Being on the Booker Prize shortlist must seem pretty familiar to Kiran Desai. Not because she has been on it before but because she must have heard about what it feels like. Her mother, Anita Desai, has been here thrice — with her novels, Clear Light of Day (1980), In Custody (1984) and Fasting, Feasting (1999) — without having gone on to win the prize. Having your book picked as one of the six best novels published in the UK in a particular year (from nearly a 100,000 that appear every year) seems to run in the family. Talk about the inheritance of achievement.
“It is nice, but I don’t take this hugely seriously. I have seen my mother go through this three times. It’s not startling for the family at all. I have seen her continue to work, and not really care. I remember her once saying to me, ‘Everyone else gets excited, but in the end you just have to get on with your next book’,” Desai told London’s The Guardian in an interview after the shortlist was announced.
The Inheritance of Loss (Viking) is only Desai’s second novel. A tender meditation on the notions of exile, loving and loss, it is an astonishingly accomplished book from an astonishingly gifted writer who made her debut with Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard eight years back. It is no mean feat that she has managed to be picked from a very strong longlist of 19 authors. It is more creditable that she has managed to make it to the final six in the face of competition from the likes of Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer, twice Booker winner Peter Carey and literary London’s darling and one of Britain’s most respected writers, Andrew O’Hagan.
Fellow Indian writers are being generous with their praise. Author Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi calls Desai ‘an extraordinarily accomplished writer’ and her contending book an ‘interesting commentary and an engaging read’. “I am tremendously pleased that someone sharing my skin code has made it and am applauding with all the Indians here,” Shanghvi says.
The writer Ashok Banker recalls how Salman Rushdie had championed Desai’s debut. (The book came with a profusely enthusiastic pre-publication quote from Rushdie.) Banker is a little more cautious: “Although Kiran does not have exceptional talent, she is a fine writer.”
That, at the very least, is what she seems to be. The critics in London, where the winner of the £50,000-worth Man Booker Prize will be announced on October 10, have not merely been raving about The Inheritance of Loss but also comparing the bleak world of Desai’s novel with V.S. Naipaul’s work. The Observer said the book was ‘both warm-hearted about human nature and clear-sighted about humanity’s flaws’. Calling her writing ‘poised, elegant and assured’, The Times has said that this might be ‘the outsider that goes the whole distance [and wins the Man Booker this year]’.
Across the Atlantic, the response has been just as favourable. The New Yorker felt that “briskly paced and sumptuously written, the novel ponders questions of nationhood, modernity, and class, in ways both moving and revelatory”. The Washington Post applauded the novel’s ‘razor insights and emotional scope’.
The Inheritance of Loss opens in a crumbling, once-grand house in the hills in Kalimpong and vaults across to New York and then, seamlessly, returns again to the hills in India. Many of those who have read the novel have been captivated by the assured manner in which Desai has handled the theme of migration and by how sure her touch is on the subjects of dislocation and exile. It is no surprise that some of it comes from her own experience.
Desai’s grandmother was a German who left Germany with the War and became an Indian citizen, never returning to see her family. Her grandfather was a refugee from Bangladesh.
“My parent’s generation was a continuation of that story and mine as well. It wasn’t an accident that I left and with this book, I have really tried to capture the patterns — the emotional and historical patterns that I have witnessed,” she had told the Hindustan Times at the time of publication.
Desai was born in India in 1971 but she left for England when she was 14. Anita Desai had been offered a job there and Kiran, as the youngest of the children, went with her. They then moved to America.
She now lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a locality that is home to famous writers like Paul Auster, Siri Husvedt and Jonathan Safran Foer.
If she manages to win the Booker at London’s Guildhall on October 10, Kiran Desai will become an instant celebrity. The prize money may not be staggering (there are prizes, like the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, which are far more generous), but the sales that follow a Booker triumph are truly phenomenal, running into hundreds of thousands in the UK alone.
The Booker Prize has been called literary poker, in which luck plays at least as much a part in deciding the eventual winner as the merit of a novel. Desai at the moment is not the bookies’ favourite in the prize sweepstakes. But then, neither was John Banville in 2005.
He went on to win it.