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'There has always been an immense integrity to Anita Desai'

Last updated on: January 25, 2008 20:09 IST

Kiran Desai, the Booker Prize winning author of The Inheritance Of Loss, surely has a list of distinguished professors and acclaimed authors who have influenced and inspired her. But no one can come in her esteem anywhere near her mother, the novelist and retired MIT professor Anita Desai.

Anita Desai, the writer of such well-received books as In Custody and The Zigzag Way, was recently made a fellow of India's most respected literary organisation, the Sahitya Akademi.

For Kiran, her 70-year-old mother is much than an inspiration and mentor. It is her mother's humanity and example as a writer without vanity that have made the biggest difference in Kiran's life.

Though she began reading her mother's books when she was in her early teens over two decades ago, the Booker winner says she never thought she would be a writer. "I thought I will be content reading all my life," she says.

But over a decade ago the daughter too decided to try writing fiction.

In a recent interview Kiran Desai, who lives in New York City, about an hour's drive from her mother's home, recalled the profound influence the senior Desai has on her.

When did you first realise that your mother was a writer?

Ever since I was growing up, my earliest memories of my mother is that she was very involved in our lives as a mother. But I also had another realisation about her, that she also had another life. That was one of the mysteries about her: she had a private life. Much later in my life, I came to understand it. Every morning, soon after we left for school (in New Delhi), she would run to her desk and start writing. It was this enormous thing in her life: it was a daily affair!

What did you think then about her daily affair?

Growing up, I would always ask myself how on earth a sweet mother in the house talking about the mundane things with the family could do the work coming from another source altogether. Of course, now I know that the act of writing itself, going into a room and shutting yourself from others, creates so much of sadness; to think of these very difficult things in a very clear way is very remarkable. I remember her bookshelves all over the house, her intensity of reading, of thought, and (as you have noted in your articles) her integrity.

To me, integrity is one of her most important assets and that is always reflected in her life, and I'm sure in her writing.

This intense love for writing, for literature that she had has had a very spiritual effect on us. Even today, when I work with my mother, I see that she has this effect on me. There has always been an immense integrity to her both as a mother and as a writer as well. With many other writers, I see their ego is so big.

So when you are with your mother, you are in a different world.

Now, when I live in Brooklyn, New York, I see the networking of other writers and the competition. When I leave the city and go to my mother living far from the city, I am so happy to see a completely different life, of thinking and living and thinking about writing. I am so happy to have that. If I didn't have that, I also would probably have been swallowed up by this New York way of writing, of competition, that is so much part of the world: the materialistic way of writing.

There is this purity of her work and writing. And, for me as a daughter to have seen that, being with her and having access to that at any moment means a lot. After all these years, that spirit has evolved like her in me and in my work...

You are also friends and writing companions.

Soon we're going back, once more, to San Miguel, Mexico, to spend time together. I'm so happy because this will be the third book I start with my mother and work in Mexico with her. In a quiet way, she provides the space, not the gun at the starting point. This influences my thinking about the writing of the book. This is a totally different spirit than if I started working on it in New York because I would hear from other writers that this is the fashionable book of the moment. This kind of conversation never happens with her around, in her house or in San Miguel.

What did you notice most in your mother as a writer when you were growing up?

You know, she protected her work. I think this is what I also learnt and I too did not speak about my book (The Inheritance Of Loss) for all the seven or eight years I was writing it. Of course, she knew I was writing a book but did not discuss it directly over lunch or dinner. It also happened the same way with my first novel (Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard).

When did you first read her book?

I think it was, probably, Fire On The Mountain. It was close to my life as a child because we would always go up to the hill stations for the summer. We were growing up in Delhi and we would go for summer vacations to Missouri. Now, when I see my first book and even my second book, I see the influence of that early book. It is about this girl who went up to stay with her grandmother whose life was very solitary and lived up in the hills and the unexpected violence that breaks into their life. My first book was very much also concerned with matters of solitude and leading a hermit life: a younger person with a crotchety older person. I knew this actual setting, this actual place and it worked.

Your books are also concerned deeply with humanism. How much of that concern did you find in her books?

