A corpulent young man with a mop of black hair took the microphone, cleared his throat, adjusted his oversized spectacles and stammered a question:
"Ms Desai, you serve as an inspiration a source of hope to countless young writers in India. But, for you, was there ever a mentor?"
As the balmy afternoon sun receded and the nip of New Delhi's winter took hold, Anita Desai, dressed in an elegant black and white striped sari, looking every bit India's literary queen, opened up to her audience.
"When I first started writing, I believed it was impossible for a woman living a traditional, domestic life in India to achieve any measure of success in that field. Then, I met my neighbour, an elderly lady who had a few significant published works. I loved going to her house, borrowing her books and discussing them with her. Through those experiences, I saw this woman, who was relatively detached from the public sphere and living a domestic life, as someone I could emulate. Her kind words, and more important, her example, showed me the possibilities. And I didn't look back."
Thus, in the early 1960s, surfaced one of India's most cherished novelists. Forty-four years later, on November 30, she was made a Sahitya Akademi Fellow -- the 75th person to be so named since the award’s inception. It is also India's highest literary honour.
In order to commemorate this achievement, three of her seminal works -- Baumgartner's Bombay, Clear Light of Day and In Custody -- were re-released on Saturday, December 1, at the Triveni Kala Sangam in New Delhi. They feature new introductions from Salman Rushdie, Kamila Shamsie and Suketu Mehta.
An intimate crowd of around fifty people gathered for the re-release.
There, Anita and nascent UK-born author Rana Dasgupta (Tokyo Cancelled, 2005) engaged in an hour long discussion that used the three books as medium through which to explore literature and life in equal parts.
Anita, now 70 years old, had clearly mastered a wide range of issues and topics; her comments were witty, well-chosen and succinct. As she weighed her words and articulated her thoughts, one couldn't help but be awed by her evident genius.
After the conversation with Rana, Anita engaged directly with the audience. She fielded questions on her life as a female author in India, the impetus for moving to America and modern India as material for young novelists.
Text: Matthew Schneeberger | Photographs: Rajesh Karkera
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Also read: Salute Anita Desai!