Writer Anita Desai was recently made a Sahitya Akademi Fellow. She tells Renuka Narayanan about the horrors of translations, the current crop of ‘shortcut’ writers and how she’s keeping a low profile in post-9/11 America.
You’re the only writer in English, after RK Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand, to be Sahitya Akademi’s Fellows. What will you do with it?
I don’t know, yet.
Translations from bhasha into English. Could you influence a quality improvement there?
I really wonder why those translations are done and who reads them. I don’t know if there is room for me to do anything. They have a board. <b1>
You’ve retired from teaching at MIT. What do you do now?
I live very quietly. I have a house in a tiny village an hour away from New York City. And because I can no longer stand the extreme cold in the East (she turned 70 this year), I have begun spending my winters in Mexico, in small places like Oaxaca and San Miguel. San Miguel in particular has a fine public library, so I can sun myself and read a lot.
When you look over your writing, what do you see?
I’ve been accused of writing only about the educated middle-class. But then, I wouldn’t venture to write about worlds I am unfamiliar with or don’t know well. This is what I know, this is what I can write about — ‘real’ stories about ‘real’ people.
What do you like to read?
I grew up on the English classics and read English literature at Miranda House, Delhi University. The Brontë sisters were particularly thrilling.
My mother, a Berliner, brought German classics with her — Goethe, Schiller and so on — which she would read to us with great passion in the evenings. I wonder what she would have made, though, of modern writers like Günter Grass. Well, I have kept up with my reading, I suppose. These days I am engrossed by Latin American writers.
What do you think of the present generation of Indian writers in English?
A number of people now seem to be in a terrible hurry to write a bestseller, so they’re taking very visible shortcuts. I would rather be known for a body of work, than for that one successful book. I have been a writer for 30 years. You change and grow. You must.
You write about individual lives being crushed by the juggernaut of history, about the heroism of sheer survival. Are these nuances valued in the US?
It’s obviously not the America we grew up admiring. Post-2001, it’s been a closed and frightened society and in any case, they know very little about other people. It’s one big, isolated island really. After 9/11, I, and many others, felt like ‘foreigners’ for the first time. We turned very quiet. But it’s where I live now.