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For Kiran, migration is the "loss"

india Updated: Nov 18, 2006 17:03 IST
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Kiran Desai is putting her feet up. It's a welcome pause for the globe-trotting writer.

Things have been a bit frantic since the 35-year-old author won Britain's top literary award, the Man Booker Prize, for her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss.

Desai dashed from a book-promotion tour in Germany to the Booker dinner in London, where her novel - a multi-stranded saga of immigration and exile that stretches from a crumbling house in the Himalayas to the basement kitchens of New York restaurants - beat five other finalists to the £50,000 (US$94,000; €75,000) prize. The chair of the judging panel, Hermione Lee, called the work "a magnificent novel of humane breadth and wisdom, comic tenderness and powerful political acuteness."

A few days later, after a whirl of British press interviews and a return trip to Germany, Desai was at home in New York City's Brooklyn borough, "lying on the couch drinking coffee" and soaking up the plaudits for a book that took her seven years to write. The novel was released earlier this year to strong reviews but modest sales. The week after winning the Booker, it topped British best seller charts.

"It was such a long, slow, difficult process writing this book," said the softy-spoken Desai. "But it was such an important book for me to attempt to write."

 
Kiran Desai holds up her Booker-prize-winning novel

The Inheritance of Loss draws strongly on Desai's own experience. The daughter of novelist Anita Desai - herself a three-time Booker finalist - Kiran Desai was born in India and moved as a teenager, first to England and then to the United States. The experience of migration touches all the novel's main characters: a grumpy, retired Indian judge living in self-imposed exile in a mouldering mountain house; his restless teenage granddaughter, Sai, and her Nepalese rebel beau; the judge's cook and the cook's son, Biju, an illegal immigrant who scrapes out a living in the kitchens of New York.

Through their interlocking stories, the book probes the human cost of globalisation - the ever-intensifying web of personal and economic connections among people around the world. That interconnectedness, Desai knows, can bring excitement and discovery, but also loneliness, alienation and loss.

She said the book upsets the popular conception of India as a place of "family, community, a great sense of having roots that go back generations.

"I don't think that's necessarily true for a lot of people, a lot of members of the Diaspora, people who are moving back and forth."

From its opening pages in a dank, wet, cold region far removed from tourist-brochure India, the book defies many Western readers' expectations' of an "Indian" novel.

In their Himalayan village, Desai's Indian characters listen to the BBC, wear Marks and Spencer underwear from England and debate the literary merits of V S Naipaul's African-set novel, A Bend in the River.

Desai feels that "publishers desire a certain kind of book because we all desire certain images of different countries." "In India, we want a certain picture of Switzerland - we want the cows and the hills to look a certain way. In English literature, you want the daffodils and the vicar on his bicycle - your typical 'Masterpiece Theatre' images.

"But, of course, the truth is much more complicated and much more diverse. Even in what seem to be the furthest corners from the centres of power, you go there and you see it's actually not simple and remote - the whole world is mixed up, even in these tiny, remote locations."

In Kalimpong, the Himalayan town near Bhutan and Nepal where the novel is partly set, "you see the wrong side of the Bhutanese royal family, exiles from Burma, Tibetan refugees, a Swiss priest - there always seems to be a European priest in these towns. And all the battles of the entire world somehow to be filtering down into these towns."

Desai's novel brims with the richness found in the remotest corners of the world, but its depiction of globalization also has a dark side. The illegal immigrant Biju experiences loneliness and isolation in one of the world's busiest cities.

Desai knows from her own life that the immigrant's life can be "a profoundly lonely experience."

"I'm very conscious of not being able to tell an entire story - of not knowing what's happening in India now, for example," she said. "It belongs to a writer living in India. It isn't mine, I can't have it, and there's a sense of loss because I might have had it.

"I have another story to tell, but it's a story of a different kind, a story of bits and pieces that string together in a way." Simon Prosser, Desai's editor at publisher Hamish Hamilton, thinks the book's reference to Naipaul - whose novels ooze pessimism about human relations in a messy post-colonial, globalised world - is revealing.

Prosser said that The Inheritance of Loss is "alive with the forces of the modern world - migration, where you come from and where you go to and what you leave behind.

"What she's done is go back to some of the pessimism Naipaul has about migration."

At the same time, "the book is a human comedy. It manages to combine seriousness with real humour. It's just a very strongly voiced book and comes out of a great curiosity and a lot of thinking and travelling."

The Inheritance of Loss is dedicated to Desai's mother, a respected novelist whose books, like her daughter's, often focus on the articulate, Anglicised Indian middle class.

Desai said her mother's example made her choice of a writing career, with all its uncertainties, immeasurably easier. "I'm actually amazed at how other writers go about it, because it's very hard to create a writing life, to create an atmosphere within which you can work. And I've always had access to that. "I haven't had to fight to create it, because my mother's created it over 50 years of writing."

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