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The Rediff Interview/Novelist Kiran Desai
'Human warmth is such an innate part of India'
January 30, 2006
Meet Kiran Desai
You were born in India and educated here, in England and the United States. Considering your formative years were spent abroad though, is there any particular reason both your books are set in India?
I left India when I was 15, but I have immediate family in Delhi and return every year to the family home, so the connection was never broken. I think my first book was filled with all that I loved most about India and knew I was in the inevitable process of losing. It was also very much a book that came from the happiness of realising how much I loved to write.
The second book isn't a book that is set entirely in India, but one that tries to capture what it means to live between East and West and what it means to be an immigrant. On a deeper level, it explores what happens when a Western element is introduced into a country that is not of the West, which is what happened, of course, during colonial times and is happening again with India's new relationship with the States.
I also wanted to write about what happens when you take people from a poor country and place them in a wealthy one. How does the imbalance between these two worlds change a person's thinking and feeling? How do these changes manifest themselves in a personal sphere, a political sphere, over time?
These are old themes that continue to be relevant in today's world, the past informing the present, the present revealing the past.
I haven't been to Kalimpong or Darjeeling, but your descriptions of both places came across as extremely authentic. Did you actually visit them? Also, with reference to the Nepali insurgence, what sort of research did that part of the book involve?
When I was growing up, my family had a house in Kalimpong that was named Chomiomo after a snow mountain in Tibet, and I briefly went to school in Kalimpong's St Joseph's Convent. My aunt, a doctor in the bazaar, still lives in this town in an old house in which the last inhabitant, a blind English woman, died completely eaten by maggots in her big brass bed, abandoned by her servants.
Kalimpong has a population of Tibetan refugees and a majority population of Nepalis who were brought generations ago to work on British tea plantations. It is a very beautiful place, but the strains were obvious even when we were living there. My aunt lived through the agitation and we left just as the trouble was beginning. I could feel the strains, but I was about 13 then and it was many years before I could understand the reasons behind them as well as behind other conflicts of class and nationality that this book examines.
I couldn't have written this without having grown up in India, but I also couldn't have written it without having left India or without the memories of people who had gone to England in previous generations.
What does it mean to be an immigrant? What does it mean to return or to journey between worlds? There is a parallel between the stories of Nepali immigrants in India and Indian immigrants in the States, all struggling with questions of what it means to be the cheap labour, with the questions of rights and identity.
The political information is accurate to my knowledge and based on my memories and the stories of everyone I know there. Also, the details are accurate: Gobbo the town thief with a relative in the police, the two old cobras living in the jhora ravine, a pair of Afghan princesses, a Swiss priest who ran a cheese making enterprise. I remember him with great affection along with the lovely sweet yoghurt and the chocolate cigars he sold from the dairy.
While writing this book, I wrote all the Kalimpong bits in Kalimpong, staying in a house lent to me during the rainy season. It was very wild and beautiful, rain hammering down, mist and fog. I lived alone and learned both the hard and the beautiful way what it means to be a writer.
You manage to raise pertinent questions related to the immigrant issue, in the novel. The overwhelming tone that comes across is one of bitterness though, felt by most immigrants who leave their home country. Would you agree with that?
I think there's always a degree of loss in being an immigrant. It feels as if one will never be able to tell an entire story ever again. There'll be an aspect of living half a life, having only half a story to tell. We tend to hope for a simplicity of truth, a wholeness which is rarely delivered us.
My book examines lives that are forced, because of circumstance, to be those of hypocrisy, of gaps and fears, or of truths that cannot be simply attained and added up into anything trustworthy. They conflict with other peoples' ideas of things, or they belong to times past and stories that are lost or forgotten.
People deal with situations like this differently. I've seen a lot of insistence on being as American as possible, which I think is something that often comes out of a sense of shame. I've seen a lot of cruelty in the process of leaving and breaking families apart.
What frightens me most, though, is that while there's a lot of crowing about how we're the richest minority group, we tend to leave out the fact that the poorest people of India are also in the States, betrayed not only by the Western world, but by the wealthier group of Indian immigrants.
The divide that exists in India continues overseas. It is to the advantage of everyone on the more powerful side. There's never been an honest attempt in the United States to address the problem of illegal immigration. It suits them to have an underclass as much as it suits wealthier people in India to have a servant class.
A lot of the exchanges between characters -– Lola and Noni versus Mrs Sen, for instance -– reflect leanings towards cultures not their own. Do you come across that a lot while living abroad?
Yes, while Lola and Noni are Anglophiles and Mrs Sen is a passionate supporter of the United States. I have seen people of the United States and various Western countries, passionately interested in, say, Japan, or India. For different reasons, of course, but still a desire for something beyond their own existence.
There is a certain sympathy in your tone when you describe the desperation experienced by Biju and thousands like him as they stand in line for a visa. What inspired you to come up with that particular aspect of the novel? Have you spoken to people like Biju in the US?
