24 June 1937
Mussoorie, Princely State of Tehri Garhwal, British India (present-day Uttarakhand, India)
|Alma mater||University of Delhi|
|Notable works||In Custody; Baumgartner's Bombay|
|Children||4, including Kiran Desai|
Anita Desai FRSL, born Anita Mazumdar (born 24 June 1937), is an Indian novelist and the Emerita John E. Burchard Professor of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a writer she has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times. She received a Sahitya Akademi Award in 1978 for her novel Fire on the Mountain, from the Sahitya Akademi, India's National Academy of Letters. She won the British Guardian Prize for The Village by the Sea (1983). Her other works include The Peacock, Voices in the City, Fire on the Mountain and an anthology of short stories, Games at Twilight. She is on the advisory board of the Lalit Kala Akademi and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, London.
Desai was born in 1937 in Mussoorie, India, to a German immigrant mother, Toni Nime, and a Bengali businessman, D. N. Mazumdar. Her Bengali father first met her German mother while he was an engineering student in pre-war Berlin; and they got married during a period when it was still unusual for an Indian man to marry a European woman. Shortly after their marriage, they moved to New Delhi, where Desai was raised with her two elder sisters and brother.
She grew up speaking Hindi with her neighbours, and only German at her home. She also spoke Bengali, Urdu and English out of her house. 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 B.A. in English literature in 1957 from the Miranda House of the University of Delhi. The following year she married Ashvin Desai, the director of a computer software company and author of the book Between Eternities: Ideas on Life and The Cosmos.
They have four children, including Booker Prize-winning novelist Kiran Desai. Her children were taken to Thul (near Alibagh) for weekends, where Desai set her novel The Village by the Sea. For that work she won the 1983 Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, a once-in-a-lifetime book award judged by a panel of British children's writers.
Desai published her first novel, Cry The Peacock, in 1963. In 1958 she collaborated with P. Lal and founded the publishing firm Writers Workshop. She considers Clear Light of Day (1980) her most autobiographical work as it is set during her coming of age and also in the same neighborhood in which she grew up.
In 1984, she published In Custody – about an Urdu poet in his declining days – which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In 1993, she became a creative writing teacher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The 1999 Booker Prize finalist novel Fasting, Feasting increased her popularity. Her novel The Zigzag Way, set in 20th-century Mexico, appeared in 2004 and her latest collection of short stories, The Artist of Disappearance, was published in 2011.
Desai has taught at Mount Holyoke College, Baruch College, and Smith College. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and of Girton College, Cambridge (to which she dedicated Baumgartner's Bombay).
In 1993, her novel In Custody was adapted by Merchant Ivory Productions into an English film by the same name, directed by Ismail Merchant, with a screenplay by Shahrukh Husain. It won the 1994 President of India Gold Medal for Best Picture and stars Shashi Kapoor, Shabana Azmi and Om Puri.