I guess this is blog about an author I’ve loved. Born in 1937 to a German mother and a Bengali father, Anita Desai was a writer whose work engaged me in ways I can rarely express. From the time I got hold of her first book ‘Cry the Peacock,’ I was hooked. As a a young girl in India, I learnt about my own country through her novels. It was Desai’s unique blend of descriptions of the landscape of India, the flora and fauna, each flower and plant lent a background to scenes. She had crisp characters so well observed that made me want to read more. Reading her slim volume of short stories again, I remembered how many of her books I had devoured. In the last few years, I’ve been busy reading Rushdie, Ghosh, Adiga, and writers like Strout, O’Farrell, Ishiguro, McEwan, that I had forgotten the impact of her novels had on me. As had writers like Markandaya, R K Narayan, Naipaul and other Indian classic writers.
Why Fasting and Feasting? Desai was shortlisted three times for the Booker. Her daughter, Kiran Desai, won it in 2006 for ‘The Inheritance of Loss.’ Fasting and Feasting was a finalist in the Booker lists in 1999. Had Booker missed another superb author? Desai is a chronicler of times. I’ve fasted and feasted on her books. I wish I had more time to read all the works of authors I admire, but time is finite.
I relished reading one of Anita Desai’s short stories that featured an American from Vermont and her struggle with homesickness. She wants to ‘like’ India when she first arrives in the hot humid Bombay/ Mumbai, but finds it hard. Then the dry heat of Delhi drives her almost to hate India. She eventually finds her peace with a group of hippies in the Himalayas. A Scot in India, Dalrymple writes beautiful books on Mughal histories, but here is Desai writing about ordinary Indians who become alive on the pages. In one of her books, ‘Baumgartner’s Bombay’ a Jew from Germany not quite fitting in India as he had hoped, ‘too dark for Hitler’s society and too fair for India,’ is written with such compassion. I find such stories resonate with me in my own writing. I realise that her words are a legacy of an ‘insider/ outsider’ view of society that is so relevant in this globalised century. Identity and ‘home’ has become a ‘need’ for writers to pen words of their experiences. She was way ahead of us and has paved the way for writers from the subcontinent. Like the Jewish writers in America she has started a genre of ‘identity lit’ that will inspire many more writers to follow that path.