[A shortened version of this appears in today’s Business Standard. It’s my second interview with Kiran Desai in a little over a year, though this was in the "Lunch with..." format]
Kiran Desai is on a tight schedule – she's leaving for a four-city tour the next day – so we economise on time by going to good old Chopsticks in the Siri Fort Complex, a stone's throw from the Penguin India office. "This place is an old favourite, isn't it," says the Booker Prize winner; she spent some of her childhood years in the capital and remembers a time when "Indian Chinese" was all the rage and sweet corn chicken soup a staple for diners, years before the food revolution began.
There's a buffet on, which suits us – what we want is a quick, functional meal. After lading our plates with hakka noodles, Hunan lamb sauce, garlic fish and other delectable things I'm too lazy to make a note of, we return to our table. "I eat just about everything," she says, "I was very happy at the big literary festival in Sri Lanka recently, the food was great: spicy coconut sambhar, amazing seafood, jackfruit." She would have liked to attend the cooking classes held in the Diggi Palace during the Jaipur Heritage Festival last month, but there was no time.
Kiran was one of the two major draws (along with Salman Rushdie) at the three-day literary fest in Jaipur, and though she was warm and gregarious during her session – a conversation with NDTV's Barkha Dutt – she never quite gave the impression of being comfortable with the high media presence. This could be an offshoot of her long seclusion while working on The Inheritance of Loss: for most of the seven years she spent on the book, she was cooped up in her mother, author Anita Desai's home just outside of New York.
"All that time," she says, "I was simply writing. I wasn't part of the literary party scene; my mother's life is not remotely connected to any of that, which has probably been good for me." When you walk into a literary party in New York, she says, it almost feels like you're in the banking field. "There's this carefully constructed hierarchy, you have to know about publishers and editors and different sets of relationships. And gossip flows both ways. Journalists and critics talk about writers, but the writers discuss them too – who wrote what, etc – and then you come to these events and realise that everyone knows everyone. It's strange."
Having interviewed Kiran before, I'm struck again by how friendly and unaffected she is; one has to strain for a glimpse of the writer who struggled over her manuscript for years and had a frustrating time trying to get it published. "It wasn't an easy book to classify," she says, "and it was incredibly hard to find anyone to edit it." Compared to her debut novel, the enjoyable but very lightweight Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, The Inheritance of Loss is a complex work. Though centred on three people – an irascible old judge, his 17-year-old granddaughter Sai and the household cook – living together in an ancient house in Kalimpong in the 1980s, the novel moves in time and space to tell stories about different types of immigrant experiences: from the judge's youth in Cambridge decades earlier to the present-day travails of the cook's son in the US.
The original draft ran close to 1,500 pages, but in its published form the book is just over 300 pages long. This meant the jettisoning of various characters and subplots...and a few lengthy cuisine descriptions in restaurant scenes. "I had a long meditation on why pasta has to take so many forms when it tastes the same," she laughs. "I must think a lot about food! Anyway, all that had to go."
Given that there is so much anticipation around the "Big Books" – the 800- and 900-pagers variously referred to as the Literary Epic of the Year or the Great Indian Novel (or, less politely in private, the Doorstop) – does she regret having cut her manuscript so much? "I had one really bad year when nothing seemed to work," she explains, "and in that mood I chopped ruthlessly. My mother thinks The Inheritance of Loss should have been longer. Salman [Rushdie], on the other hand, advises me to write many short books instead of one big one – because you get paid the same amount!"
The epic novels (one thinks of Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games and Gregory David Roberts' Shantaram in recent years) tend to be written by male authors. A case for gender discrimination? "It is seen as a girlie thing to write small, slender, poetic books and leave the Big Issues to the guys," Kiran agrees, "But what's that phrase used by James Wood to describe sprawling works – 'hysterical realism'? I like that. It takes away the macho-ness of the whole thing!"
"When you're writing a book with so many different strands and characters, there's always an argument for extending it in all directions. But you also have to know when to stop."
What practical difference did winning the Booker make? "Well, really just that I know I can write! Also, the book is selling much more than before. Also, more pirated copies than before!" The publicity wasn't all good though. She was on the receiving end of protests from Kalimpong, directed at her depiction of the town and its people, especially the Nepalese majority. There were even rumours about book-burning. It's typical of Kiran that she bursts out laughing. "Did they really burn books?" she asks. "I spoke to my aunt [who lives in Kalimpong] and she kept telling me, nothing is happening here."
She was surprised by the controversy, however. "I thought my portrayal was sympathetic," she says. "But when you write about a certain group of people, the old argument immediately surfaces: do you have an obligation to portray someone in a heroic way? Of course you doesn't. It really comes down to free speech in the end – if you believe in that, you have to accept things. I mean, I get loads of criticism all the time and I could just as easily be offended by that."
And almost immediately, she lightens the conversation by joking about a letter she got from a Kalimpong tailor's shop mentioned in the book: "You said our stripes are horizontal instead of vertical!"
By this time we're onto a quick dessert and the talk is going in all directions. We discuss the growing tendency in the Indian media to treat young authors as page-3 celebrities ("in NY too you'll regularly see authors in gossip columns. A writer friend of mine was moving from one apartment to another, and even that found its way into the papers"); the need for better children's literature in India ("we all grew up with British writers – there was no one with iconic status who was writing about Indian children. Except R K Narayan, who provided the sweet vision of being Indian"); and the funny, sometimes sinister, letters and emails she gets. There was one – and here she cracks up as she mimicks a possibly deranged letter-writer – that simply went, "Dear… ma'am...I wonder what…will be your...inheritance ... OF LOSS!!!!"
I think I noticed a couple of the diners staring at Kiran a while earlier. Authors, even the high-profile ones, don't usually get mobbed by adoring fans, but she was all over TV channels following the Booker win; does she get recognised in public? "There was this incident a couple of days ago," she says, "I was out walking and someone came and caught hold of me and shouted 'Congratulations!' It was quite scary." And then she giggles, as if amused by the thought that such a private endeavour – working on a book, all alone, for years on end – could lead to her becoming public property.