The most striking, and endearing, thing about Kiran Desai is how laidback she is. Even with an interview being conducted on limited time, it's easy to drift into a free-flowing, non-bookish conversation with her: about the very filling lunch she just had at Swagath (an ill-advised way to start an afternoon that will be spent talking with journalists); about how Delhi's food culture has changed since her childhood days, when the Punjabi-Chinese at Golden Dragon qualified as fine dining. Later, when she marvels at debutant writers getting younger and more publicity-savvy (“isn’t it disgusting!” she stage-whispers in jest), it's possible to forget she's an author herself. She doesn’t go to book parties or publishing events, she says; the thought of writers putting their personal email IDs on their websites makes her wide-eyed.
Besides, I never do succeed in wheedling out why it took her seven years to complete a second novel after Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard (1998) - this in an age when publishers warn authors that there mustn’t be a long gap after the first book. Desai's faraway expression suggests she isn't quite sure herself what she was up to. "I suppose I was working and reworking the second book a lot," she says vaguely.
But that she isn’t casual or laidback about her actual writing becomes obvious when we start to talk about this second book, the just-published The Inheritance of Loss. She enthusiastically relates anecdotes, expresses her disappointment that so many characters and incidents didn’t make it to the final draft. “At one point I had something like 1,500 pages of notes,” she says, “and it was a real struggle to hold it all together and then pare it down.”
Set in the mid-1980s in Kalimpong, high in the northeastern Himalayas, The Inheritance of Loss centres on three people and one dog living together in an ancient house named Cho Oyu. There's the embittered, reptilian judge, lost in his chessboard and in his memories: of a youth spent at Cambridge many decades earlier; of humiliation in a foreign land. Staying with him (in this order of affection received) are his beloved dog Mutt and his 17-year-old granddaughter Sai, who was orphaned as a child. The judge's cook, who manages the household, and a few neighbours scattered around the area, round off the cast. As the story unfolds, insurgency is growing in the region: the Indian Nepalese want their own country or state, a Gorkhaland where they will not be treated as servants; young boys, trying to be men, roam the mountainside looting houses, collecting ammunition. Their predicament is contrasted against that of Indians settled abroad (the cook's son Biju, stumbling from one job to the next in the US, in a humorous parallel narrative).
Reading Inheritance, one initially feels it could have been shorter - with many characters, and a narrative that leaps around in time and space, it occasionally gets unfocussed. But Desai’s descriptions of the things she had to leave out (the back-stories of characters who seem shadowy in the final draft, for instance) are so vivid, it’s possible to wonder instead if a longer version of the book might have been more effective.
Why did she choose Kalimpong as a setting? “I spent parts of my childhood there, at an aunt’s place,” she explains (in a house called Cho Oyu!), “and I wanted to capture what it means to grow up in such a fascinating environment, with such wonderfully disparate people." The first stirrings of insurgency were being felt at the time, she recollects, “but at that age I had no real understanding of the issues involved. I was concerned only with my own world.” Some of this reflects in Sai’s character in the book; the petulance of the lover’s spats between her and Gyan (a young man readying to join the insurgents’ ranks) reminds us that they are essentially children caught in events way over their head. “I wanted to depict how we never really try to understand what life is like for other people.”
Desai was 15 when she left India - she lived in England for a year and has been in the US since then - and it’s tempting to pigeonhole her as another NRI writer obsessed by themes like dislocation (something that certainly runs through Inheritance). In person, however, she comes across as someone who’s never really felt out of place no matter where she’s been. She’s pleasingly unselfconscious about the topic of immigrants, joking (again from the outside, as if she isn’t personally involved) about the various kinds there are: “those who throw up their hands at the difficulties - and, at the other end of the scale, those who are expert at playing the ethnic card, accentuating the character traits they are expected to have, and thereby making a success of their lives”. Like Biju’s worldly-wise friend Saeed Saeed, one of the many characters in Inheritance she would have liked to give a bigger stage to.
She’s so fond of relating stories - about the rodent population in Harlem, for instance, which led to the formation of a “Neighbourhood Rat Committee” - that it’s no surprise when she promises not to dally as much over her next book (possibly a novel set in New York) as she did with this one. “It might make more sense,” she concedes with a laugh, “to spread the stories out over many books, and publish them more frequently!”
Writer’s voice, redux
In blog-related discussions in the past I’ve mentioned how much scope there is for misunderstanding when you know a person only through their writing - hence the phenomenon of readers taking a post dead seriously when it was written in a facetious vein, or extrapolating a rigid, all-encompassing worldview from a single throwaway sentence. Interviewing Desai was similar in a way. I had half-expected to meet a very solemn Indian Author Settled Abroad, keen to pontificate about the plight of people who have no place to call their own. But this was a nice surprise.
(Photo credit: Priyanka Parashar)