She's all write
She's so modest she reckons she shouldn't have even won the Booker. Kavitha Rao uncovers the hard, angry core that Kiran Desai pours into her prose
KIRAN DESAI IS tired of being called modest. 'I get called modest so often that I now want to do something immodest,' she says, laughing. Some might say she has much to be immodest about. At 35, this year's Man Booker Prize winner is the youngest woman to win - and for only her second book, The Inheritance of Loss. How does she remain grounded? 'It's easy to stay humble, because writing humiliates me on a daily basis,' she says.
Desai is in Mumbai, halfway through a gruelling tour of India, where she has been garlanded, feted and her opinion sought on everything from racism to homophobic laws. Bootleg copies of her novel are sold by urchins on street corners.
'Winning the Booker was surreal,' she says. 'All this fuss is so different from the years I spent in isolation writing the book. I wouldn't even pick up the phone most days, because I didn't want to be interrupted.'
Desai spent seven years as a virtual hermit, living in New York in what she describes as 'utter penury'. She had no health insurance and stayed with relatives to save money. 'I'd save up all my illnesses for when I was visiting India,' she jokes.
Despite her precise, almost school-marmish voice, Desai laughs easily and often - usually at herself. 'I do wish I had given this book a more cheerful title,' she says. 'At cocktail parties, people keep asking me if it's a self-help book.'
The dark yet often funny saga focuses on immigration, economic inequality and globalisation. Jemubhai Patel, an elderly judge, lives in Kalimpong, a tiny Himalayan town. He's a bitter recluse, warped by racism and loneliness he suffered during his education at Cambridge. His life is disrupted by the arrival of Sai, his orphaned granddaughter, who begins an affair with her Nepali tutor, Gyan. Then Kalimpong is taken over by Nepali separatists agitating for an independent homeland. In a parallel narrative, the cook's son, Biju, struggles as an illegal immigrant in New York. The judge, Biju and Gyan are all stunted by the experience of immigration. Each is humiliated and humiliates in turn.
Desai says this bleak view of immigrant life comes partly from her own experience. She left India at the age of 14 with her mother, Anita Desai, a pioneer of Indian writing in English who was three times nominated for the Booker Prize. They lived first in Britain and then in the US. She went to high school in Massachusetts and then attended Columbia University. Her family history is full of travellers and immigrants. Anita is half-German and many of her novels are about displacement. One of her grandfathers was a refugee from Bangladesh; the other was educated in Cambridge. Desai studied briefly in Kalimpong and still has family there.
She remains nostalgic about her roots and talks wistfully about the losses of immigration and the sacrifice of ease, language and community.
'I'm very conscious of the fact I only have half stories - fragments of stories at best,' she says. 'I have an immense jealousy of writers such as R.K. Narayan, who have lived all their lives in India. I sometimes think, 'Will I ever have a whole story to tell?' The most wonderful thing about writing this book is that it has helped me rekindle my relationship with India.'
Desai says she was determined to expose the dark underbelly of immigration and write about poor immigrants, who are often overshadowed by the success stories of multiculturalism. Biju ekes out a meagre and lonely existence as a cook, living one step ahead of the law and yearning for home. Meanwhile, as the judge and his neighbours feast on scones and wear clothes from Marks and Spencer, the Nepali immigrants live in resentful poverty.
'Immigration is always painted as such a glossy, shiny thing, but it's not always a brave new world,' says Desai. 'It took me many years to find the kind of honesty that would allow me to write this book.' In one of the book's most biting commentaries on the rich-poor divide, Biju marvels at the cheapness of a sack of basmati rice imported from India. 'In India almost nobody would be able to afford this rice,' he thinks. 'You had to travel around the world to be able to eat such things where they were cheap enough that you could gobble them down without being rich, and when you got home to the place where they grew, you couldn't afford them any more.'
Desai's easygoing manner hides her anger. 'It's amazing how many layers of hypocrisy you build up as an immigrant, how many pleasant truths you tell yourself to hide the unpleasant truth.'
She says much remains unchanged for immigrants, despite what she calls the marketing of the immigrant experience. 'There's a lot of crowing about how we Indians are the richest minority group in the States,' she says. 'What people forget is that the poorest are also Indians. What hasn't changed is the power imbalance.
'The flow of cheap labour from poor countries to the west is still completely colonial. When you have Bush and Blair telling the rest of the world who should have arms and who shouldn't, you wonder if anything has changed.'
Desai researched her characters by talking to immigrant New York taxi drivers and through her childhood in India. 'I would get into a taxi and hear about the struggle to get the all-important green card,' she says. 'I stood in line at the American embassy and heard desperate people make up tall tales to get visas. And, of course, when you grow up in India you're close to poverty all the time.'
Writing about these ugly truths isn't a route to popularity. Desai has had hate mail from Nepalis angered by her 'condescending' portrayal of the community in the book. There were reports of The Inheritance of Loss being burned in Kalimpong, which she says are exaggerated.
'I wasn't trying to portray the entire Nepali community or start a political debate. I was merely trying to write about the experience of being an immigrant in India.' Desai's 1998 debut novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, a whimsical fable about a man who lives in a tree, was well received by critics, including Salman Rushdie. It won the Betty Trask award for best debut novel, although Desai now says it was too light and frivolous. She broke the cardinal rule of publishing by not producing her second book right away.
'After three or four years, my publishers just forgot about me, I think. But I was just so happy writing that I could have written forever, and I almost did. I had to prune it from 1,500 pages to 300 or so. There were so many voices to shut out. Eventually it became about editing, not writing.'
Desai counts V.S Naipaul, Amitav Ghosh and Rushdie among her influences. Her lush, descriptive language is unlike the restrained prose of her mother, echoing the exuberance of Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. Yet she says her mother had the greatest influence on the book. 'We wrote all day and talked about the book in the evening. She was the first person to read it, and say this works, or that doesn't work.'
On winning the Booker, Desai said (in what may well be the most self-effacing statement by any winner): 'I know this isn't the best book; it's a compromise.'
She apparently continues to believe that. 'I still think prizes are a lottery. It's about five or six people choosing a book. It really doesn't reflect everyone's taste.'
Her mother gave her some sage advice when she was shortlisted for the prize. 'She said, 'Everyone around you is going to be very excited and worried and nervous. But you've got to go on and write your next book, whatever happens'.'
For now, Desai hasn't thought about her next book. 'I'm enjoying all the attention, but at the moment I just want to get back to my desk. I simply long to get back to writing.'
Kiran Desai, Mar 12, 5.30pm, University of Hong Kong, free; Mar 13, 5.30pm, China Club, HK$500
Genre Literary fiction
Latest book The Inheritance of Loss (Penguin, HK$272)
Lives New York
Family Single; mother Anita Desai and three siblings
Next project No idea yet
Other works Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard (1998)
What the papers say
'Kiran Desai manages to explore, with intimacy and insight, just about every contemporary international issue: globalisation, economic inequality, fundamentalism and terrorist violence.' - The New York Times
A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul
A post-colonial novel describing Zaire in the 70s during the rule of Mobute Sese Seko.
Shame by Salman Rushdie
A modern fairy tale-cum-political novel about Pakistan.
The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz
The sprawling saga of a typical Egyptian family in Cairo, which mirrors the change in Egypt and its struggle for independence.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
A fantastical tale of unrequited love that started the magic-realism genre.
The African Trilogy by Chinua Achebe
A post-colonial exploration of Nigeria, often cited as the classic African novel.