Culture – Anita Desai in Town

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Anita Desai in Delhi

The venerable novelist visits her old city.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi. The pictures cannot be reproduced anywhere without his permission.]

The other evening a tiny slice of Delhi’s reading people gathered in the garden auditorium of Triveni Kala Sangam at Tansen Marg. Anita Desai was in town to discuss her work with fellow novelist Rana Dasgupta. The event, organized by Random House India, unrolled in the usual pleasant manner. Mr. Dasgupta’s queries were intelligent; Ms. Desai’s responses were thoughtful; and there was applause at the end.

No doubt it was a special occasion. A rare public sighting of Ms. Desai. With her gentle voice, tender features, and silver-white hair, she seemed to belong to a time and place very different from ours.

Born 70 years ago in Mussoorie, Anita Mazumdar Desai grew up speaking neither English nor Hindi as her first language. It was German. Her mother was from Germany and her father was a Bengali businessman. Later, Ms. Desai went on to establish a deep bond with Delhi. It was here that she spent her college years getting a degree in English Literature from Miranda House. It was here that she chose to set up a house in the initial years of her marriage. It was here that her novelist daughter, Kiran, was born. She now spends her time in US.

During her conversations at Triveni, Ms. Desai remarked that though she “feels about India as an Indian,” she thinks about it “as an outsider.”

That’s why it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if Ms. Desai had written elegant novels on upper class rituals. She only had to take the cue from her Jewish neighbour in old Delhi-Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, an author of exotic Anglo-Indian romances like Heat and Dust. But, Ms. Desai did it differently. Among her fine works, the one which The Delhi Walla strongly recommends is In Custody, a novel about an Urdu poet in his declining years.

It is one of those books that have delved deep into the soul of Delhi and brought alive the manners of its people quite evocatively. Sample this excerpt:

Nur eating was not at all a dignified or impressive sight: he plunged his hands into the food, lowered his face into it, lifted handfuls to his mouth from where it dropped or leaked on to his lap…but suddenly lifting his head, with grains of rice and drops of gravy sticking to various portions of it, Nur called across to him, “How do you like our Jama Masjid cooking, my friend?”

How did the lady do her research? Did she dine with people having such eating habits? Perhaps she must have had numerous walks in the old quarters when she was a Delhi walli. The details could have come out of those excursions. Try this:

If it had not been for the colour and the noise, Chandni Chowk might have been a bazaar encountered in a nightmare…The heat and the crowds pressed down from above and all sides…in the sari lane, lurid Japanese nylon saris were covered with octopi and spiders of flower patterns and nets of gold and silver embroidery flashed from doorways like gaudy but shimmering prostitutes propositioning the passers-by…

Honest impressions of a writer who could not find any romance even in the fabled Chandni Chowk. Delhi is that kind of unsettling place. Quiet people like Ms. Desai would always be troubled by its bustle.

At another place in the novel, Ms. Desai writes about “poison-green and red sherbets in bottles topped with lemons and carrot juice in damp, oozing earthen jars.” Here lies some comfort. The first impression (“poison-green”) made by the author is scary but she stays long to come across other details too. Details which were more endearing: lemons, carrot juice, and damp, oozing earthen jars.

Delhi too is like this. To an outsider, the city can be repulsive during the first encounter but it grows enchanting if you allow some time to mature. The capital then gradually unravels to show glimpses of beauty to those who are seeking for it. Ms. Desai has experienced that. Shaayad.

In Thrall

Anita Desai in Delhi

I Have Lived Through Many Books

Anita Desai in Delhi

Facing an Autograph Seeker

Who is She?

Two Novelists on Stage

Anita Desai in Delhi

Attentive Audience

Anita Desai in Delhi

May I Leave?

She is Anita Desai