The beautiful, melancholy world of Anita Desai

The winner of the 2017 Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival's Grand Prix speaks to Eleanor Wachtel on stage at the festival in Montreal.
Anita Desai and Eleanor Wachtel at the 2017 Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal. (Sandra Rabinovitch/CBC)
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Anita Desai is one of India's most celebrated and successful writers. Over the course of her career, which has spanned almost five decades, she has written 17 novels, novellas and children's books. Desai has been nominated for the Man Booker Prize three times: in 1980 for Clear Light of Day, in 1984 for In Custody and in 1999 for Fasting, Feasting. She recently received Montreal's Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival Grand Prix, a lifetime achievement award.

Desai was born in India almost 80 years ago to a German mother and Bengali father. She moved to England in the 1980s and eventually settled in the United States. She writes with elegance and sensitivity about the collision of cultures. Her most recent work, a collection of novellas titled The Artist of Disappearance, features characters who have remained in India but are haunted by other lives.

Desai spoke with Eleanor Wachtel on stage at Blue Metropolis.

On her childhood in 1940s India

Apart from home, family and school, there is very little else I can tell you about, except that it was working up to this enormous cataclysm of the [1947] partition of India and Pakistan. Life had been so quiet before that, I couldn't quite understand what was happening all around me. Although I felt the effects: all of our Muslim neighbours and friends were suddenly disappearing and the city was flooded with refugees from Pakistan. It gave me my first experience of how the world can change within a brief lifetime.

On her mother's storytelling

She was a wonderful storyteller. She could tell us the familiar Grimm's fairy tales, but as no one else has ever told them to me. I've never heard them so wonderfully embroidered. In the same way, she could tell us about things like Christmas in Germany, or Easter, or skating on frozen lakes and eating strawberries in summer. It was all like fairy tales to us — it didn't resemble anything in our own world. We thought of them as these marvelous stories she spun, not realizing until we were grown up how much deep homesickness and nostalgia this must have come out of. She never spoke about that to us.

I visited Berlin [years later]. At that time there was still a wall across the city, so it didn't resemble at all what my mother had evoked in her stories. Besides, so much of it had been flattened during the war, and what had come up was a mostly modern city. It was very painful for me to go back and tell her that actually I couldn't find any of the things that she had told me to go and look for.

On breaking free from expectations

As a woman, you're expected to lead a certain kind of life. To do anything other than that is not looked upon as normal and one has to find a way to justify it. For instance, it wasn't expected of me to have a career and this is something I fought against. 

My novel In Custody was a revolt against being expected to write only about the domestic life of a woman, which I did several times in my earlier books. And then I myself found this world claustrophobic while writing about it. I wanted to open a door and step out into the world which lay right outside. Step into it and see what was happening there, and write about that.

Anita Desai's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close this interview: "Reunion" by Anoushka Shankar, from the album "Land of Gold."