In Conversation with Kiran Desai: Part I

(Published in the IIC Quarterly, June 2007)

Kiran Desai, interviewed by Ira Pande and NSR.

Kiran Desai’s first brush with fame came in 1997, when Salman Rushdie included the young writer in his controversial anthology of Indian writing, Mirrorwork. Rushdie described her first novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, as “lush and intensely imagined”. Kiran, who has lived in Chandigarh, Delhi and New York, spent the next nine years in America earning a living, working on her second novel and occasionally traveling with her mother, eminent writer Anita Desai. Inheritance of Loss moves between the crumbling world of the hill station of Kalimpong at a time of insurgency and the underground world of New York’s immigrant workers. The novel was critically acclaimed and won the Booker Prize in 2006. In this freeflowing conversation in Delhi, Kiran Desai discussed her writing, “enormously fat” books, immigrant New York and language with Ira Pande and Nilanjana S Roy.

Ira Pande: I’m impressed by how you managed to sustain the feeling for this book over such a long period of time—nine years.

Kiran Desai: We writers get competitive about this—how long did it take Mohsin (Hamid) to write his book? Many years… Nadeem Aslam took eleven years.

IP: More, I thought, and he shut himself in a room…

KD: He took eleven years, I took seven. It wasn’t hard to sustain the feeling for the book, not hard at all. It was hard to finish, to put a stop to it, to go the other way from writing in every direction—that was easy, the difficult thing was realizing that to make a book, I had to do the opposite process and start throwing out bits. I cut a lot from the book.

Nilanjana Roy: I heard you threw out about eight chapters?

KD: It wasn’t even eight chapters, it was 1,500 pages, and 800 pages, and 350 pages of it…

IP: People have started to complain about the doorstopper book from India, because everyone’s writing these enormously fat books. Sometimes I feel it would work better if there was more editorial intervention, because as a writer, few could do what you did—chuck out whole bits on your own.

KD: It is hard, because there are so many angles, you can go on forever, turning something around, going into another character, another angle of the whole thing. You have to realize you can’t just go on forever, but there is a trend towards big books all over the world. Look at American books—the new (Thomas) Pynchon, (Dave) Eggers..

NR: In a way it was a pity you didn’t do this, just to correct the gender imbalance.

KD: It is a gender thing! My mother (the writer Anita Desai) was saying this, how young men are encouraged to write really, really big books, and women are often made to cut that down, almost as if it is a gender thing, that women write smaller, slimmer books and men write big, ambitious books. And the men are being accused of—what is the phrase?—hysterical realism. Which is funny, that’s an amusing gender argument, where men are accused of being hysterical and women are being curbed and careful.

I sometimes think it’s just the process of writing. We work on a computer, it’s easy to keep everything, to research, add more and more. I bet if computers weren’t around, a lot of men would write smaller books. Someone said that with Dave Egger it’s really obvious—all those additions and all those footnotes that he can only do because he can play on the computer. But Salman (Rushdie) was saying, I realize we should write shorter books because we get paid the same amount! (Laughs)

IP: Can I ask you about The Inheritance of Loss? Did the title suggest the book, or did the book suggest the title?

KD: The title came right at the end. I’m still not sure it completely fits. A lot of people didn’t like it—I’ve been told it sounds like a self-help manual, someone said, you should just call it The Loss of Inheritance, and that would make much more sense.

I was struggling to come up with something because it’s a book of so many different parts. I thought of all the typical ones: The Judge of Kalimpong—sounds vaguely like colonial literature, The House of Cho Oyu, and then this came up.

NR: It struck me how much loneliness and isolation there is in the book. Biju, the cook’s son in America, Sai, cut off from a normal childhood, the judge alone in England, where you almost feel sorry for him, despite his harshness later… Was that taken from family history?

KD: Not quite that close, but the judge’s story was certainly taken from hearing about the experiences of people going to England. There is often an attempt to cover up what actually happens when you go abroad. For all immigrants, the story that you create at the end is the story you can live with and that you like to tell. It’s not what actually happened. Immigration is like the act of translation, the possibilities of dishonesty are so big, so immense. It’s a place where you can embroider any kind of story, and I think most people do. You also want to go there saying that you haven’t come struggling like other immigrants might have, you’ve come from a position of dignity, it’s also an attempt to create your past, I think, in a different way. You have to make up a story about that as well.

The loneliness is immense. You’re plucked from everything you know, your entire community, you’re telling lies to everybody, immigrants are telling lies to other immigrants. I think people find themselves in really lonely places. When I think of myself, I grew up speaking English and being brought up, in a way, to leave successfully. That’s what my father said, sadly, to one of his friends: “What we did in our generation, we made good immigrants.” He was also brought up to be a good immigrant and he chose not to be one.

NR: You left at 14, when you were studying at a convent in Delhi, are there echoes of that school in the convent you described in your book?

KD: Oh god, it was awful. I got a note from one of the nuns, I almost fell off my chair, I was so scared (laughs) The fear was immediately there. It was so awful, I wonder whether other people’s experiences were so bad.

IP: The fact that all of us did go to these Catholic convents also opened up for us the possibility of looking at another identity for ourselves. I remember leading two completely dissimilar lives. I came from a very traditional, conservative family, puja was part of my day, but I also went and did Angelus and Benediction and all the rest. It made me a better Hindu after I was exposed to Catholicism. I began to understand and respect what we had much more. What was your convent experience like?

