Anita Desai was born on June 24th, 1937 in Mussoorie, India. Her mother was German and her father was Bengalese, and she was the youngest of four children. She grew up in New Delhi, speaking German at home and Hindi with her friends and neighbours. English, however, was the language in which she learned to read and write, at the missionary school in Old Delhi, and English was the language she chose for her first stories and reviews, published in her school and university magazines.
She received her degree in English Literature from the University of New Delhi in 1958.
In the same year she married Ashrin Desai. They have four children: Rahul, Tani, Arjun, and Kiran, who is also a writer.
When Anita Desai published her first novel, Cry, The Peacock, in 1964, there were very few Indian authors writing in English, and among them extremely few women. But, “in the great sea of Indian languages”, this was the language in which she chose to express herself. She wrote novels, short stories, children’s books, reviews and brief essays.
In 1978, Anita Desai received two prestigious awards for her novel Fire on the Mountain: the Sahitya Akademi Award in India, and the Winifred Holtby Award of the Royal Society of Literature in Great Britain. In 1980 she received the Padma Sri Award from the Indian government.
Since then she has received numerous other distinctions, including the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award (1983) for The Village by the Sea, and the Royal Society of Literature’s Benson Medal (2003). In Italy she was awarded the Premio Moravia in 1999 for Notte e nebbia a Bombay (Baumgartner’s Bombay); and the Premio Grinzane Cavour “Una vita per la letteratura” (A life for literature) in 2005.
Three of her novels – Clear Light of Day, In Custody, and Baumgartner’s Bombay – were finalists for the Booker Prize.
Anita Desai is an honorary member of the Royal Society of Literature and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She taught as Helen Cam Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge; and as Greensleeves Professor at Barnard College in New York. In the United States she was also professor of Indian Literature for five years at Smith College and Mount Holyoke College; and she taught for ten years in the Program for Writing and Humanistic Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is professor emeritus.
Today Anita Desai dedicates her time exclusively to writing and occasional literary criticism. She is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books.
She has lived in India – Calcutta, Bombay, New Delhi – and in England, and she now divides her time between Mexico and the United States, making occasional trips to India.