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Her mother's daughter - Kiran Desai

For a long time, she was known as the talented daughter of noted novelist Anita Desai. Kiran Desai’s first book, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, published in 1998, won critical acclaim across the world and even won the Betty Trask Award.

Arnab Mitra | Print Edition: January 13, 2008

Kiran Desai, writer
Kiran Desai
For a long time, she was known as the talented daughter of noted novelist Anita Desai. Kiran Desai’s first book, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, published in 1998, won critical acclaim across the world and even won the Betty Trask Award, given by the Society of Authors, a British organisation. But it was her second book, The Inheritance of Loss, published in 2006, that really turned the global spotlight on her. It won the Man Booker Prize that year, and also the National Book Critics Circle Best Fiction Award.

But why did she take eight years to write the book? “Well, for one thing, I was very happy writing. And I knew it would end as soon as I finished the book,” she told shortly after winning the Man Booker Prize, adding that the book was the one stable thing in her life. She has also said that she reworked The Inheritance of Loss a lot.

It was certainly worth the effort. She is now the youngest woman, at 35 years, ever to win the coveted award, replacing fellow Indian Arundhati Roy (who once famously “disowned” her nationality), who won the Booker Prize (as it was then called) in 1997, a few weeks short of her 36th birthday, on that pedestal.

But Desai, who lives in the US, wears her Indianness proudly on her sleeves. “It is a wonderful time to be an Indian writer,” she says. “We are not a scrawny, undernourished society anymore.” In fact, this Indianness bursts forth in her work. She has said several times that she has been deeply influenced by her own experiences and what she has seen around her. Desai, who could not respond to repeated e-mailed questionnaires from Business Today as she was attending to her ailing father, has vivid memories of her childhood in India.

She remembers the utter bliss she experienced sitting under the dining table, pulling the toes of her three siblings and parents. She also recalls family holidays in Kalimpong (near Darjeeling in West Bengal), where her family had a house called Chomiomi, after a Tibetan snow mountain. “Kalimpong has a population of Tibetan refugees and a majority population of Nepalis … It is a very beautiful place, but the strains were obvious even then,” she told an interviewer early in 2007.

Incidentally, she did part of her schooling at the famous St Joseph’s Convent in that hill town, before moving to England when she was 14 or 15 (she has mentioned both ages in different interviews) and from there to the US a year later.

This, and her own multicultural background (more on that later) has given her a very cosmopolitan worldview that is, at the same time, very warm and Indian at its core.

Writing for The New York Times Book Review, Pankaj Mishra, himself an author of note, says: “Although it (The Inheritance of Loss) focuses on the fate of a few powerless individuals, Kiran Desai’s extraordinary novel manages to explore, with intimacy and insight, just about every contemporary international issue: globalisation, multiculturalism, economic inequality, fundamentalism and terrorist violence.” Desai says she didn’t really choose “weighty topics”, but realised, while writing the novel about “powerless individuals”, that what she was going through “was the emotional result of travel between East and West over many generations”. In the same interview quoted earlier, she says: “It’s very interesting to see how the same people are poor on both sides of the world… You think of people being poor in a very faraway place, but one looks closely, one realises that poverty is very close to us.”

Peers to watch

Ruchir Joshi
Name: Ruchir Joshi
Reason: He has written two novels so far—The Last Jet Engine Laugh in 2001 and Great Eastern Hotel in 2005. His works have an Indian voice and perspective, but with an epic sweep. The Daily Telegraph hailed his arrival as a “great moment for Indian literature”.

Altaf Tyrewala
Name: Altaf Tyrewala
Reason: His first novel, No God in Sight (2005), like the works of Desai and Joshi, is written with a unique Indian perspective. His eye for detail and the empathy he shares with his characters mark him out as an outstanding and sensitive writer.

The “travel” she talks about started many decades earlier. Her mother, Anita Desai, the child of a Bengali father and a German mother, married Ashvin Desai, a Gujarati. So, multi-culturalism and constant flitting between East and West have always been a part of her life. Incidentally, Desai, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and visits this country every year, where a large part of her immediate family lives, has said that “in an odd way” she owes her Booker to US President George W. Bush; his re-election in 2004 convinced her not to take up US citizenship. The Man Booker Prize is awarded only to citizens of the Commonwealth. And though she has never spoken about it, this little anecdote gives us a pointer to her politics.

Her first book, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, was a simple satire. She got the central idea for the book—about a directionless young villager who, by sheer chance, reinvents himself as a tree-dwelling sadhu—from a report in The Times of India about a sadhu who lived his life on a tree. “So it started really with that character, and then the story built up around it,” she has been quoted as saying. But this book, which is a fun read on the surface, also has a sub-text that dwells on intolerance, the worship of false gods, generation gaps and gender roles.

Following the publication of this book, Desai was compared to Arundhati Roy, who was then a rage. But critics now say that she has more in common with an older generation of Indian authors such as her mother, Salman Rushdie and R.K. Narayan. Rushdie, who is an old family friend, is also an unabashed admirer of her writing. He has called her works “lush and intensely imagined. Welcome proof that India’s encounter with the English language continues to give birth to new children, endowed with lavish gifts”.

Salman Rushdie, who is an old family friend, is an unabashed admirer of Desai’s writing. He has called her works “lush and intensely imagined”
Salman Rushdie
How does she approach writing? Well, for one, she doesn’t follow the “rules” and “theories” that are routinely taught at writer’s workshops. “They tell you to write what you know and that sort of thing, which I don’t believe at all,” she says, adding that she gets great joy and greater excitement trying to explore things she doesn’t know. Both her books started with the kernel of an idea and just grew as she wrote and literally “lived” through the events she described.

And what about her mother, who, incidentally, was shortlisted for the Booker thrice but hasn’t yet won it? Desai says she has grown up hearing her mother talk of books, writing and literature; so, her influence has been more subliminal than direct. “She has been very good, not providing critical support as much as emotional support… A very motherly role, really,” she told Bold Type in an interview. So, why are we featuring her here? Because of her ability to marry an epic sweep with warm and personal stories about individuals one meets every day. She has already won the Booker; can she some day win the Nobel? That’s difficult to predict, but from the evidence of her first two books, she is definitely the leader in her generation of Indo-Anglican writers.

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