Anita Desai | Anita Desai with Florence Libert

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Anita Desai.
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Anita Desai with Florence Libert

SOURCE: An interview with Anita Desai, in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 47-55.

Desai on Her Parents and Upbringing:

My mother met my father when he was a student in Germany. She married him there, and went to India in the late 1920's. She used to tell us stories about Germany, and she was such a marvelous storyteller that I felt as if her memories of Germany were my own.

We spoke German at home; it was the language in which I learned nursery rhymes and fairy tales. We spoke Hindi to all our friends and neighbors. I learned English when I went to school. It was the first language that I learned to read and write, so it became my literary language. Languages tend to proliferate around one in India, and one tends to pick up and use whatever is at hand and is appropriate. It makes one realize each language has its own distinct genius.

I grew up during the war years—I was a little girl at the time, and was only barely aware of what was happening in Europe. I really experienced the war through my mother, sensing the anxiety that she had at that time about her family in Germany. After the war, she began to realize the Germany that she had known was devastated. She never had the courage, or the wish, to return to it. I visited Germany as an adult, and have only been there on two or three brief visits.

Anita Desai in an interview with Sarah Ferrell, in The New York Times Book Review, April 9, 1989, p. 3.

[In the following interview, which was conducted August 1, 1989, Desai discusses such subjects as her education, her literary influences, and major themes in her works.]

[Libert]: Your father was Bengali and your mother was German. Where did you learn English? Was it spoken at home?

[Desai]: No, I don't think it was spoken at home. We spoke German and Hindi at home but when I went to school, I was taught English.

You went to a missionary school, didn't you?

Yes, and English was the language I was taught first to read and write. It was my first written language.

Have you tried to write in the other languages you speak?

No, I haven't. It's remained my literary language.

Why?

I think it had a tremendous effect that the first thing you saw written and the first thing you ever read was English. It seemed to me the language of books. I just went on writing it because I always wanted to belong to this world of books. The books around me were in English and I wanted to have my own books amongst them and I always wrote in English even when I was a child.

You started writing when you were very little, didn't you?

Yes, it became a habit.

I've read somewhere that you studied English literature at University. Did you only study the English literary tradition or did you also look at other literatures written in English?

No, at that time, Commonwealth literature was not even offered or was not even spoken of. It was a very traditional course in traditional British literature starting with Chaucer and Spencer and I think going no further than T.S. Eliot.

Did you learn anything about any of the Indian literatures?

Nothing at all.

Do you read literature written in any of India's regional languages?

Well, I read Hindi and the other languages I try and pick up in translation whenever I can, although that proves to be very discouraging because translations are often very poor. It's rare to come across a good translation. Usually they are so discouraging that you don't want to continue with them. I do read a bit of Hindi whenever I can find something.

And Bengali?

No.

Did you ever speak Bengali at home?

No, I didn't. I read it in translations.

What authors do you think have had the strongest influence on your writing?

Different ones at different times. When I was very young and beginning to write seriously, I suppose the influences were Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence and Henry James. And then I broke free of this tradition of British literature in which I'd been reared and started reading widely in Russian literature and found myself overwhelmed by writers like Dostoievsky and Chekhov. There was a time of my life when I was certainly very influenced by Camus and I read The Stranger over and over again. And then I became influenced more and more by poetry, less by the prose I read. There was a time, say, when I was writing Fire on the Mountain, when the model I had before me was Japanese poetry really, because they seemed to be able to compress and to regain the essence of what they wanted to say in a way I wanted to do in prose. After that I began to read more modern poetry. Again a great deal of Russian poetry like Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, and later on Milosz, Brodsky, and now I find that if I want to hold up any model for my writing, it's always poetry not prose.

But have you ever tried to write poetry?

No, I don't write poetry, no.

No even for yourself?

No.

What about playwriting?

I don't do any playwriting although I have written a screenplay recently. But that's based on a book of mine; it's the screenplay which is an adaptation of In Custody. We hope to film it this winter if everything moves ahead smoothly.

And where is it going to be shot?

In India, of course. It will be shot in India and the screenplay will be translated into Urdu. It's going to be in Urdu with English subtitles.

Was that your idea?

No, I had known the director and the producer for a very long time, Merchant and Ivory, who filmed quite a lot in India and in England too. And for years they've been asking me to write a screenplay for them which I never did. But when I wrote In Custody, they felt this was the book they wanted to film.

Now to move on to the status of Indian writing in English in India … You've stated that there is no literary tradition of Indian writing in English. Do you still hold this view?

Well, I should say it's a very new tradition. It's even younger than this century. It was only in the '30s and '40s that Indian writers writing in English began to get any kind of reputation. Earlier there had been a few attempts. There were a few poets, chiefly, who wrote a bit in English but never made a reputation as English poets. And I should say our earliest writers to have made a reputation were people like R. K. Narayan and Raja Rao who only wrote in the '30s and '40s. So, it's a very new, very young tradition.

