The portrayal of Indian women in the novels by Anita Desai

By Bharat Yadav & Priya Chetty on October 8, 2022

Anita Desai was born in 1937 to a Bengali father and a German mother. She belongs to a rare interracial relationship between an Asian (Indian) man and a European (German) woman. Born and brought up in Delhi, she grew up in a multicultural household, fluent in German and Hindi. She also learned Urdu, Bengali, and English, the latter of which became her craft language. She began writing at the tender age of seven. One of the first novels by Anita Desai was published at the age of nine.

Anita Desai is an Indo-American author by style. Her fictional worlds are filled with transcultural encounters while highlighting the plight of women, providing a window into the lives of suppressed women living in patriarchal societies (Gupta).

Anita Desai is a notable writer of psychological fiction on Indian women

Anita Desai has written and introduced a new genre of psychological novels dealing with women in India. She got popular for her explorations of the psyche of the female characters while situating them in peculiar settings where thematic concerns lie in the domain of female sensibility. While not identifying as a feminist, novels by Anita Desai create fictional worlds that permeate the female consciousness, straying away from labels.

Anita Desai does not deal with subjects that are the domain of a feminist academic. A further refinement exists between feminine sensibility and the feminist approach. The novelist attempting to capture feminine sensitivity does not hesitate to highlight the similar responsibilities of female characters. While a feminist attempt to perceive only the concealment, abuse, brutalities, and horrible crimes committed against women in the past, connects these wonders to the present. Novels by Anita Desai do not follow this type of belief system. The feminine characters in the novels are oppressed and introspecting women are stuck within the patriarchal bounds of the traditional family and society. The novels often portray women’s existence and their limits of freedom bound to the patriarchs of the family. The women characters in the novels often are discontent with their lives, searching for fulfilment and self-existence.

Haunted by a sense of doom, so they withdraw themselves into a sequestered world of their own, become neurotic, self-destructive and unhappy.

Bilquees Dar

Tragedy and relationships in the novel ‘The Cry of the Peacock’

A very popular novel by Anita Desai, The Cry of the Peacock (1963), explores the unique female sensibility of ‘Maya’, a motherless child who was parented only by her father. Thus the character has a very close relationship with the father. Her childhood remains happy but unnatural as she realised in retrospect after her marriage to Gautama. Her marriage makes her life increasingly restrictive, and Maya feels lonely and powerless in her marriage, exacerbated by her economic dependence on her husband.

Eternally torn between her loneliness and fear of society, Maya kills Gautama and commits suicide. The story deals with not just the external but also the internal stresses of the women’s life. Her lonesome marriage to Gautama, who was double her age, rational and detached, adds to her world of silence filled with melancholy (Vashisth).

Isolation and rebellion in ‘The Voices of the City‘ novel by Anita Desai

In another novel, The Voices of the City (1965), where three siblings Nirodha, Amla, and Monisha take the centre stage. While Nirodha remains the protagonist, Amla and Monisha are presented as two contrasts. Monisha is married to Jiban, a moralist who asks for more friendliness from her towards his family. Monisha’s longing for privacy makes her nostalgic for her childhood but also pushes her towards isolation.

Monisha leads a subservient life dedicated to Jiban and his joint family, and consequently, she is made aware of the meaninglessness of her existence. The breaking point comes when she is accused of stealing money for her brother’s medical expenses. Heartbroken and disillusioned, she lights herself on fire.

Monisha’s sister Amla, is presented as a foil. She is a rebellious woman who goes against societal norms. Her short-lived infatuation with Dharma proves to be a short relief, as she still experiences an intense urge to communicate, making her consciousness profoundly feminine (RANI).

Battling patriarchy and finding purpose in Anita Desai’s novel ‘Fasting, Feasting’

In the novel Fasting, Feasting (1999), Desai breaks the novel into two parts. The first deals with the spinster Uma, who is stuck living with her parents and is fasting. The second half deals with the boy Arun, who is sent abroad to America to study and is feasting. Uma’s life is bound strictly within the confine of her father’s house, taking precedence over her own. Her feelings and needs are always secondary and often ignored. Her mother plays the part of the enforcing patriarch. She is viewed as ugly and undesirable by all, including her parents and potential suitors for marriage.

Uma’s pilgrimage with Mira-Masi opened her up to the desires she had pushed down into her unconscious. The thoughts she would have in her room when her parents were out of the house. She becomes increasingly conflicted about her existence and the paths she should take in life. Arun reaches a position of women’s condition from the outside as he is constantly forced to go out and get the best the world has to offer. While Uma reaches her desires from the confinements of solid traditional familial bonds (VOLNÁ).

