Before Kiran Desai won the Man Booker Prize this week, she had spoken to Shreevatsa Nevatia in January about the act of writing, the experience of travelling back and forth, her being the daughter of Anita Desai and about her latest novel.
Seven years between Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard and The Inheritance of Loss. While being interviewed with regard to your first book, you said that you had to get the book out because you couldn't see it anymore. Seven years - you must have had a few moments like that?
Yes, seven years. To be very honest, it was very unhealthy and I wouldn't recommend the same to anyone. I think I wrote this book really differently from the first time around. I found it a completely different experience. It is certainly a very different book with a different tone, different ideas and a different structure. The last time I was still in college and felt as though I was writing for a group. This time around I was completely by myself; completely alone for six or seven years and found that the book had settled deeply and was not separate from my existence at all.
So in a way, seven years passed by very quickly and I came out of that and felt I was in a complete time warp. The world had changed. Publishing had changed. It is a different world to publish in as well. The Indian community in New York had changed. It has been interesting to come out of it and find that seven years has been a long time. On the other hand, it wasn't as if I was conscious of that much time passing, because I was working in so different a way. Without the feeling of thinking that I had to publish. I literally fell out of the world. I think anyone who is writing seriously and trying to write seriously, find it really easy to disappear. It is really quite a frightening realisation that you can really go and that you can do yourself great mental harm. It is quite a dangerous profession, it really is.
So while writing this book, you did stop and think that you were being mentally harmed?
Absolutely. I was convinced that I was mentally harming myself. I was so isolated in certain periods. For instance, last year around this time I didn't see any human being at all for large periods of time. I went to my mother's for two or three months to pull it all together and work really hard. Other than her, I didn't see anyone for two or three months. I was literally scared of answering the phone, of talking to people. I was scared of the mailman coming to the door, because I found it even hard to talk. You think of people like Salinger; these mythic writers who were able to completely vanish and all I can say is that it is possible to just go. Certainly writing does take you in that direction. You catch yourself or you don't but the door is always open for you as a writer.
Your book is titled The Inheritance of Loss. The inheritance from your mother, the acclaimed writer, Anita Desai - has that been an inheritance of loss in any way. What has been the nature of the inheritance that you have received?
Not just with regards to my mother, but if you look at our entire family history - it has been a history that is caught between East and West and travelling back and forth. And this is for a number of generations - not just mine or that of my parents but even generations previous to that. I believe that my mother inherited stories, which we, as Indians would not consider a normal family life. Her mother was German and left before the war and never went back. She became an Indian citizen and never returned to see her family, ever. Her father was a refugee from Bangladesh, so he had also left his country. His family was completely split and it continued that way. He worked for a German company and when war broke out, the entire company vanished.
He lost his job and so much else. My father's side, they came from a tiny village in Gujarat and he made this huge journey to England to study. My grandmother never spoke English at all and my grandfather learnt English by reading the dictionary over and over again. I think so many of us have such stories. My parent's generation was a continuation of that and mine, it wasn't an accident that I left as well and I was trying to really capture the patterns - the emotional and historical patterns that I saw over this period of time.
But in terms of a literary shadow. You, for instance, have said that the shadow of your mother was more motherly than literary, but has it been hard growing up as the daughter of an acclaimed writer?
No, not for a minute, it really hasn't been hard at all. I think because she doesn't really make it hard. I often read of writers who have very domineering writer parents. I am thinking of people like Amis. But she really has none of that. I think she worked in such a different world when she was writing in India at that time, it was such a quiet time.
There really wasn't a community of writers, there certainly weren't conferences, barely anything being published. It was very lonely and very quiet but in a way you were completely free to write what you wanted. Because of that, I think she always wrote very simple and quietly. Not her work but her manner of living and her personality. She wasn't noisy in the least. When it came to my working, I think the first time around, it was wonderful to have her understanding of the whole publishing world and the second time around, all I can say is that it was vital for me to have her around. You just don't know how hard a book is going to be before you start out.
The kind of feeling that you get while reading this book is that it is very personal.
It is and that makes it harder. You can criticise your stuff better than anyone else, you know what is going in your own mind and your own heart but to look at yourself in the mirror is very difficult. It's like Naipaul's father telling Naipaul - "be honest" and Naipaul having nervous breakdown after nervous breakdown. It's a difficult thing. My mother has written many dark books and so is this book. But the point that I do want to make is that it is a lot lighter than what it was. When I first finished it was so dark and I cut it quite a bit so that the darkness in its entirety would not come out.
I for one felt that the title of the book was very misleading. I never imagined there to be so many light moments in a book that was titled The Inheritance of Loss.
I am a bit embarrassed by the title now. You have a title in your head but it's only now when I have to say it aloud to people, do I realise that it is such a gloomy title.
But then why the title?
I think there are actually, several kinds of loss that happen in this book. It is really a book about characters that have been forced to live half-lives or lives of hypocrisy because of the circumstances that they find themselves in. I found that when I was writing it, everyone had that half-story to tell, which together added up to a picture that I felt was whole. And of course, it also traces the pattern of loss.
While reading the book, one does get the sense that your characters seem to be counterparts of each other. All these people seem to be trying to find the same thing or indeed escaping from things that are similar to each other.
I did want to draw the parallel between say, the judge's journey to the West and Harish-Harry. How his hypocrisy is sort of parallel to the judge's in many ways. Being an immigrant, just the act of making a journey allows you a unique way in which to be hypocritical. It is impossible to be oneself because you are forced to reinvent yourself, and how you do so is really the question.
