Novelist Anita Desai has joined the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies in MIT's first professorial appointment primarily in fiction writing in more than 20 years.
Professor Desai is the author of eight novels, including the internationally acclaimed Clear Light of Day (1980) and In Custody (1984), both of which were finalists for the Booker Prize, Great Britain's highest literary honor. Before coming to MIT, she was Purington Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College and divided her time between the United States, India and England. She was born in Mussoorie, India, and educated in Delhi, where she received an AB in English literature from the University of Delhi.
Most of Professor Desai's novels are set in India and completely immersed in Indian life. According to Professor Alan Lightman, head of WHS, her novels are distinguished by her focus on the inner life of her characters and her concern with people previously marginalized in Indian fiction, primarily women, children and the elderly.
"She is a novelist of the human psyche, and she approaches her subjects quietly and delicately," Professor Lightman said. "She is one of the world's most distinguished novelists in English."
Author Anne Tyler has written about Clear Light of Day that Anita Desai is "unexcelled at conveying an atmosphere. [she] takes us so deeply into another world that we almost fear we won't be able to climb out again." Salman Rushdie has written that In Custody "brilliantly portrays the world of male friendship in order to demonstrate how this, too, is part of the process by which women are excluded from power over their own lives."
"Anita Desai is a tremendous addition to the humanities and to creative writing at MIT," said Philip S. Khoury, dean of the School of Humanities and Social Science. "She is a novelist of international distinction who brings a wonderfully bicultural approach to her fiction and teaching."
Professor Desai won the Winifred Holtby Prize of the Royal Society of Literature for her novel Fire on the Mountain (1978) and the Guardian Award for Children's Literature for Village by the Sea (1984). She also received the Padma Sri Award from the government of India and the Taraknath Das Award for Promotion of Indo-US Relations. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature of London and was recently elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Merchant-Ivory Productions ("A Room With a View") has just completed a film based on Professor Desai's novel In Custody. The film, for which she wrote the screenplay, will be premiered in November.
A version of this article appeared in the September 29, 1993 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 8).