Submission and rebellion of women in Clear Light of the Day

Anita Desai’s Clear Light of the Day (1980) envisions two kinds of women, one who submits and carries tradition and the other is the new-age woman who is rebellious and resists the impositions of society. The novel’s protagonist, Bim, is a strong woman who is independent. She becomes financially independent and puts herself through the education of history.

The twist occurs at the loss of her parents when the clear-headed Bim is contrasted to her sister Tara who chooses to escape from her marriage. Bim doesn’t falter and educates her brothers and sisters and marries them. She remains an unmarried literate woman who teaches history, and all luxuries she can afford are buying books to read.

Another character, Mira-Masi, is also shown as the old woman who encircles herself with her husband and her children to escape the harsher realities. Bim finds her life detestable and pitiful (Singh). Thus, Desai’s concept of the new woman, not an ideal or best woman, is based on the woman’s desire to preserve her agency and act against the societal forces that work to bind her to traditional norms.

The novels by Anita Desai portray feminism as a hidden note

Writing is a process of discovering the truth that is nine-tenth of the iceberg, that lies submerged beneath the one-tenth visible portion we call reality. Writing is my way of plunging to the depths and exploring this underlying truth. All my writing is an effort to discover, to underline and convey the true significance of things.

Anita Desai

Her works reflect the women’s psyche, which is often absent from the literature. In a review of one of Amitav Ghosh’s books, she criticized him for confining women’s experiences to the outer worlds. This phenomenon isn’t exceedingly common, especially in South Asian literary cultures. Desai’s works often end in tragedies reflecting their tragic existence.

The novels by Anita Desai portray women stuck in a man’s world with helplessness and frustration born out of silence. This subservient existence where her perspectives often remain unsaid and unexplained. Desai’s feminine sensibility explores their areas of womanhood and femininity in detail and has started a feminist discourse that is distinctly Indian.


  • Bli, Edited by Corinne Demas. “AGAINST THE CURRENT: A CONVERSATION WITH ANITA DESA.” The Massachusetts Review 29.3 (1988).
  • Dar, Bilquees. “Feminine Sensibility In Anita Desai’s Cry, The Peacock.” IOSR Journal Of Humanities And Social Science 12.2 (2013).
  • Gupta, Ramesh Kumar. The Novels of Anita Desai: A Feminist Perspective. Atlantic, 2002.
  • Kumari, Dr. Baby. “Anita Desai as a feminist: With reference to her novels.” International Journal of Applied Research 4.1 (2018).
  • RANI, Dr. S. LATHA. “PROJECTION OF FEMININE SENSIBILITY IN ANITA DESAI’S “VOICES IN THE CITY”.” International Journal of English Language, Literature and Translation Studies 3.4 (2016).
  • Singh, Dr. Dhanpal. “The Concept Of ‘New Woman’ In Anita Desai’s ‘Clear Light Of The Day’.” Shabd Brahma (2016).
  • Vashisth, Dr. Neeraj. “Raising the Feministic Voice: A Study of Anita Desai’s Novels.” Journal of Advances and Scholarly Researches in Allied Education XVI.1 (2017).
  • VOLNÁ, Ludmila. “Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting and the Condition of Women.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and 7.3 (2005).

Priya is the co-founder and Managing Partner of Project Guru, a research and analytics firm based in Gurgaon. She is responsible for the human resource planning and operations functions. Her expertise in analytics has been used in a number of service-based industries like education and financial services.

Her foundational educational is from St. Xaviers High School (Mumbai). She also holds MBA degree in Marketing and Finance from the Indian Institute of Planning and Management, Delhi (2008).

Some of the notable projects she has worked on include:

  • Using systems thinking to improve sustainability in operations: A study carried out in Malaysia in partnership with Universiti Kuala Lumpur.
  • Assessing customer satisfaction with in-house doctors of Jiva Ayurveda (a project executed for the company)
  • Predicting the potential impact of green hydrogen microgirds (A project executed for the Government of South Africa)

She is a key contributor to the in-house research platform Knowledge Tank.

She currently holds over 300 citations from her contributions to the platform.

She has also been a guest speaker at various institutes such as JIMS (Delhi), BPIT (Delhi), and SVU (Tirupati).


I am pursuing my PhD at the Inter and Transdisciplinary School in IGNOU. I am currently working as a freelance content writer, academic writer and editor. I have worked on several projects with a wide range of portfolios ranging from social sciences, culture, and history to science and technology. I also have experience working as a lecturer. Thus, I am well aware of the desired requirements for academic and corporate essays and article writing.