Currently, the best thing about winning the Booker Prize, as Kiran Desai would have it, is that it brought her here – to our tiny island in the Indian Ocean. “I anticipated my affection for Sri Lanka,” she says smiling. As the sun sinks past the horizon, and a dusky twilight cloaks Galle Fort, Kiran and I have what can best be described as a chat; it begins with the promise of ten minutes, and very quickly stretches to twenty, then half an hour.
Fame sits very easily on her. So much so, that the youngest female author to ever win the prestigious Booker Prize manages to be the pleasantest of surprises – unaffected, sunny tempered and genuinely sweet.
Kiran took centre stage when her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss won her the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2006. Predictably, she is something of a heroine in India and is currently the darling of the literary circuit. The question is – is it all in the genes? As the daughter of Anita Desai, Kiran has had much to live up to and at the same time a profound source of inspiration and support to live with. Though the elder Desai’s flirtation with the Booker Prize was never realized, her daughter won it the first time around. The odds of that – of both a parent and child being short listed for the literary world’s most recognized prize – are long to say the least.
Reflecting on her mother’s influences on her writing, Kiran says that Anita Desai was always blunt about the ground realities of writing – “she would say to me, ‘Never become a writer’” – good advice in a world where isolation, frustration, and pitiful pay are an accepted part of the profession. And for a while it seemed that Kiran would in fact go the other way – choosing to study science and attempting a career in ecology. However, when she found herself writing pieces like Cannibalism in the Common House Cricket, she decided to switch.
“I became a writer because nothing else worked,” says Kiran, “it was the only time when I was extremely challenged…pushed to the extremes of doubt and yet extremely happy. I was incredibly happy working every day…” Kiran would sit at the kitchen table, writing in bursts, then stopping for a drink or a bite to eat. “If I couldn’t have been a writer, I would have been a cook,” she says smiling, and slender though she may be, it turns out that Kiran loves her food. (So much so that she was “embarrassed” by “how both my books have so much to do with food…It’s all cooks and kitchens and restaurants…”)
Kiran obviously enjoyed fiction, and would in fact take writing classes in an attempt to master the art. Ironically, it was only when she opted out, reacting to what she considers the “sanitized” writing such classes produced, that Kiran found the space for her own approach. Her first book, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, took four years to write, and was recognized with lavish praise by numerous readers and critics. But the book was a fable, a light hearted, lyrical peek into the world of Sampath Chawla who became a holy man the day he climbed into the guava tree and stayed there. The Inheritance of Loss, on the other hand, though no less lyrical, could never be accused of being lighthearted.
The Inheritance of Loss is not an easy book to read, (beginning with the title) and though it does boast many instances of humour, many have accused Kiran of being resolutely pessimistic. Interestingly, Kiran herself thinks of the title in particular as being “too gloomy,” and hates having to tell people what her book is called, admitting “it throws a pall over any party.” However, when it comes to the book itself, she believes there is a redemption of sorts offered at the end.
The book, addresses and struggles with some of the most crucial issues of our time – despite being set in the 1980’s its relevance to a world still beset by poverty, fundamentalism, terrorism, globalisation and the frictions of multiculturalism and constant immigration is undisputed. How does she manage this? “I think it’s because things just haven’t changed that much,” she says simply. “Initially, I thought I would write a much simpler immigration novel,” says Kiran, explaining how she intended it to be based on her own experience as an immigrant and how it shaped her identity.
Sometimes it seems that you have to leave, to step away, before you can really understand where you were. “When I went to England I had my first realization of what it meant to be Indian. It was a really muddled time,” she explains. She like many others adapted to the demands of a new culture. In the writing, however, the book soon stretched to encompass many more stories, exploring the “underbelly of immigration,” the painful legacy of a humiliating colonial rule and the modern malaise of alienation. Set partly in India and partly in the USA, the book explores what it means “to live between East and West and what it means to be an immigrant” on many different levels and different perspectives.
The Inheritance of Loss was a long time in the writing – it took Kiran seven years to write and then another year to publish the book. Deeply immersed in her novel, Kiran found that it defined her life, and as a result, “I don’t think I can separate my existence from my writing anymore.” The result was an intimidating 1,500 pages, which in the end she whittled down to 324. “It was such a struggle,” she says, describing the process, “it was such a monster by then.” In the end it was the need for money that actually made her get down to it. With only her advance from her publishers to draw upon, Kiran soon that she was “growing poorer all the time…I was living off my family, and they kept begging me to get a job.”
But Kiran chose to stick to her guns – with her mother’s support. She went back to Kalimpong in 2001, where a part of the book’s action takes place. Having last been there when she was 14 years old, she wanted to make sure, while she was still writing her book, that memory and reality didn’t diverge too dramatically. Having last seen it through the eyes of a young girl, Kiran found much that was recognizable still. Her descriptions of the fog draping the mountains, the old wooden houses, and the underlying tensions among the people living in them – all that makes Kalimpong come alive for the reader – bespeak of long familiarity. “I wanted to write about a girl growing up there,” she reminisces, adding, “it was the rainy season, a good time for writing.”
As a result, the little details – chocolate cigars and vibrantly coloured fungus that spring up overnight after the rains – find their way in, adding depth and realism to the narrative. The house Choya Oyu, where Sai (a young girl around whom much of the plot revolves) lives with the Judge and their cook, was drawn from Kiran’s memory of her aunt’s house. Several characters, including Father Booty and the Judge have been inspired in part by people Kiran actually knew.
Today, it is still the people – her family in particular – who give Kiran roots in a rapidly changing India. Though based in New York, she visits her family every year. But saying goodbye doesn’t ever get any easier. “Leaving and saying goodbye has an effect that accumulates,” she says, “I can hardly stand to do it anymore.” However, she says that she finds a sense of identity and connection with the Diaspora and that the immigrant community provides her with a “strong and constant emotional location.”
Kiran frequently finds herself “writing about the loss of a subject, the gaps in things.” Did she find herself working with the Booker Jury in mind? “No,” she says, explaining that the best reason she had found for writing, is to please herself, besides, if it were fame and fortune she were after, “I wouldn’t have taken 7 or 8 years, I would have been quicker.” She’s remarkably grounded and will be the first to point out that “there’s talent on every street corner.”
Winning the Booker, momentous though it may have been, has changed very little about the way Kiran evaluates herself. After all, what she wants to do is write, and “writing doesn’t come from being famous or happy, it comes from more difficult places…it comes from doubt, worry and all those more uncomfortable emotions.”
Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on Jan 21, 2007. Words by Smriti Daniel.