“Is it really such a brave new world?” asks the novelist on a recent afternoon in Manhattan, her brow crinkling. “I don’t know if anybody would say so right now, but when I look at globalization right now it seems like a very old story. And it seems pretty rotten.”….
…Desai can relate to feeling trapped, however. She grew up in Delhi when that town felt cut off from the world.
“There was the feeling that books were the only thing that led you to the world,” she says. “You read really hard; that was the only thing you could do.”
I knew I shouldn’t have read the book. It was a trip I didn’t have the time for just then, a trip that, once started, would (and did) take me down many different roads. But when you gotta go, you gotta go, and so I went, courtesy Kiran Desai, back to Kalimpong, where I’d spent at least one holiday every year…
The best chronicler of Kalimpong’s ghost stories was the raconteur and illustrator Desmond Doig, and one of his stories dealt with Mr and Mrs Dench and their undying (literally) love for each other. The house they lived (live?) in is now occupied by Desai’s aunt; a handsome structure, stone facade, glass-and-iron front door, dark wood floors, wonderful smoky kitchen. Mr Dench died first; his food was left on the table, waiting for him. Mrs Dench descended into ill health and dementia and the nuns took her away. Yet they linger; voices have been heard where there are no people.
The spirits have been malicious—scratching and slapping—and benevolent, waking up an ayah when the fireplace had got blocked and the room, where she was sleeping with the family’s children, was full of carbon monoxide. They are part of the dark underside of a town like Kalimpong, as much as the ethnic mix and caste structure that would, from time to time, rip apart the lace-and-fineness in particularly bloodthirsty fashion. A couple of centuries ago it was the scene of bloody wars between the hill tribes. Indeed the house Desai’s parents bought was the scene of a massacre a couple of centuries ago.