ONE ON ONE WITH KIRAN DESAI
This one couldn't make it to the papers thanks to its sheer size. Here's where our blogs come in. I am going to make no bones about it. Kiran is an absolute delight to be with, a dream author to interview, this is what we chatted about after our hour and a half long session followed by a loooong book signing by Kiran. It was worth every moment of her time and I am truly appreciative of it. Yes, some day, I shall attempt to transcribe the session too, since the audio isn't fantastic. In the interim, enjoy this....
Meeting award-winning author Kiran Desai is almost like bumping into an old friend. I was to do a one-on-one with her at the inaugural Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka and apart from two brief email exchanges we hadn't found time to chat. I finally bumped into her at a book reading at the Sun House and was struck by how slim she is in person. In fact, she could easily pass off as a school girl. We speak about that before attempting to get down to what we should really have started off with - our session.
It's hard to get to that because the Man-Booker-win had transformed Kiran into the literary equivalent of a rock star at Galle. Fans wanted a quick word, some wanted to discuss the book, others wanted to get it signed. Being the wonderful person she is, she obliged everyone along the way. She isn't one of those authors, who just asks your name, scribbles it on the page and hands the book back to you. Her interest in her reader is genuine, 'after all they give us our stories' she points out matter-of-factly. Having met her mother at the Ubud Writers Festival, it's easy to draw parallels and say like mother, like daughter. Despite her splendid work and rapidly growing list of literary awards – Betty Trask, Man Booker - Kiran has inherited her mother's modesty. She considers prizes incidental. She throws me off by speaking of her struggle to write and when asked about the seven year gap between her debut 'Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard' and the award-winning 'The Inheritance of Loss', she simply points out that publishers weren't exactly rushing to her with huge advances for the next book. Instead of dwelling on the Man Booker laurel, she chooses to highlight the struggle of getting her book out. She talks with ease, delivering her thoughts in a lilting convent-school accent. Despite her informality, she has a certain presence that makes her captivating -- a quality that's translated in her writings and has won the hearts of many a fan.
Excerpts from a conversation with the youngest female recipient of the prestigious Man Booker Award:
Q : We've seen the backdrop of partition, post 1985 Punjab but the issues of North-Eastern India have remained largely unexplored. What drew you to them in your award-winning book 'The Inheritance of Loss'?
A : I was surprised I went back to the North-East and made this return journey to a part of India where I partly grew up in and I think its because I was an immigrant to America that I started thinking so much about issues of immigrants - the issues of politics, what it means to leave a poor part of the world and go to a so-called wealthier one. Beyond the monetary issues what does it mean in human terms. Also when you look at it so many generations on, what does it feeling at home in any other country mean. Of course, its a debate that exists all over the world. We tend to think of it as a Western issue but it isn't. I realised that I'd never really thought about that period of my life when I'd been growing up in India at the time of the conflict in the North-East. It was the Gurkha movement when Nepalese Indians were standing up and demanding political and economic rights. They found that several generations on they were being treated as cheap labour and that their rights were not being respected. So I wanted to explore what does it mean for a country and a nation-state. So it was a way for me to examine both these issues together. It took me back to India, it took me back to Kalimpong, which was wonderful because it took me back to a time when I was growing up. Among other things, it helped me explore what it means to grow up in such a complicated, complex environment.
Q : What was it like to capture all the nuances of a life gone by? You do it so beautifully, from the description of the setting right down to the chocolate cigars which were and hopefully still are a Kalimpong trademark.
A : You know it's such a beautiful part of the country, really wild and beautiful and also complicated in many ways. As a writer, it's such a joy to go back to a place that offers such richness and to use language in a totally different way. I was glad to return to those childhood memories, remembering and recreating some of the characters I knew from my childhood. It was a wonderful experience.
Q : Reactions to your book have been totally amazing, the Man Booker Award is a testament to that. Did you ever imagine the kind of response you've received?
A : Not at all. It's a difficult book about a difficult subject. I just didn't want to write a book that looked at immigration like a shiny way of advertising that shows that everything in the West is alright. It may be a beautiful picture for some immigrants, but it isn't for so many others and for these people there is perhaps a greater degree of loss. There is this huge imbalance between the rich and the poor, privileged and the under-privileged, the class divides are there and I was exploring these issues in India and in the west. So it was a tough book and it was hard for me to get it published. In fact, after several tries it got picked up by Hamish Hamilton in the UK. The process of writing it, finding a publisher for it was hard work and I was quite amazed to see this turn around from rejection to recognition.
Q : You've often acknowledged the debt of gratitude you owe to your mother, Anita Desai. How much of an influence has she been when it comes to writing?
A : So much. I mean not only in terms of what it means to be a writer. It's been a very deep experience to be able to write this book in her presence and she's written so many books about so many hard subjects, she has looked at so many difficult issues and dealt with them so beautifully in her writing. I really learnt so much from that.
Q : Kiran, readers waited seven long years for 'The Inheritance of Loss'. You've won the Man Booker now and I am sure the pressure of the next novel must be intense. Are you already at work on it?
A : Not yet. I'm just travelling, doing book tours, promotional events, literary festivals and it looks like that's going to be my life for several months ahead. I really long to write. I think prizes just don't go with good writing, that doesn't really help. Writing comes from a very private and often difficult place and I think it takes isolation to get there, I'm looking forward to resuming my writing, maybe this summer.
Q : So once the dust settles, you are pretty certain you want the solitary confinement of a writer?
A : It's hard to live a lonely life. It's certainly difficult, but I need it for my work. I know its difficult but I do love it in many ways and I have learnt to appreciate it.
Q : Noted travel writer Paul Theroux once said that his biggest fear is not running out of ideas but writing a dull book. What's your greatest fear as a writer?
A : Worrying about the next subject for the next book. I never know in advance what I'm going to be doing. It's a process of sitting at my desk and a book is revealed gradually, so there's always the worry that there's going to be nothing else there but I do long for the sitting at my desk.