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'Human warmth is such an innate part of India'
'What does it mean to be an immigrant?'
Now, daughter Kiran Desai's second book, The Inheritance of Loss published about eight years after the comical Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, is among the six novels shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize, the most important British award for literature.
One of the most prestigious prizes in the British Commonwealth, the Booker winner will be announced October 10.
Desai's novel received some of the finest notices in America, with a Page 1 review in The New York Times Book Review and was on the newspaper's bestsellers list last year.
Desai, a New Yorker, spoke to Rediff India Abroad Managing Editor (Features) Arthur J Pais recently.
How did your book-reading in London [Images] go?
It was the most interesting time I ever had in promoting my book. One of the readings was held in an area full of immigrants, many from the Indian Diaspora. But there were also people from the West Indies [Images], Poland and a few European countries. The reading was held in a Gujarati vegetarian restaurant.
And who came to listen to you?
It was a very colourful and diverse audience. There was a Rastafarian poet, for instance. And people working with abused women. A lot of Gujaratis, too. It was like being greeted by your relatives.
You have read in London before this...
Yes, and I have been to England [Images] many times. But I always thought England was a foreign country, but this time it was very different. It was like a homecoming.
What were the more interesting things the readers shared with you?
I saw many of them were not buying the pretty picture politicians paint of globalisation. The people I met and spoke with did not always have a happy and easy journey migrating and settling down in England. The conversation, then, was not one-sided.
Many Indian-American writers tire of a question from fellow expatriates that goes something like: 'Why are you writing bad things about India?' Are there questions you hope you won't have to answer?'
I am more worried about people asking me things that are not connected to the book. A radio interviewer in America was purportedly going to interview me about my book but was more interested in talking about the cartoon controversy in Denmark.
How did you handle the situation?
I could not be rude. So I answered it in the best way I could. I also mentioned that I was not a Muslim but I could understand the anger against the cartoons that made fun of their faith and ridiculed the Prophet. I also said in my own community in India people have reacted angrily when a statue of a god was vandalised.
What were your thoughts when you heard of the Booker nomination?
A Booker nomination means getting more attention to your book, which is not an easy thing considering that your book is set in India. There are many British writers of Indian origin there who get a lot of attention because they happen to be there. And the British feel closer to them.
My mother and I were chatting about the Booker the other day. She said, never mind the nominations and awards, a writer has to focus on the work at hand, or the plan to write the next book. Everything else comes next.
Has anything surprised you about the way the novel has been received?
I am glad that people have taken to the book. There is quite a bit of humour in it but it is also a dark novel. I have been more than surprised that many Indians abroad too have said that they found the book appealing and that it made them think about inequities and injustices in the country.
I find this consoling because you often meet people who think things are not going to change for the better, who believe that everything in the world is rotten. So it is good to feel that people continue to think, at times because of what they read, that there could be a change.
A few years ago you had said in an interview that you work best in the morning and you have dead space in the afternoon. Has that changed?
No. But I must clarify. I work in the mornings and evenings. In the mornings, I am more clear-headed and focused. In the nights, it is my wild, dark imagination that is working. I also listen to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and keep nibbling at my kababs. In the morning, I work on what I have written in the night, revise and revisit my characters.
You have talked at length how much you love to work in the kitchen. You did that while you worked on your first novel. Did you do it this time too?
I love to write in the kitchen. When I was working on my first novel, I used to go to my mother's home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I often work sitting in the kitchen, next to the refrigerator.
What else is interesting about the kitchen?
When I write I can hardly do anything else. I can't tear myself away from my writing. I keep myself isolated for the most part. I enjoy cooking. It makes me feel very calm. It is a very good diversion, a kind of therapy. So I write, I cook and I eat. I try out old recipes. There was a time I used a lot of Madhur Jaffrey's recipes. Now I try many family recipes. I love to experiment with my food.
Have you been tempted to write a cookbook?
I almost came to writing one (chuckles). Actually I was asked if I could ghostwrite a book for Iron Chef. I was tempted but then I also remembered that in the next two months, I will have to do a lot of work to promote the paperback edition of my novel. With hindsight, I think it was a good decision because I might not have been to do justice to it.
Your mother has taught at some of the finest schools in America. Do you think of yourself as a full-time professor who also makes time to write?
Certainly. I have received some very good offers and I have tentatively accepted one. But then I am wondering whether I should write one more book before I take up teaching. I must also ask my mother how she kept the two careers going at the same time.
Many writers and artists I have interviewed have spoken of their one big fear, Novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux told me he did not think he would ever run short of ideas. But he was afraid he would write a dull book. What is your biggest fear?
My biggest fear is how I am going to deal with the real world because I am always absorbed in my writing. People often tell me that it is difficult for them to find time to write because they have to deal with the real world. In my case, it is the opposite.
Not long ago I was on a beach near Puri and I went into the ocean. The pull was so strong but I kept on going. Later my friends and relatives said I was crazy to do it because the waters there are treacherous.
Writing fiction is like the draw of the ocean. The draw is so great and beguiling that I am lost in it. But from time to time I realise that I have to deal with the real world. Going into teaching would make me to do it, I guess. I enjoy teaching, and it would also give me a steady income.
Are you religious?
Not at all. I observe the festivals and I visit the temples but not for religious reasons.
Were you ever religious?
Never. We were brought up in a secular tradition. Of course, you can be secular and religious too. But there was no religion in our home.
You made us wait for more than seven years for this book. Do we have to wait that long for your next?
I don't think so, seven years would be too much of a break but I have not decided what my next book would be.
Why do you take such a long time to write a book?
Things drag on at times because I want each word, each sentence and each chapter to be better.
What happens when you are not working on a book?
My life feels empty. I feel half my life, half my intelligence is missing when I'm not writing.
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