In a blue kurta and jeans with no make-up, save a daub of lipstick, Kiran Desai walked unnoticed into the lobby of the Taj Mahal hotel for the interview at exactly the time we had agreed upon.
At 1 pm, the lobby wasn’t exactly buzzing with people. But not one of those there recognised the author of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Inheritance of Loss. So much for being a prisoner of her celebrity status since the award.
But there is no doubting that life has changed for her. From sitting alone at a desk and trying to imagine a book into existence to being on the festival circuit, reading at city after city and giving talks, the award has undoubtedly done many things.
One of them is to bring her back to places she has not visited in a long, long time. Like Mumbai, where she returned on Friday after 25 years for a reading. "After writing for almost seven years every day, going through some difficult patches with very few people to fall back on, this is a bizarre experience. Now most of my time is taken up by travelling, reading sessions, literary festivals and talking to university students," she said.
It helps, of course, that literary festivals are beginning to catch on in India. Having just come from the one in Jaipur, Desai would vouch for that. (She is scheduled to read at the next big one, the Kitab Festival, later this month in Mumbai.)
"Earlier, such a concept was largely confined to England and the US. But, now it’s a global trend. In India, it’s fast gaining ground. The community of writers coming together, the gossip, the spats, and of being asked by journalists to which camp one belongs to — Salman Rushdie’s or VS Naipaul’s. The festival has its own charm."
Some things, though, never change. Like having dry days in a cosmopolitan, aspiring-to-be-global city. As she spoke, Desai asked for a glass of white wine. She was offered a soft drink instead. As she sipped on it, she talked about being an immigrant in one’s own country; about being treated as a second-class citizen in a foreign country; about the inter-connecting themes in her book.
"We are so good at dividing ourselves along caste, religion and ethnic lines. In India, where one grows up with a strong attachment to one’s family and community, such a feeling of being an outsider is disconcerting. The predicaments of the character of Sai’s grandfather (in the book), who was born in a small village in Gujarat, went to England for higher studies and finally came to India only to travel extensively, are similar to what my grandfather faced and what people still face in India. Abroad, a section of the diaspora wants to come back. There is both a desire for purity of culture and multiculturalism, and such contradictions will exist."
Desai should know because she has seldom been in one place for too long: she was first in India; then she spent a year in England; and finally moved to the US where she has been based for the last 20 years. "I don’t particularly feel at home anywhere, but I’m seldom ill at ease. For the last two decades, I’ve never stayed at an address for more than two years."