A lot of this book seems to be about migrancy, people moving from one place to another. How much of what is there in the book have you suffered or experienced?
Of course my life has been exactly one of moving between countries and places. But like I said, that has also been the experience of my family. It is an old story. So a lot of it has been witnessing what other people have been through. While characterising the judge, I did read a lot of old IAS memoirs of 1939, which were fascinating. Describing this entire journey during that time period. Going to England and returning while the freedom movement was going on. They were also working for the British and I drew a lot from that research. Some of them writing more frankly than others.
But again, I found that it is quite a common story. People returning to having found themselves transformed, experiencing a kind of disconnect. The same thing happens today, people going to the States for example and then being completely unable to relate to their families. And that's a choice. They make the choice not to relate to their families. You find that there is a huge amount of cruelty taking place. The fact that they are in America lets them make their immigrant journey a very heroic one. There is a lot of insistence as well that people write novels that look at immigration as a heroic act. Books about people who overcome great odds to come to the virtuous land. In reality I think it is not that kind of journey at all. It can often be a very cruel journey and a very selfish one.
If you look at Biju in particular, you wonder why he is in America, suffering the hardships that he does.
That I think is the other side of it. You find an entire class of people that are brought up to leave. It's like they are supposed to and it's a normal thing to expect. I did want to write about two different classes of people too, who go abroad. One class, which is the educated Westernised class and the poorer people too.
And class seems to be one factor that underpins this novel. Even when you are looking at race or gender, class seems to be an essential defining factor.
If you are living in New York, you find two completely different classes. One of the native born American and then you have the poor from across the world. A class of invisible people who come from every corner of their globe and there are amazing connections that you find, which wouldn't seem possible otherwise. A Korean working for an Ecuadorian national, a Mexican and an Indian working together.
Somewhere in the book, you do also say that India is an idea or a dream. What does India mean to you? How Indian do you find yourself being?
That is a really hard question to answer because I find myself really unformed now than I did ten years ago when I wrote my first book. I think partly it is because I find myself being part of the Diaspora so much more. While I was writing Hullabaloo, I still felt that I had just left India and it was still quite fresh in my mind. I think I wrote that book in order to hold on to it. It was very much a book, where I put all that I loved about India to it. I think that's what happens when you leave. I think you try and keep those bits of India with you and it's been a long time of living this life, where I have been between places and New York is a place, where you don't feel entirely at home. There are New Yorkers who find a stability in all that endless movement but as an immigrant living in the city, it always feels temporary, you always find yourself at crossroads and the option of leaving is always very close over there. Because of going back and forth, I am much more unsure about my work. I think what I mean in terms of which direction will it go and I think this book does capture that emotional instinct of constantly moving from one place to the other and finding a home in the emotional result of this travel. To explore how it manifests in the political sphere in India and in the States in a way.
And with this book of course, you do join a band of Indian authors writing fiction about Diaspora.
I think there are a lot of us who have lived such lives. I think the work is going in many different directions. If you look at Rushdie for instance and his huge body of work, you see that he has gone in so many different directions, returning of course to Kashmir. Rohinton Mistry has never left despite having lived abroad. Someone like Michael Ondaatje seems to write all over the place. I am pretty envious of his work. How he can write about a jazz musician in the States and then write Anil's Ghost. As for the younger ones, there seem so many of them going through the same thing and asking the same questions - where do they write from, what kind of books are they going to do. You know what do you do, do you try and write from a place anymore or do you try and write in a Calvino fashion, where you come up with ideas and write them in that manner.
Even though your book is set in the late 80s, a lot of it seems to relate to the present. To give an example, the Gurkha revolt that you talk about in your novel and the North-Eastern problem of today. Was this intentional?
No it wasn't intentional at all. But I do see now that this book could have been written in many different ways. It could have been set in another part of the country quite easily. The things that are described happen today, as they did the late 80s or even the 70s. In a way the repetition is also hinted at in the title. You find these things continuing despite the modern world we find ourselves in, the computer age and yet a lot of this turmoil is being repeated. The older generation went to England, the newer generation is going to America. The influence of India, I find that being repeated also in some ways. I feel as if I am living an old life and it really doesn't seem that fresh and new to me. You do read of books such as One Night @ the Call Centre, which I haven't read but at least that does tell me that there are writers here, who must see India differently and that their writing captures something very different.
Your book does deal with an underbelly of sorts - be it the underbelly of New York or the darker side of socio-political constructs such as race, gender and class. I must ask why your book is as dark as it is?
This book did not seem self-indulgent like my first one did. I think for the crucial question that I needed to ask pertained to the complete betrayal of the poor world. There is so much joy and happiness with computers and India's economic relation with the West that somehow we have come to be labelled as 'friends'. But I do think that the tragedy lies in the fact that an entire class is being left behind and ignored. If you look at countries such as Brazil and Nigeria where there does seem to be enormous wealth but this huge gap between the rich and the poor. The question that I do find myself asking is - which way is India going to go?
An obvious question - what next and will we have to wait another seven years?
God, I hope not. Many thoughts occurred to me while writing this book that were extremely dark as well and I cannot put myself through it one more time. I think I am actually going to write a book set in New York that would deal with the immigrant New York community.
My last question, two books behind you at the age of 35. How does it feel?
I feel such a sense of relief now that the second book is over. The stereotype of the second book being the hardest — I think I embarrassingly fit straight into that. My emotional state right now is that of enormous relief. It has been hard work and there is always the hope that the next time around it is going to be easier. I don't know why I think that but you never know how hard a book is going to be. I feel that the writing has settled deeply, that my writing life is very deep now. Not something that I can easily give up.