Anita Desai is the author, most recently, of The Artist of Disappearance, a collection of three novellas. (October 2015)

The Real India

A shrine to the Hindu goddess Kali on the banks of the Ganges River, Calcutta, 1987; photograph by Raghu Rai
Such is the power of the image of Mahatma Gandhi as a saint of iconolatry, emaciated, half-naked, bent over a walking stick as he leads India’s masses to freedom from imperial power without ever raising a gun or a hand or even his voice, that the impression of India’s freedom …

Dining Out and In Calcutta

A café at one of Calcutta’s new shopping malls, 2006
I was twenty when my family gave up our home in Old Delhi and moved to Bengal in the late 1950s. I thought Calcutta the first metropolis I had set eyes on. Delhi, although the capital since 1912, in the 1950s was still little more than a cluster of villages …

A Different Gandhi

Gandhi in South Africa, recuperating from a severe beating by Pathans on the day he went to register under the ‘Black Act’ as an Indian living in the Transvaal, 1908; photograph by Joseph Doke, Gandhi’s first biographer
Even in his lifetime the legend of Mahatma Gandhi had grown to such proportions that the man himself can be said to have disappeared into a dust storm. Joseph Lelyveld’s new biography sets out to find him. Lelyveld’s argument is that it was South Africa, where Gandhi arrived as a twenty- three-year-old law clerk in 1893, that made him the visionary and leader of legend. Lelyveld is not the first or only historian to have pointed out such a progression but he brings to it an intimate knowledge based on his years as a foreign correspondent in both South Africa and India.

In Love with Andhra

David Shulman near a temple to Sarasvati, the Hindu goddess of arts and learning, on the banks of the Godavari River in Basara, Andhra Pradesh, India, 2006
What is it that makes someone brought up in one culture, one environment, travel to the one most unlike it and embrace it as his own? Could there be a world more different from the farmlands of Iowa than the delta of the Godavari River in Andhra Pradesh in south-central …

Elektra in Tehran

Azar Nafisi as a teenager, Tehran, early 1960s; photographs from Nafisi’s memoir, <i>Things I’ve Been Silent About</i>
An ominous title. Opening the new book by the author of the phenomenally successful and greatly loved Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), one wonders if it will contain further revelations about the revolution in Iran that she survived, and even triumphed over, by her passion—and her ability to convey that …

What If?

“Playful” is probably the last adjective one would think to use for the oeuvre of the Primo Levi who wrote Survival in Auschwitz, describing the ordeal he lived through but never left behind. And yet, on reading the latest collection of his stories to be translated into English, A Tranquil …

Pilgrim’s Progress

In July 1931, a young Indian student named Shanti Seth arrived in Berlin to study dentistry. His eldest brother, Raj, who was a father figure to him, had said, “In our family we have an engineer, an accountant, a judge and a doctor, but no dentist. Why don’t you train …

A Shadow World

While reading several new novels published this past spring, one is struck by the way that the British novelists who take up the issues of our times prefer to do so not directly but at an angle. There is Ian McEwan, who, in addressing the shock of 9/11 (or 11/9 …

Backstage in the Tropics

Serendip. Its exquisite placement—poring over the map in school, we used to think it was like a precious pendant suspended from the necklace shape of India, lying on the breast of the Indian Ocean—and the very name of the island conjure up a vision of an earthly paradise. So it …

Revenge Tragedy

In 1983 a book by the young writer Graham Swift was published in England that caused a stir, even a storm, of interest. Waterland was like a magical island that had risen overnight out of a flat and watery marshland, making one rub one’s eyes in disbelief. The story he …

Cards of Identity

Eva Hoffman’s previous books have been piercingly specific about time and place—a Polish shtetl, the Holocaust, the New World as experienced by a new immigrant. In her first novel, The Secret, she abandons that grounding in the historical moment and space and goes the whole fictional length into an imagined …

Passion in Lahore

There is a wonderfully eloquent word in Urdu for the times, the age: it is zamana. To hear an elder take a puff at his hookah and sigh, “Such is our zamana,” or a youth, while cocking an eyebrow and shrugging his shoulders, trying to explain “our zamana” is to …

The Crack In the China

To open William Trevor’s new novel and begin to read is to step into a rarefied world as of a perfect English garden where tea is served on a golden afternoon. It is easy to be beguiled by its harmonies and its design although after a little while one could …

Damsels in Distress

Inevitably, the sequel to a book that has delighted its readers by its discoveries and its fresh insights and visions will disappoint when it does not repeat its achievement. When we come to the second volume of Women Writing in India, the ground has already been broken, the pioneering zest …

Sitting Pretty

The character Vikram Seth chooses in his novel A Suitable Boy to represent himself is not one of the central characters; it is Amit the poet who “was sitting pretty in his father’s house and doing nothing that counted as real work,” which happens to be the writing of an …

‘Women Well Set Free’

In 1910, Bangalore Nagaratnamma, described as “a patron of the arts, a learned woman, a musician, and a distinguished courtesan,” decided to reprint the Telugu classic, Radhika Santwanam (Appeasing Radhika) by the eighteenth-century poet Muddupalani “not only [because it was] written by a woman, but by one who was born …

India: The Seed of Destruction

—New Delhi In India, the line between the sacred and the secular is a thin and wavering one. Together, they weave a web, and the web is spun by its people who are also its captives. The gods do not reside in some towering cathedral or remote shrine; they …

Jews, Indians, and Imperialists

In 1919, at a public meeting held to consider the question of Zionism, an Indian Jew, David Erulkar, argued that “to form a Jewish nation from peoples who were widely divergent in their civilizations, ways of thought, and economic conditions…would be to set back the world’s progress by several centuries.” …