In the 1960s, Anita Desai was a young mother when she sent her work to a British publisher from her home in India: “I lived in a very ordinary, traditional Indian family. I had four children... I did my writing in secret. I used to pull out my notebooks as soon as I’d seen the children off to school and quickly put them all away before they came home. The children say now that it was always like some kind of magic. ‘We never saw you writing and then one day there was a book lying on the table.’”
In the 50-odd years since her literary career began, Desai has written 15 works of fiction, the latest of which, The Artist of Disappearance (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is a collection of three novellas set in India’s recent past. The first, “The Museum of Final Journeys,” tells the story of a civil servant who stumbles across a treasure trove in a decrepit mansion watched over only by an equally decrepit old servant. When asked about the genesis of this novella, Desai recounts a recent trip to Venice: “The whole idea came to me while walking through the Museum of Oriental Art because it was an odd collection, put together by an Italian aristocrat who traveled in the east and sent back all these art objects to his home. I thought what a perfect story it made. And the very first thought I had was that I would situate [the novella] in Venice, but that would have taken a lot of research... and I didn’t want to do that, so I set it in India, remembering an experience I’d had long, long ago as a very young woman, staying with my sister, a civil servant. She used to sometimes take me with her through the backwaters of Bengal and there used to be these old mansions crumbling away in ruins, standing there in isolation in the fields, so that seemed to be a good fit for the museum I had in mind.”
Silence. A smile. Is there more? But what’s so refreshing about Anita Desai is that she’s a modern literary writer with a straightforward approach to her work. For all the awards (and there have been many, including India’s top literary accolade, the Sahitya Akademi Award), the Ph.D. theses, and the literary journalism that has been devoted to her, Anita Desai talks of her writing as simply “stories,” and of herself as a storyteller.
Yet she doesn’t eschew India’s most vexing questions: colonialism, the place of women in Indian society, the caste system. “Translator, Translated,” the second novella in The Artist of Disappearance, deals with a translator who is lambasted for translating into English a book written in an obscure Indian language. Asked about writing in English, Desai says, “Most of the books that were around us were English books... so that was always the literary language to me, but,” she adds, “I was very frustrated at not being able to write in more than one language. My [written] Hindi simply wasn’t good enough.
“When I was a young woman, that was the great debate; could you write about India in a foreign language, in a colonial language? There are so many Indian experiences and objects for which there isn’t even an English vocabulary... I think that debate has rather died down because everyone’s realized English hasn’t gone away; the English have gone, but the language stayed, and it’s probably considered even more highly now than it used to be, because it gives you the key to a wider world.”
The wider world, for Desai, was time teaching at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., before settling into a long teaching career in the U.S., most notably at M.I.T., where she spent 10 years. Now she has retired to a quiet, cozy house in upstate New York, where she’s often joined by her daughter, the writer Kiran Desai, who won the Man Booker prize in 2006 for The Inheritance of Loss. (Between them, the two women have been nominated four times.)
“I find it such a wonderfully conducive atmosphere because she doesn’t question the time that I spend working,” Desai says of her daughter. “She knows that she can’t be in the same room and chatter with me and I wouldn’t do that to her, and yet it’s very comfortable to come together in the evening and talk about our writing.”
Does Kiran take her mother’s suggestions? Another smile. “Sometimes.”