When I think of Anita Desai I see her most clearly as a figure standing, as an equal, beside Jane Austen, that other great Indian novelist, creator of brave, brilliant women trapped by conservative social mores into becoming mere husband-hunters, women who would be very recognizable to denizens of, for example, the Delhi of Clear Light of Day. And because while she is wholly Indian she is also half-European I think of her in the company of other insider-outsiders such as the white Caribbean novelist Jean Rhys, author of Wide Sargasso Sea, or the half-Sikh, half-Hungarian painter Amrita Sher-Gil. Nor should Anita Desai be placed in exclusively female company. As In Custody makes plain, she has cared as much about, and been shaped as deeply by, the great (male) Urdu poets as by any woman’s poems.
Here, Rushdie holds forth on the decline of his mother tongue, Urdu:
In Custody was, therefore, a novel of transformation for its author, a doubly remarkable piece of work, because in this magnificent book Anita Desai chose to write not of solitude but of friendship, of the perils and responsibilities of joining oneself to others rather than holding oneself apart. And at the same time she wrote, for the first time, a very public fiction, shedding the reserve of the earlier books to take on such sensitive themes as the unease of minority communities in modern India, the new imperialism of the Hindi language, and the decay that, now even more than when the book was written, was and is all too tragically evident throughout the fissuring body of Indian society. The courage of the novel is considerable, and so is its prescience. The slow death of my mother-tongue, Urdu, is much further advanced than it was twenty-three years ago, and much that was beautiful in the culture of Old Delhi has slipped away for ever.