I learned from my mother and from Fire On The Mountain that if you don't look at what's happening around you, address the problems and you live this isolated, hermit life and ignore that there are poor people living on the hillside, etc, then these problems will visit you. When I was a little older, I kept her books aside for a while.

Why did you start reading her again?

I think when your sensibilities are being developed, you begin to read with intensity. You understand what kind of reader you will be. You really learn things about yourself. You discover your aesthetic sense. I think, at that age, I began reading her work with new love and passion. In those years, I was reading Clear Light Of Day, The Village By The Sea, Baumgartner's Bombay.

Did you read any of her books as she wrote them?

At that time (when I was in India and, later, as a student in America), I read them books after they were published. Now, I read the first galleys.

Never read them as they are being written?

(Laughs) Never. More so, because my mother writes by hand and nobody can read her handwriting. Finally she types it, and her cut and paste is literally cut and paste. She is there with the scissors and the glue and the old fashioned whiteout. She does that wherever we are: in Mexico, at her home in upstate New York

You have said her In Custody is one of your favourite books.

In Custody was written with a lot of love and fondness about that old culture in Delhi that had vanished, a memory of growing up in a Delhi that had departed. It is certainly something of her generation and of my father too, has lost, and they remember it with certain sadness. They saw their close family friends disappearing, going to Pakistan. Urdu, the language that they had grown up with was dying; the feeling that the poetry was leaving meant a big loss to my mother. 

Does she still talk about old Delhi?

She talks about it often, of growing up in Old Delhi and going to their neighbour's house where they would have poetry readings at night; sitting out in the old Delhi rooftops; reading Urdu poetry and what it meant to grow up in that culture, and then to see it eroded in your lifetime. The entire city changed, in fact vanished after the Partition, it became something else overnight; the grace of that culture and intricate manners and a beautiful culture went away.

Tell us about another book by your mother that influenced you considerably.

Baumgartner's Bombay had a great influence on my second book: especially the theme of the combination of the western world and the eastern world in exile. The emotions of exile, I think, were so familiar to my mother because of her mother, who was a German, lived in India after her marriage and never returned to her home country. And, from that mixture of India and the western world, I began to explore the theme in another generation. The historical context and the depth of that emotion came from my mother and from reading her books.

Does your mother discuss with you how her work is progressing?

No. She is still very private. The most she will say that she is working on a book on Mexico (like the time when she wrote The Zigzag Way). That's about it! If she is reading a book on miners and mining, I know that it is going to be in her book and she'll mention it. That is all. Much of her writing is done mentally first before she even starts working on the book.

Do you tell her what you are working on?

No, I'm like her. If you discuss it with others, you are influenced by what they say and the writing becomes more mundane in a way. When you drive yourself to those far, interesting, eccentric places, you have to be alone. This is something I must have learned from her. I find it difficult to talk about my work or what I'm thinking, but I can talk about thoughts behind my work

Does your mother have to wait to read your books after they are published?

(Laughs) My mother gets to see my work when it is still a manuscript and she is so happy to edit it.  This was the case with my first book and the same with my second book.

Were you surprised at all when you left India to study in America by the admiration and high regard people have for your mother?

When we left India (about two decades ago), we went to England first. My mother taught there for some time. I realised then, and later as we travelled together, that she had an immediate connection with people all around the world because of her work. Her books were on the shelves of people in China, Japan, Scandinavia, Germany. That's the wonderful thing about writing.

What kind of joy have you experienced as a writer?

You feel that joy that you don't have to think about political links and fights between nations at all because your own relationships with other countries are completely different. I realised long ago that that is what she had. Going to book readings with her, and see her talk to her readers was a real lesson in the power of literature. I feel that is something we keep forgetting I think.

You have travelled widely to promote your bestselling novel, The Inheritance Of Loss. Do people ask you if you are related to Anita Desai?

(Laughs gently) You have no idea during my travels in the last few years, you have no idea how many people have come up to me and said, 'I am a fan of your mother. I read your mother's books.' In Indonesia, and Latin America more recently, people have asked me if I had grown up reading my mother's work. It is really so appealing when I hear these comments about this really quiet and isolated person.

Photograph: Paresh Gandhi

The Anita Desai special

Arthur J Pais