Do Indo-English women novelists have a wide audience in India?

I don't think they have a wide audience, they have a small, restricted one.

What readership do you have in India?

I find that I'm mostly read in Indian universities, if I'm read at all. Indians aren't great readers, aren't great bookbuyers. They always turn to music or to the visual arts for pleasure and entertainment rather than read. Even if we had great literary traditions, these were translated into oral traditions. At one time all literature was recited rather than read and that remains the tradition in India. It is still rather a strange act to buy a book and read it, an unusual thing to do.

Are your novels studied at Indian universities?

I believe that some of them are recommended texts. There are still very few universities which offer Commonwealth literature or Indian literature, in India. There's just an occasional book that they might include.

And how have your novels been received abroad?

I think my reputation abroad has been very different because I've been one of the few Indian writers who have been published abroad so they take me as a representative of Indian literature in a way.

In an interview with Atma Ram, you said that "the English language spoken and written in India has become an Indian language with about as much relation to English as Patois has to French." Is this really so? Patois is unintelligible to a French speaker.

Well, I would say that in the '40s and '50s and '60s too when I began publishing, we were all still trying to write an official, formal English. And we were all perfectly aware that this was not the language spoken around us, that our models were still literary models. We were using English literary models for our own writings. And I don't think it happened till the '80s, till Salman Rushdie came along that Indian writers finally felt capable of using the spoken language, spoken English, the way it's spoken on Indian streets by ordinary people. And using that as a written language, that's a very new phenomenon. And it's only in the last five years that a great many young Indian writers have started using that spoken language very freely and confidently.

You don't do that, do you?

I still don't.

Do you intend to?

Well, various people have said that they've noted a change in my writing with In Custody and going on to Baumgartner's Bombay. And I think in recent years my interest has become using dialogue to a much greater extent and once you do that, of course you have to reflect the dialogue which is actually spoken around you. Earlier my interest had been interior monologue really, the interior self.

And now if we could turn to the nature of your fiction. In most of your work the attention is focused on never more than a handful of individuals. Do you consciously set out to write novels and short stories with few characters in them?

Well, when I write, my interest is always in the individual rather than in any mass movement. If I were writing about the political situation or even the social situation, I would want to include a great many more characters. But since my interest is the individual, a certain psychology of the individual, I've had very few characters in my books.

What is your own view with regard to the social role of the writer?

I think you can only be a social critic quite unconsciously. You have to be chiefly true to yourself, to your own vision. If you are that, if you are uncompromisingly telling the truth about yourself, about your characters and about society, then you become willy-nilly a social critic. But I don't think a writer can set out to be a social critic.

In countries which are afflicted by grave social, economic and political crises, writers often adopt the role of social critic. Does such a tradition exist in India?

Well, this did come about at the turn of the century. Towards the end of the nineteenth and in the early twentieth century, there were writers in Bengal and also some Urdu writers in the north who took it upon themselves to write about society as they found it and to criticize all that they found wrong with it with a deliberate reformist ideal in mind. Writers like Tagore, Chatterjee, Priam Chand, they were all reformists and they were social figures just as much as they were writers. So, yes, there is a tradition.

But this is not what you think you want to do, is it?

Well, when I read their work, I find I can only take an interest in it if I become interested in the individual, if I see how these problems afflicted individuals. I suppose that as a fiction writer, that is what chiefly interests me.

Why are the protagonists of most of your novels outsiders?

Well, as I say, it's really the solitary individual who's interested me and therefore I tend to pick outsiders, somebody who is slightly outside society and therefore is able to observe society without being part of it and plays the role of the hermit, the solitary individual.

Do you ever read literary criticism of your work?

Well, I read the book reviews, the reviews that come out when the books are published because my publishers send them on to me and of course I'm interested in how they've received them. But I tend to avoid serious criticism.

Why?

For two reasons. One, I find it very disconcerting when I read any such thing or hear it, it seems to be about another person, about a work I don't know at all. Because it's looking at my work from a completely different angle.

So, do you think your work has been misunderstood?

Well, as I say, I don't read it, so I'm not quite sure to what degree it has been understood or misunderstood. But I always find it a little worrying, so I avoid it.

Apart from the study of the individual, do you think that there is a unifying thread which runs through all your work or parts of it?

I suppose there are other interests certainly. It isn't only an individual psychology that I'm pursuing when I write. I'm interested in language, in prose style, in aligning words to experiences and images. I suppose that is really at the heart of any writer's work, trying to find a vocabulary that is in harmony with one's experiences, with the images one has in one's mind.