I have stood in line myself at the American embassy many times over and witnessed the scene unfold. I think poverty is so extremely close to us that it's practically the closest thing in our lives although sometimes we refuse to see it.
It's every bite of food we eat that's been picked by someone poverty stricken and every item of clothing we wear. I've seen the efforts made on the Indian side to leave India, I get requests for help in this matter every time I return. And in the States, in every restaurant and shop, in taxis all over Manhattan, I've heard the story on the other side.
I used to live near a bakery like the Queen of Tarts (a restaurant mentioned in her novel)and talked to the people who worked there. And I lived with people from Zanzibar in the neighbourhood that I describe, so that is also taken from real life.
What did you think you wanted to say when you first set out to write The Inheritance of Loss? Do you think you managed to convey all you wanted to?
Ever since I left India to lead this life of going back and forth, certain patterns have revealed themselves, emotional as well as historical. I began to consider the complexity of growing up in India, the changing world of my parents and grandparents, the subsequent direction of my life that is a continuation of those days and the upheavals of that time.
My maternal grandmother was German, left before the war and never returned. My grandfather was a refugee from Bangladesh. On my father's side, my grandparents came from a village in Gujarat. My grandfather travelled all the way to England for an education. The characters of my story are entirely fictional, but these journeys as well as my own provided insight into what it means to travel between East and West and it is this I wanted to capture.
The fact that I live this particular life is no accident. It was my inheritance.
As for whether I'm content with the book -- I always have the feeling that something got away. Where is that thing -– the sublime novel? What would it feel like to hold that in my hands? Whenever I come across it as a reader, I read trembling. Like any art form, when it's great, the person experiencing it exists in a form of grace. I hunger for that feeling as a writer as well as a reader.
Do you read other authors while working on a novel of your own?
I try and read authors who are not working out of the same landscape. I find if I do, their sensibility seeps into my own. But I'm catching up now. Of course, I read other things. (Winfried Georg) Sebald, (Haruki) Murakami, (Isaac Bashevis) Singer, (Saul) Bellow, older writers like (Junichiro) Tanizaki and Patrick White. A wonderful treasure of a book I think everyone should read is Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi, an Afghan writer. It's a complex book that seems to capture all of what is happening in Afghanistan, although it's tiny in pages. A wonderful, wonderful book.
Every seventh person in India appears to be working on a debut novel at the moment. Have you read any contemporary Indian fiction -– specifically, Indian writers living in India -– that has moved you recently?
Yes, it's nice to know that whatever they're saying, the novel is not dead in India. I just re-read Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August and was impressed by it all over again. Arundhati Roy, of course. Amit Chaudhari. Mahasweta Devi in translation. I read my Ruskin Bond like everyone else in India. I think with the entire body of his work, like (R K) Narayan's, he provides us with a bedrock of what it is to be Indian, in the sweetest possible incarnation of its meaning.
What is your earliest memory of India, and the one that last struck you about the country?
My earliest memory dates back to baby days in Chandigarh and like most childhood memories, they are domestic. Sitting under the table pulling the toes of all my older siblings and parents in turn. Utter happiness. I remember my father whistling in his bath and calling me his three-in-one ice cream, chocolate-vanilla-strawberry. Of sitting, a very little girl, in my mother's lap, layers of soft, old Bengali striped sari, playing with the bangles she wore, one on each wrist, a book in front, and her voice which is an utterly beautiful voice, reading.
My most recent impression was of a city that, while changing rapidly, still feels old, the light, the dust, the domes of tombs between the high rises, so many more years older. Delhi will always have its history at its back. The glitz everyone talks about still seems isolated to me, contained in a few neighbourhoods, in some shops and restaurants. While one class talks in dollars and euros, poverty is as old as ever, deeply entrenched. Despite this, my impression was also of a happy city.
Human warmth is such an innate part of India, and good humour. I miss it terribly now that I am back in New York.
Considering the value of your earlier work, you don't really need to do these media road trips (Kiran Desai was recently in Delhi to do a number of interviews with the Indian media?). Why do you?
I keep it down to a bare minimum because it doesn't exactly go with the way in which I write, which is in a very quiet and isolated fashion. And it doesn't exactly go with my personality. I'm trying to get out of some readings as I write this. But publishers expect it these days.
I think it's become an inevitable part of being a writer. It's a funny thing because, of course, it takes a completely different talent to write than it does to perform.
Some writers have the amazing ability to do both. I just saw Rushdie, and after him Seth, and thought that if they hadn't wanted to write, they might have easily become actors.
Are you satisfied with the way your work has developed, as a writer? Do you see yourself continuing to write more in future?
I think this book is better than the last, but certainly I don't think it's perfect. It's the hardest thing to write a perfect book. Yet, of course, as a reader, I hunger for it. It's a constant desire and I know I'll write another book for that reason.
Each book is its own challenge and I find myself at exactly the same level of trepidation and doubt as when I began the last time around.
Writing, for me, means humility. It's a process that involves fear and doubt, especially if you're writing honestly. I imagine businessmen feel smug at least twice a day. Writers? The moments are rare.
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