KD: I think of dislocation. We went first to Kalimpong, briefly, went back to Loreto, briefly, went to England for a year, and went to the states, and at a really bad time—it was 13 or 14, that age for me. But when I look back at that convent education, I hope they’re not bringing up children in that same way, because every bit of art is stamped out. Wanting to write, or paint, that side of things.

NR: How did you get that back?

KD: It took a long time. I saw reading as an escape from this world. Writing came later, at a much happier and freer time. It was encouraged, it was considered a legitimate activity. I am really lucky for that brief bit of space.

IP: In India you lived in Delhi and in Kalimpong; which cities do you remember best?

KD: I lived in Chandigarh as well, and Bombay for a while, and then Delhi. I lived in Delhi the longest. And now there’s totally new things I love about Delhi, I come back, I go to my father’s house, climb up on to the rooftop. And it’s lovely. The sun sets by the idgah, and we listen to Abida Parveen singing Khusro. Those are the best, those are the good bits of Delhi for me.

IP: And the bad bits?

KD: The bad bits? For me it was the memories of Loreto Convent, now it’s just a completely different relationship with Delhi. I love Bombay, I have very happy memories of Bombay. If you grow up in Bombay, if you spend part of your childhood in Bombay, you get deeply attached to it. It’s true of everybodyI know who’s grown up in that city. And I always envied Bombay writers –they seemed to have that emotional depth of attachment to Bombay that seems to power all their writing forever! And it’s a glamorous city, the whole package, the Mafia and Bollywood, and crime on that glamorous scale. For a long while, Delhi writers felt slightly bad, we only had monuments.

NR: How about New York? So many of you seem to be colonizing New York now.

KD: There’s such a huge number of Indian writers living in New York, and few write about it. Suketu is one of the first to venture into New York, and he really should do it; I think he was 14 when he went there, so he has childhood memories of growing up. Akhil Sharma may be writing about it, New Jersey.. so it is shifting.

NR: Are you uncomfortable with labels such as “diaspora writer”, or “immigrant writer”?

KD: You know, you go down those roads and inevitably end up in a place that’s senseless after a bit. I always hope that I’ll hear some writer talking about these issues in a really clever way so that I can copy what they say, but nobody has. I haven’t heard anyone really manage to undo these knots. You stop talking about literature all together, and you start talking about class and immigration, and end up with a debate that’s about much bigger arguments. You can’t escape labels as a writer…

NR: Inheritance would have been a lot less rich if you hadn’t had that split perspective, the New York immigrant underworld on one hand, the crumbling houses of privilege in Kalimpong on the other…

KD: It’s a completely half-and-half book.

NR: How did you start the process of looking at the immigrant population in New York?

KD: It wasn’t hard to find those stories. Those stories are as easily available as they are here. It’s the same people on both sides of the world; the woman who cleans your house in India, those stories come into your house every single day. It’s the same in New York. The characters are made up of people I know, in bits and pieces—like the Zanzibarian community, I couldn’t have made that up. People who worked in a little bakery near where I used to live; all the stories of the rats are really based on what happened. There’s always a mixture, journalists always ask you how much is fact and how much fiction, but it’s always a mixture.

IP: You’ve spoken a lot about your mother’s presence and her support for you and her general aura, and it is visible. Shashi Deshpande (the writer) said she sometimes felt a sense of déjà vu reading you, that it could be Anita in a younger voice. Quite apart from the mother-daughter relationship that you share, which is obviously very close, were you influenced by her style of writing? Her way of looking at India, because she’s also had several dislocations, and she’s tread almost the same ground, except that it was in another time and in another way.

KD: I was conscious of that, the realization that what we were living through was something that she had lived through and that her parents had lived through. She grew up in an India that was very different from the India of a lot of the people around her, because she had a German mother and her father was a refugee from Bangladesh and had very little family in India as well. So she grew up in a very strange little community, I think, somewhat dislocated, on her own.

So was my father, because his parents left Gujarat ages ago, my grandfather went on this long journey to England, spent the rest of his life in Allahabad and never saw his relatives. There was hardly any communication with them. And that was a whole process, of breaking what we think of as being so deeply Indian, these bonds of community and family and religion.

On my father’s side it was ambition to be part of the ruling class, but it was also part of the idea of a secular India, which was really new. He was breaking all of this and gaining a wider idea of India, he was also losing something very old, that had gone back as far as anyone could remember. It’s a process that happened within India as well as within the community of people who had left, who had always been leaving and returning.

NR: Do your mother and you travel a lot together?

KD: Yes, we did, still do… When we left India, it was just the two of us. I was the youngest child, so I was taken along. We both went through that whole immigrant thing together. She had spent her entire life in India at that point, and all of a sudden, in her late forties, I think, she had to learn how to teach. She was out of the whole cozy world of being a middle-class Indian woman, and suddenly she had to make a living, learn how to drive in different countries, get her pension, all the rest of it, it must have been very difficult.

IP: Was it visible for you then?

KD: No, it’s only now I realize how difficult it must have been. She kept it from me, kept all the worry for me. I certainly must have been influenced by her, her writing…

(contd in next post)





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