And if we could now turn to Fire on the Mountain. Many critics have asserted that Nanda Kaul dies at the end of Fire on the Mountain and have seen in her death a fitting end to a story which is about the loss of illusions. It seems to me that the climax is rather ambiguous. Could you comment on this?

Well, it wasn't my intention to kill Nanda Kaul at all. Looking back on it, I can see that I have written it in a way which leaves the ending rather ambiguous.

Did you consciously do that?

No, no. It seemed to me a very complete, very definite, very obvious ending with the shattering of Nanda Kaul's illusions, with the total destruction of her illusions, it didn't seem to me necessary to carry this onto a physical destruction. In fact, I would have considered that too melodramatic.

I'd now like to ask you a few questions about some of the short stories which appear in Games at Twilight. I was left a little bemused at the end of "Surface Textures". What did you mean to express when you showed the central character, who is lost in a world of surfaces, being revered as a "swami"?

Well the Guru figure is something that interests me quite a lot really. And I'm very much aware that there's often a great discrepancy between a person's philosophy as he expounds it and about his private life, and it's this discrepancy that interests me, that engages me as a writer. And that is what I was writing about in the story "Surface Textures", about a man who doesn't set out to be a Guru, has no philosophy at all and yet turns into one because that is what people want of him.

There is a scene which appears in two different stories: in both "Sale" and "Private Tuition by Mr. Bose," at the end of a narrow passage, the protagonist sees his wife, her head bowed, her hair loose, wearing a red sari and kneading dough in the kitchen, with a child by her side. Was this a conscious repetition?

In fact, there was a critic who once attacked me for a failure of imagination, for lacking in imagination in using the same image twice because I failed to find another. That wasn't the intention at all. Including both of them in one collection of stories makes it so obvious to any reader that I had used the same image twice and I did it really deliberately because it seemed to me the most perfect, the most economical way of conveying the image of household, family, hearth and home that I wanted to convey in both stories. It seemed unnecessary to find another image because once you had the hearth, the mother and child, you had everything you wanted.

In "Studies in the Park," there is a scene in which Suno's perception of life is totally transformed by a vision; the vision of an infinitely beautiful, pale, young woman who seems to be dying, lying on a bench with her head resting on the lap of an old man. There is a certain ambiguity as to whether the woman is actually dying. What did you mean to convey through this scene?

Well, that's unnecessary, whether the woman is ill, whether she does die seems to me unnecessary. What is important in the story is the effect that the image has upon Suno.

Why did Suno want to see this vision again, if it is so horrible?

Because he leaves his own world, the one which has been created for him by his family, particularly by his father, the one of work, achievement, career. He decides to abandon all these and go in search of what he has only caught an image of and he has only a sense that it will lead him into darker, deeper realms occupied by death and the hereafter. And because it was such a beautiful image that he saw, he is willing to go further in search of it.

You've only written one volume of short stories. Is the novel the genre you most feel at home with?

Yes, it is. I prefer to work on a novel because it gives the time and space which I require. I need a lot of time to work slowly and think out a book carefully. Whereas a short story has to be worked at very fast, it's like a poem, it has to be written with a kind of immediacy, it must be done at once. I do that occasionally but not very often.

Well, to turn to your latest novel … In Baumgartner's Bombay, the protagonist is a man. Why have you once again chosen to have a man as a central character when in most of the fiction that you've written so far, the protagonists have been women?

Well, I made that decision when I wrote In Custody really because I felt that as long as I wrote about women, and just had my chief characters as women leading traditional women's lives in India, I was restricting myself to home and family. And if I wanted to walk out into the wider world and bring in history and experience and events and action I simply had to write about male characters. And I did that in In Custody and again I had to do it with Baumgartner's Bombay.

What has prompted you to write a novel about a German in Bombay?

Well, you see, my mother was German. I grew up speaking German and I always wanted a way to include that German part of my upbringing, my experience, my work.

Even through a male character?

Yes. And I found it very difficult because it sounded so out of place in the Indian context. And it was when I saw this Austrian Jew in Bombay—I actually saw a man pottering around the streets picking up scraps for his cats—that I began to imagine his past. And that gave me the key to open that German world. And I was able to use my mother's memories of pre-war Germany and our own perception of the war far away from India simply as a set of rumours and news that came to us. I was able to incorporate that all into the book.

There are quite a number of German words that you don't translate

Yes, I found those words were unnecessary to translate. For instance, the German nursery rhymes, they simply wouldn't have sounded right in English. They seemed to hold their quality only as long as they were in German.

Are you now working on another novel?

No, I have been teaching these last two years and that has taken me quite far away from my writing life. But as from next year, I am going to be cutting down on teaching and I shall have more time for writing when I am back in India.

Have you always written when you were in India?

I wrote Baumgartner's Bombay when I was in Cambridge.

Do you find you write differently when you are in a different atmosphere?

I should think I do. I feel a need now to go back to India and start writing about India again.

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