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No one wanted my book: Kiran Desai
October 15, 2006 19:37 IST
Man Booker prize winner, India-born author Kiran Desai, has said that initially no one wanted her book, on which she worked for eight years.
"No one wanted it. No one cared," says the 35-year-old author, the youngest person to win the prestigious award for her book The Inheritance of Loss.
The book had become a monster, growing out of control.
"I wrote 1,500 pages and cut it down to 300," she told the The Sunday Times newspaper.
The Inheritance of Loss, which moves in split settings between the Himalayas and the basement kitchens of Manhattan, had sold only 2,396 copies when it entered the award's long-list, rising to 500 copies a week when she was short-listed.
It can now expect the 15-fold sales bounce of a Man Booker winner.
Transformed from obscurity to international fame in an instant, Desai, whose debut novel was Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, has her Indian childhood to thank.
The book is modeled on her experiences of staying at an aunt's Himalayan retreat. Her grandfather was a judge who studied at Cambridge, just like her leading fictional character, although the latter was consumed by self-hatred of his Indian-ness.
Born in Delhi, Desai is a daughter of a businessman. Her mother, noted writer Anita Desai, who had a Bengali father and a German mother, went on to win five literary awards and wrote 14 novels, one of which was adapted into the Merchant Ivory film In Custody.
When Desai was 14, her parents separated and she followed her mother to Britain, where the latter became a visiting fellow at Girton College, Cambridge, for a year.
Desai says walking England's streets was scary. "I was surprised by the hostility. "I grew up thinking the English must feel so bad about the colonial years that they'll be nice to me when I go there. Instead they shouted, 'God Home!' Even now they do it when I go outside London."
"I went to the local state school, and of course it was easier than the aggressive education of the Indian school system," she said.
"All I ever did was read - Jane Austen, the Brontes, Huckleberry Finn." She was shocked by the differences between India and the rest of the world. "Suddenly I understood what it meant to come from a poor country."
Mother and daughter moved to America, where Desai went to high school in Massachusetts and Hollins University in Virginia. On the surface, her immigrant experience was beguilingly different, but she came to see it as a sham.
As a penniless writer in Brooklyn, Desai shared a small apartment with a former clown, a fashion designer and a waitress. Their noise drove her to distraction and into the kitchen, where she wrote and nibbled biscuits.
Eight years passed. "I was living in a completely different time frame, completely isolated. I wouldn't answer the phone in all those years. I was scared of it."
Few people called anyway. The publishers had forgotten her and moved on. But one day last month the phone rang and an instinct made her pick it up. It was her publisher.
Twenty calls followed in quick succession. The dizzy whirligig of recognition had begun. Recalling her stay in the US, Desai says, "America is a country where immigration is shored up by a huge, heroic myth.
If you buy into that, it's easier to fit in. You're told what to say, what to aspire to. But it involves being a fake version of yourself."
Desai had enlisted in a 'garbagy' writing course at Columbia University, but had already started a debut novel that became so consuming she took two years off to complete it.
The book was Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, a satirical story inspired by an article in a newspaper about a hermit who lived for years in a tree. She began with no plot or story.
"It sort of gathered momentum and drew me along," says Desai. After an excerpt was featured in the New Yorker, it went on to win the Betty Trask award and was featured in Salman Rushdie's anthology of 50 years of Indian writing.Rushdie, whose praise adorns the cover of The Inheritance of Loss, helped to kick-start a new style of liberated Indian writing with his 1981 masterpiece Midnight's children. Then the astonishing success of Arundhati Roy's novel The God of Small Things in 1997 began a publishing feeding frenzy.