice for her: "I can state definitely
that I did not choose English in a deliberate and conscious act
and I'd say perhaps it was the language that chose me and I started
writing stories in English at the age of seven, and have been
doing so for thirty years now without stopping to think why "(Desai).
She is considered the writer who introduced the psychological
novel in the tradition of Virginia Woolf to India. Included in
this, is her pioneer status of writing of feminist issues. While
many people today would not classify her work as feminist, she
believes this is due to changing times: "The feminist movement
in India is very new and a younger generation of readers in India
tends to be rather impatient of my books and to think of them
as books about completely helpless women, hopeless women. They
find it somewhat unreal that the women don't fight back, but they
don't seem to realize how very new this movement is" (Jussawalla).
Also, she says, her writing is realistic: "Women think I
am doing a disservice to the feminist movement by writing about
women who have no control over their lives. But I was trying,
as every writer tries to do, even in fiction, to get at the truth,
write the truth. It would have been really fanciful if I had made
[for example, in Clear Light of Day] Bim and Tara modern-day feminists
Desai considers Clear Light of Day, her most autobiographical
book, because she was writing about her neighborhood in Delhi,
although the characters are not based on her brothers and sisters.
What she was exploring in this novel, she has said, was the importance
of childhood and memories as the source of a life. She had wanted
to start the book at the end and move backwards, into the characters'
childhood and further, into the childhood of their parents etc.,
but in the end: "When I had gone as far back as their infancy
the book just ground to a halt; it lost its momentum. It told
me that this was done, that I couldn't carry it further. But I
still have a sense of disappointment about that book, because
the intention had been different" (Jussawalla). The character
of Raja is identified with her in the sense that he is so immersed
in all different types of literature and culture, and is so concerned
with protecting the multicultural heritage of India. His worries
about the Muslim neighbor family is not just about them particularly,
but rather worry about the loss of all that the Muslim culture
and literature contributes to India.
While Desai has taught for years at Mount Holyoke and MIT, and
spends most of the year outside of India, she does not consider
herself part of the Indian Diaspora. Although she does not fit
in the Indian box anymore (Griffiths) as she said, she considers
herself lucky for having not left India until late in her life,
because she feels that she has been drifting away from it ever
since: "I can't really write of it with the same intensity
and familiarity that I once had." Yet she cannot feel at
home in any other place or society