A tribute to author Anita Desai on her birthday

| | Mussoorie
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A tribute to author Anita Desai on her birthday

Monday, 24 June 2019 | JASKIRAN CHOPRA | Mussoorie

Anyone who has a sincere interest in English Literature would be very familiar with writings of well-known author Anita Desai, who was born in this hill station on June 24, 1937. Her works like Cry The Peacock and Fire on the Mountain are part of the syllabi of universities in India and abroad.

This widely -read writer celebrates her 82nd birthday today. On this occasion it is indeed a great honour for the Doon valley and Mussoorie for being closely connected to the lives of this sensitive writer and her family members. Mussoorie has always had a close connection with writing and writers. Anita   was born in this hill town to DN Mazumdar, a Bengali businessman, and Toni Nime, a German expatriate.  Her brother, DN Mazumdar, an old Doonite, resides in the valley and so does her sister. On the occasion of her birthday, they always miss her and think of their childhood spent in Mussoorie.

Anita Mazumdar Desai has been shortlisted for the Booker prize three times; she received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1978 for her novel Fire on the Mountain.  She won the British Guardian Prize for The Village by the Sea.

 She grew up speaking German at home and Bengali, Urdu, Hindi and English outside the house. However, she did not visit Germany until later in life as an adult. She first learned to read and write in English at school and as a result English became her "literary language".  She began to write in English at the age of seven and published her first story at the age of nine.

She was a student at Queen Mary's Higher Secondary School in Delhi and received her BA in English literature in 1957 from Miranda House, University of Delhi.

Anita Desai published her first novel, Cry The Peacock, in 1963. She considers Clear Light of Day (1980) her most autobiographical work. In 1984 she published In Custody about an Urdu poet in his declining days - which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. 

Her novels include Fire on the Mountain (1977), which won the Winifred Holtby  Memorial Prize, and Clear Light of Day (1980), In Custody (1984) and Fasting, Feasting (1999), each of which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In Custody was made into a film by Merchant Ivory productions.  Her children's book The Village by the Sea (1982), won the Guardian Children's Fiction Award.  Desai later adapted In Custody as a screenplay, which Ismail Merchant and James Ivory produced as a motion picture in 1993.

Desai’s appearance on the literary scene in 1963 with the publication of   “Cry, The Peacock” led to a shift in women’s spaces. Before this, women’s inner space had never been the pivot around which the narratives revolved. Desai is known for her sensitive portrayal of the inner life of her female characters.

Desai  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. In 2011, in her work The Artist of Disappearance, she recreated the atmosphere of the Mussoorie of yore.

Seven years after her last novel (The Zig Zag Way), Desai returned in 2011with three gem-like novellas in this collection.

The title novella “The Artist of Disappearance” is the one which is based in Mussoorie and brings back the memories of days when the British soldiers came to the “gay” hill station to relax and also of the days, much later, when limestone mining ravaged this beautiful hill town. Talking to The Pioneer, DN Mazumdar, Desai’s brother, said that the impressions left by the hill station on their young minds were deep and strong. “Our family’s association with the town has been very old.

Anita was born there and also, we all spent our long summer vacations later, staying often at Connaught Castle, a hotel opposite the State Bank of India. Even later, our children studied at Woodstock.”

Their father, DN Mazumdar, was from Dhaka. When he went to Germany for his doctorate, he had met a German girl – Toni Nime-whom he married. The couple had four children. Three were girls –Anita, Roma and Indira. “I was the only boy surrounded by my sisters. We all have been very close to each other all our lives,” says Mazumdar, known fondly as Dinu, who has been living in the Doon valley for more than twenty years now.

Desai is one of India’s foremost writers. She has written sixteen works of fiction ,including Clear Light of Day (1980), In Custody (1984) and Fasting, Feasting (1999), all shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Desai currently divides her time between USA and Mexico. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2014. She is a Fellow of many prominent literary organizations such as The Royal Society of Literature, London and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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