There is a clear division in the minds of most readers between writers who write guidebook-fiction, and writers who write to understand their world, and end by changing yours.
Fiction-as-guidebook writers are often technically dazzling – Jonathan Lethem, Philip Roth – but in essence, they do not write to understand their world, but to explain it to others. Anita Desai is the other kind of writer, lining up with an Alice Munro or a Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Their books start by exploring what is already familiar, and grow far beyond the bounds of autobiography.
Few writers have come so close to capturing the truth of what it means to live a perfectly ordinary – and implicitly extraordinary – life as Ms Desai has, and few writers have looked as keenly as she has at the human condition. She doesn’t eschew publicity as much as she sidesteps the circus, preferring to get on with her life and her writing rather than go through the performance of being a Writer, unlike so many of her contemporaries.
And that might add an extra layer of warmth when she receives the lifetime achievement award at the Times of India literature festival next month in Mumbai: her admirers know more about the work than the writer, a welcome rarity today.
The sweep of the work and its continued power over the decades is dazzling, even when you consider the “23 changes of address” in Anita Desai’s life. The first novel (Cry, The Peacock, 1963) is revealing: a novel ostensibly about marriage follows the protagonist’s flight into madness. Never trust the surface of things in Ms Desai’s fiction; nine-tenths of what is important happens just below.
Bye, Bye Blackbird, often read as a semi-autobiographical immigrant novel, for instance, explores a London “imprinted imperially” on the mind of one character by Dickens and Lamb, Addison and Boswell, who in turn might be seen as yet another brown face in a city of “filthy Asian immigrants”. Clear Light of Day (1980) was perhaps her last autobiographical novel; while she would continue to return to the past to understand the present, it was the past of fictional strangers that would occupy her most.
Many years ago, I was told that Anita Desai was a “woman’s writer”, a lazy label. In the case of Ms Desai, it meant that she wrote with a deceptive quietness, her prose rich and layered but never flamboyant. Or perhaps it meant that she wrote often about women and families, treating them as subjects of equal seriousness as, say, the changing environment, or the life of a Berlin Jew trying to find a way out of the past into the present in Bombay, or the blurred lines between the truly creative and their accompanists.
Either way, it seems an inadequate label for a writer known for her broad, wide-ranging explorations steered by a subtle mind. In a conversation with her daughter, the novelist Kiran Desai, she says: “My early books belonged to one world. Then the world widened, became more scattered, and dispersed.”
If you had to pick three of her most memorable characters, the breadth of Anita Desai’s world becomes immediately apparent. From the early short stories, there was the accompanist: the tanpura player, always in the background, in thrall to the great musician who is his creative superior. (There’s an echo of the same themes in The Artist of Disappearance, where Prema Joshi believes that “the act of translation” brings her and the author whose work she translates together “as if we were one, two compatible halves of one writer”.)
From the novels of the 1980s steps the refugee figure of Baumgartner, with the habits of a hermit growing upon him as he looks after his cats, far from Berlin, far from the concentration camps, adrift in Bombay and Calcutta. (Animals are a natural part of Ms Desai’s stories, from the cat in Clear Light of Day – “black and bitter at being stranded” in a tree – to the poisoned dog who trails through The Village by the Sea, a canine casualty in a human skirmish, just as much as the landscape might be for another writer.) There were many others, from ordinary, dull, trapped Uma in Fasting, Feasting to Dona Vera, Queen of the Sierra in Mexico in The Zigzag Way. But perhaps the most interesting of them all is the poet Nur, his grandeur crumbling and changing as swiftly as the city of Delhi itself, too drunk to preserve his own legend for posterity.
Some years ago, when Anita Desai’s books were released in new editions, it seemed appropriate that the introductions to them were written by her peers, and by the generation that followed her, from M G Vassanji to Rana Dasgupta. There’s a reason why writers – and anyone who wants to be a writer – read Ms Desai’s fiction. As a character says in The Museum of Final Journeys in another context, “whole worlds are encrypted here”.