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Anita Desai
Born Anita Mazumdar
(1937-06-24) 24 June 1937 (age 85)
Occupation Writer, professor
Nationality Indian
Alma mater University of Delhi
Period 1963–present
Genre Fiction
Children 4, including Kiran Desai

Anita Desai, born Anita Mazumdar (born 24 June 1937) is an Indian novelist and the Emerita John E. Burchard Professor of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a writer she has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times. She received a Sahitya Akademi Award in 1978 for her novel Fire on the Mountain, from the Sahitya Akademi, India's National Academy of Letters. She won the British Guardian Prize for The Village by the Sea.

Early life

Desai was born in 1937 in Mussoorie, India, to a German immigrant mother, Toni Nime, and a Bengali businessman, D. N. Mazumdar. Her Bengali father first met her German mother while he was an engineering student in pre-war Berlin; and they got married during a period when it was still unusual for an Indian man to marry a European woman. Shortly after their marriage, they moved to New Delhi, where Desai was raised with her two elder sisters and brother.

She grew up speaking Hindi with her neighbours, and only German at her home. She also spoke Bengali, Urdu and English out of her house. She first learned to read and write in English at school and as a result, English became her "literary language". She began to write in English at the age of seven and published her first story at the age of nine.

She was a student at Queen Mary's Higher Secondary School in Delhi and received her B.A. in English literature in 1957 from the Miranda House of the University of Delhi. The following year she married Ashvin Desai, the director of a computer software company and author of the book Between Eternities: Ideas on Life and The Cosmos.

They have four children, including Booker Prize-winning novelist Kiran Desai. Her children were taken to Thul (near Alibagh) for weekends, where Desai set her novel The Village by the Sea. For that work she won the 1983 Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, a once-in-a-lifetime book award judged by a panel of British children's writers.


Desai published her first novel, Cry The Peacock, in 1963. In 1958 she collaborated with P. Lal and founded the publishing firm Writers Workshop. She considers Clear Light of Day (1980) her most autobiographical work as it is set during her coming of age and also in the same neighborhood in which she grew up.

In 1984, she published In Custody – about an Urdu poet in his declining days – which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In 1993, she became a creative writing teacher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The 1999 Booker Prize finalist novel Fasting, Feasting increased her popularity. Her novel The Zigzag Way, set in 20th-century Mexico, appeared in 2004 and her latest collection of short stories, The Artist of Disappearance, was published in 2011.

Desai has taught at Mount Holyoke College, Baruch College, and Smith College. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and of Girton College, Cambridge (to which she dedicated Baumgartner's Bombay).


In 1993, her novel In Custody was adapted by Merchant Ivory Productions into an English film by the same name, directed by Ismail Merchant, with a screenplay by Shahrukh Husain. It won the 1994 President of India Gold Medal for Best Picture and stars Shashi Kapoor, Shabana Azmi and Om Puri.


  • 1978 – Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize – Fire on the Mountain
  • 1978 – Sahitya Akademi Award (National Academy of Letters Award) – Fire on the Mountain
  • 1980 – Shortlisted, Booker Prize for Fiction – Clear Light of Day
  • 1983 – Guardian Children's Fiction Prize – The Village by the Sea: an Indian family story
  • 1984 – Shortlisted, Booker Prize for Fiction – In Custody
  • 1993 – Neil Gunn Prize
  • 1999 – Shortlisted, Booker Prize for Fiction: Fasting, Feasting
  • 2000 – Alberto Moravia Prize for Literature (Italy)
  • 2003 – Benson Medal of Royal Society of Literature
  • 2007 – Sahitya Akademi Fellowship
  • 2014 – Padma Bhushan

Selected works

  • The Artist of Disappearance (2011)
  • The Zigzag Way (2004)
  • Diamond Dust and Other Stories (2000)
  • Fasting, Feasting (1999)
  • Journey to Ithaca (1995)
  • Baumgartner's Bombay (1988)
  • In Custody (1984)
  • The Village by the Sea (1982)
  • Clear Light of Day (1980)
  • Games at Twilight (1978)
  • Fire on the Mountain (1977)
  • Cat on a Houseboat (1976)
  • Where Shall We Go This Summer? (1975)
  • The Peacock Garden (1974)
  • Bye-bye Blackbird (1971)
  • Voices in the City (1965)
  • Cry, The Peacock (1963)
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