Anita Desai, the prolific Indian novelist and short story writer, is recognized for beautifully crafted books that explore complex emotional worlds. But where did this literary giant go to college and receive her formative education? Let’s trace Desai’s educational background and explore how it shaped her into one of the most celebrated authors of Indian diasporic fiction.
Quick Facts About Anita Desai
- Born on June 24, 1937 in Mussoorie, India
- Indian novelist, short story writer, and children’s author
- Writes primarily in English
- Fluent in English, German, and Hindi
- Received B.A. in English Literature from University of Delhi
- Extensive teaching career at Mount Holyoke College, Baruch College, Smith College, and MIT
- Recipient of numerous awards including Sahitya Akademi Award and Padma Bhushan
- Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the American Academy of Arts and Letters
- Currently resides in the United States
Early Life and Formative Education in Delhi
Anita Desai was born to a German mother and Bengali father in the hill station of Mussoorie in northern India. Desai’s mixed cultural heritageshaped her worldview from a young age. She grew up speaking German at home and learning English and Hindi in school.
Desai attended Queen Mary’s Higher Secondary School in Delhi, where she nurtured her passion for literature. As a voracious reader, Desai was drawn to writers such as D.H Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and William Golding. Their modernist sensibilities and psychologically penetrating storytelling left a deep impact on the young Desai.
After finishing school, Desai enrolled at Miranda House, a prestigious women’s college affiliated with Delhi University. Here, she completed her Bachelor’s degree in English Literature in 1957.
The English Department at Miranda House was known for its rigorous academic standards and exposure to both Indian and Western literary traditions. This intercultural environment fueled Desai’s ambitions as a writer. She engaged deeply with literary giants like T.S. Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Rabindranath Tagore, and Premchand. The curriculum nurtured both her creativity and analytical skills.
According to Desai, her college years were “intensely literary”. The Delhi University campus gave her access to libraries filled with books unavailable elsewhere in 1950s India. This oasis of learning expanded her intellectual and creative horizons.
Early Writing and Critical Acclaim
Shortly after graduation, Desai published her first novel, Cry, The Peacock in 1963. The book was instantly acclaimed for its unflinching portrayal of a disintegrating marriage and a woman’s alienation. This psychological intensity became a hallmark of Desai’s fiction.
Over the next decade, Desai published several novels and short story collections, further cementing her literary reputation. Her notable books from this period include Voices in the City (1965), Bye-Bye Blackbird (1971), and Fire on the Mountain (1977).
Desai’s writings offered a singular, feminist perspective on the porities of middle-class Indian society. Her female protagonists grappled with issues of identity, nationalism, and existential angst. Through lyrical prose and penetrating insights, she captured the complexity of human relationships.
Teaching Career Across College Campuses
In parallel with her writing, Desai nurtured an extensive teaching career. After spending years in India, she moved to the United States with her husband in the 1970s.
Desai taught English and creative writing courses at several American universities:
- Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts from 1978-1980
- Baruch College in New York City from 1981-1983
- Smith College in Massachusetts from 1984-1985
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1985-2012
At MIT, Desai served as the Director of Creative Writing and later as the Emerita John E. Burchard Professor of Humanities. She played a pivotal role in shaping MIT’s writing programs and nurturing emerging authors.
The classroom invigorated Desai’s own creativity. The insights gathered from teaching fed directly into her fiction writing. She often featured academic settings in books like Bye-Bye Blackbird and In Custody.
Mature Writing Phase and Notable Works
During the 1980s and 1990s, Desai produced some of her most complex and rewarding novels. Works like In Custody (1984) and Baumgartner’s Bombay (1988) displayed her nuanced understanding of human nature. They tackled themes of dislocation, cultural collision, and the erosion of values.
In Custody examines the decay of Urdu literary culture in post-colonial India. It won Desai a Sahitya Akademi Award from the Indian Academy of Letters. Baumgartner’s Bombay delves into the psyche of a German Jew seeking refuge in India after the Holocaust. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Desai also wrote memorable children’s books like The Village by the Sea (1982) and The Zigzag Way (2004). These books introduced younger readers to her humane storytelling.
Over a prolific six decade career, Desai has cemented her reputation as the “Mother of Indian Diasporic Fiction“. Her psychologically immersive stories spotlight the fractures inherent in modern Indian society.
Awards and Honors
Desai’s literary excellence has garnered her numerous honors:
- Sahitya Akademi Award (1978)
- Padma Shri (1977) and Padma Bhushan (2014) from the Indian government
- National Academy of Letters Award (1999)
- Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (London)
- Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (New York)
- Lifetime Achievement Award at Tata Literature Live! in 2018
Desai also holds honorary doctorates from Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and the University of Natal (South Africa).
Her alma mater, Delhi University, awarded Desai an honorary doctorate in 2006. This recognized her outstanding contributions as one of the university’s most acclaimed literary alumni.
Anita Desai’s formative college education at Delhi University ignited her creative genius and equipped her with the skills to become an exceptional writer. The intercultural environment and literary richness of Desai’s college years allowed her sensibilities to take flight.
Over her extensive career, Desai has beautifully captured the nuances of Indian society and the complex inner lives of women. Her psychologically insightful fiction has won Desai global recognition and innumerable accolades.
Desai’s journey illustrates the transformative power of a vibrant college education. The classroom incubates creativity, expands worldviews, and nurtures human potential. Anita Desai stands tall as one of Delhi University’s most outstanding alumnae and a pioneering voice in Indian literature.
Here are some additional authoritative links providing insights into Anita Desai’s background and literary works: