(Published in the IIC Quarterly, June 2007)

Kiran Desai: Interviewed by Ira Pande and NSR.


(Continued from previous post)

Ira Pande: You said somewhere that as you enter that house, your mother’s house, you feel as if you’re in the presence of a writer.

Kiran Desai: It is strange to go into her house in New York because she lives very much in and among her books, and sometimes it feels like a house of real exile. A lot of immigrants like the thought of being exiled, because it’s so much more romantic, so much more elegant than being an immigrant. A lot of people who are immigrants will call themselves exiles…

But the word has a deeper meaning. People who are immigrants do feel that they’re exiled in many ways, even if the decision to leave has been their own. I go into her house and it does feel like the house of an exile, sometimes I walk into it and it’s like looking at those old Russian photographs of Osip Mandelstam’s house. How strange that my mother’s house should remind me of, you know, looking at photographs of a Russian poet’s house! But it has that atmosphere.

IP: And how do you feel when you come to India and enter your father’s house, what kind of change is that?

KD: I’m struck by how much at ease he is, in his own life. I was very conscious when writing this book that I’ve given up that complete ease. You never have it as an immigrant, when you pretend to fit in and you may even feel comfortable, but that kind of ease in your skin and in your house and in your language is missing.

I think as an immigrant your language is curbed, it becomes much more formal, in terms of communicating you have to hold it to a much more basic grammar in order to get your point across. The eccentricity of language goes, unless you really insist on centering yourself within the Indian community. You can’t keep the humour. It’s a really sad loss, and I could see a lot of the writers in Jaipur who had come from elsewhere, I saw it very much in Salman Rushdie, an incredible happiness in talking.

IP: I hadn’t thought of it this way, but a lot of the immigrant writers lack the ability to be irreverent in the way you can if you live here. We curse India all the time but when the same thing is said by somebody who lives abroad we get very defensive.

KD: This brings back vivid memories of growing up in India and having the foreign relatives arrive. And then after they’d left, we used to laugh at them…

Nilanjana S Roy: Was that what got you into trouble, when people in Nepal and Kalimpong objected to the way they were reflected in your novel?

KD: It was really unexpected, that bit of anger, I hadn’t expected it. And it only happened after the Booker, at first there was no bad response at all, only a good response. You try to write about characters in particular; suddenly you realize that you’re seen as representing a people. That’s always just terrible.

Your whole desire is to talk about what one human being might be going through against all these big forces, against what’s happening in the world. You’re writing in a world of complete imbalance, you aren’t trying to represent an entire people. It was just a muddy time, nobody there really knew what was going on in the early stages of the GNLF struggle.

Barkha Dutt (of NDTV) asked me during the Jaipur Festival, well, what is this mixture of sweet and threatening, I didn’t put it together in my head at the time, on stage. But of course that’s the whole argument against colonial literature, that you’re seeing the “natives” as being simultaneously sweet and naïve, but also as a threat. And my attempt at that moment was to describe what I saw when I was there.

Part of being Indian, or having a childhood in India, is that there will be a moment in your life when you will see normal life slide into violence, and you will hear the sound of a riot, and you will grow up hearing the sound of people screaming for their lives, and you will see fires burning. And you see all the boys in the market, and they’re suddenly out on the streets pulling people out of their cars and setting them on fire, and then it’s all over, and then they’re back in the market. I don’t know how you get your mind around it and your heart around it, you can’t.

NR: You were very ruthless in the book, when you pointed out that it’s not enough to be innocuous, harmless in the way that a lot of people who lived in and around Cho Oyu were. You said there was culpability, said it very clearly.

KD: That society is one I belong to, those two old Bengali sisters…

IP: I remember that lovely scene where the two sisters have their garden slowly being colonized by squatters.

KD: That scene was not made up, that scene of having to go and talk to the pradhan, where he said, I have to look after my people and who are you to have this land anyway—that was based on real life. There was sudden awareness then for us. You realize you were living in a complete fantasy, on this hillside where it’s madly beautiful, and you think you can have it, but you can’t have it. There are other people whose claim on it is much deeper.

NR: Will the Booker eventually free you up a bit?

KD: It’s such a strange prize, it has an effect on my life, but a prize doesn’t make you feel any different, really, it’s just a bizarre thing that’s happened. I’m not used to getting any prizes, I didn’t get any prizes in Loreto Convent!

IP: But there’s both sides to it; thankfully now you can afford to write.

KD: Yes, I can afford to write. It was hard. It was so hard, I didn’t mind that it was so hard, I don’t think you do mind if you’re writing, it doesn’t matter if you’re poor, but yes, I had no money at all, and I had to make a living and feed myself (starts laughing again) which is sad, but true! I lived in a smaller room, and then a smaller room, and then with more and more room mates, and more and more people, and finally in the end, it was really hard to work.

IP: Thankfully that’s behind you now, but the equally frightening thing is that now having got the Booker, your next book is going to be that much harder to write?

KD: In India, it seems more important than anywhere! It’s very strange, the whole prizegiving world is very strange. Publishers say it’s so useful, it brings attention to books, but it’s really scary, the focus is on three books, or four books, the rest get lost.

IP: Is there another book which one could look forward to?

KD: Not yet, I haven’t begun yet, even reading is hard for me right now.

NR: It’s strange, in terms of your writing career, this is just your second book, so you should be given the tolerance due to a writer who’s just starting to find her way.

KD: I feel as if I’ve got a long way to go. This book was an attempt to be direct and honest about a particular process, but I forgot to play. If you read Italo Calvino or someone like that, you realize that to lose that side of being a writer because it isn’t the right political moment is very tragic. I wouldn’t want to lose that imaginative ability for the sake of a literary trend.

IP: Kiran, thank you for being with us, and for your time.