REFLECTIONS FROM GALLE
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61 writers, over 50 events, 12 stunning settings.
That might not sound like anything unusual for a literary festival -- unless, of course, you're in Sri Lanka.
For far too long, 'Sri Lanka' and 'violence' have been used almost inter-changeably. That's why the prospect of an untested festival drawing famous authors has created such a buzz among the literary fraternity.
William Darlymple, Suketu Mehta, Mark Tully, as well as spice queen Madhur Jaffrey were among the slew of well-known literary names who attended. Sri Lankan authors were there in full force too. But the biggest draw, without a doubt was last year's Man Booker Prize winner Kiran Desai.
She was clearly the literary equivalent of a rock star, without the airs. Having exchanged two brief emails, I tried pulling her over for a quick chat before our 90 minute session, but were overtaken by a crowd of avid readers. It was quite an experience to watch her with them. If there was one word to be sum it up, it would be 'genuine'. When I point that out, she responds matter of factly "after all they give us our stories." Despite her splendid work and rapidly growing list of literary awards - Betty Trask, Man Booker - Kiran just like her mother, the celebrated Anita Desai, remains remarkably modest.
After our session, there's a bit of time left for this interview. She floors me from the outset -- the way she casually shrugs off her prizes as incidental. She dwells instead on her longing to write again, "I think prizes just don't go with good writing. Writing comes from a very private and often difficult place and I think it takes isolation to get there."
I've had always wondered about the seven year gap between her debut 'Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard' and the award-winning second book - 'The Inheritance of Loss'. And finally got my answer. Kiran says the lag was partly because publishers weren't beating down her door with huge advances for a next book.
And, it was a challenge book to write. "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. It was a tough book and it was hard for me to get it published and I was quite amazed to see this turn around from rejection to recognition."
The book is set in North-Eastern India's Kalimpong, taking Kiran back to some of the characters and places of her childhood. "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."
Speaking of writing, Kiran is also quick to express her debt of gratitude to her mother. "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."
With that we move on to, what else, but the next book. When asked about her greatest fear as a writer, she points out "it's 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."
And she hopes to do that this summer, once the publicity over her recent win settles. That's good news for the growing legion of Kiran Desai fans anxiously waiting for the next big one.