Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Lunch with Kiran Desai

[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.


  1. nice interview, and the photographs are great too :)

    also interesting about that male writers/female writers thing... difficult to find a sprawling social novel (middlemarch is an exception perhaps) or a big "novel of ideas" written by women... must be there, but all the famous and prominent ones are by men.

    also interesting, Wood first used the hysterical realism criticism in an essay on Zadie Smith, a woman!

  2. Hey
    A search for a review of "inspite of gods" brought me here...
    ur blog is quite a treat..review of almost all the movies i wanna watch or ve watched..n reviews of all buks too :D

    reading inheritance of loss now..jus one question: do major indian authors always ve to write abt colonial angst/immigrant lives?? the question may seem naive but i wud b most happy if am proved wrong ..

  3. Alok: Middlemarch! (slaps head) Was discussing this topic with a friend and completely forgot about that one...

    do major indian authors always ve to write abt colonial angst/immigrant lives??

    Vivek: It does often seem that way, doesn't it? The best approach is to read each book on its own terms and assess how it deals with its subject matter.

    However, there are quite a few Indian writers now (especially among the younger lot) who are very comfortable in their own skins and don't have the colonial baggage.

  4. Alok: "difficult to find a sprawling social novel (middlemarch is an exception perhaps) or a big 'novel of ideas" written by women"

    Read any Iris Murdoch lately? Or any Doris Lessing? Or, for that matter, any Atwood (Alias Grace and Blind Assassin are hardly short novels).

    Oh, and there's always Gone with the Wind. It doesn't get more social and more sprawling than that.

    Vivek: I don't know what "major Indian authors" you're reading. Between Vikram Chandra, R K Narayan, Rohinton Mistry, Anita Desai, Amit Chaudhuri and Vikram Seth I'm not sure anyone writes primarly about immigrants or about colonial angst.

  5. I was gonna invoke Atwood and Mitchell but apparently I got here too late. And if you include serials/sequels then I can think of a few more.

    Colonial baggage though is kinda manifest in quite a few books, but why is that a bad thing? Isn't it natural? Who was it who said that countries with the most history produce master novelists. There's a reason.

  6. Alok: What about "A Woman of Substance?"

    And "sprawling social novel" what about that woman who wrote Fountainhead? She might want to have a word or two (or a paragraph or two or maybe even a chapter or two) with you.

  7. "..and one runs out of new things to talk about"
    This sentence in your intro threw me. Is it a compliment? A complaint?

  8. I don't know if AS Byatt is not up there with whoever it is that literary criticism finds to be in fashion but her works are fairly complex and you find a lot of ideas (including scientific ones) intersecting in her novels.

    I am from Australia and in fact the charge of not being "epic" or "dense and complex" enough (perhaps unfairly - but well even The Hungry Tide is often didactic rather than revelatory in its synthesis) is often laid against desi novels by my Aussie/Brit colleagues......

  9. Neale: neither compliment nor complaint - merely an observation about meeting an author for a long interview twice in the course of a year, and having to centre the talk around the same book.

    (Hope you read the rest of the post though!)

  10. that was an enjoyable read and true to her inherent lovely giggliness.

  11. Thanks for the wide-ranging interview. I was struck by a comment she made in one of the interviews I read some time ago where she said she didn't know what her next novel is going to be about, and was pretty sure it wasn't gonna be about India. Theres this tremendous richness to the subject matter, she said, but thats for writers who live in India to explore.

    I wonder if her thoughts about this have changed. Seems like shes spending a lot of time in India recently. And Indians are eager to claim her. The interview on this blog actually made it seem like she was more alienated from New York than from India.

    Any thoughts?

  12. I really liked the laidback, freewheeling style of the interview. It was quite refreshing to read something that didn't go "The novel that won the Booker was once 1500 pages long. Then Kiran Desai had a really bad year...".

    Which leads me to this: Jai, you should write a post on how you establish rapport with your interviewees (given that there are many types of them and your methods may vary)

  13. Jai,
    Of course, I read the rest of the post :-)
    I kind of get the feeling that KD is getting a wee bit strident about "The west is lonely and formal.." theme.

  14. "The west is lonely and formal.." ....Neale but isn't that what the west is.... Actually some parts of the Far-East too. You barely know your neighbours, you can't walk into homes without an appointment. Compare that to India, where my Ahmedabad neighbours knew the story of my life in less than a week... They would happily keep my istri kiya huya kapda if I was still at work, where the elderly uncle would take me to the doctor when I burnt my leg on my silencer, where the auntie would bring khana or just shout across the wall - you are not going to eat alone again, na? Or my other neighbour's daughters who would just breeze in with the bai to make a go at my magnetic stickers (yes, they were a novelty many moons ago) - all of it just doesn't happen.

    Jai, lovely piece. I hadn't met her pre-Booker though from the sounds of it she hasn't changed much, has she?

  15. read@peace: No, she hasn't changed at all - maybe a slightly warier look in her eyes, but that could be my imagination.

    Compare that to India, where my Ahmedabad neighbours knew the story of my life in less than a week...

    With due respect, I'll take "formality and loneliness" over that manner of intrusiveness. (Maybe it's because I like eating alone and am generally quite anti-social by Indian standards.) Won't make a very fine point of it though, since I've been in India all my life - so can't put myself in a position where I'm living for long periods of time surrounded by such formality, and with no other options. Maybe that would be hard to deal with...

  16. Aditya: I don't know if you've seen some of her comments in the recent interview with Tehelka - check this link. It has the bit about "the western world being a deeply formal and lonely place", and she criticises American literature for being over-therapeutic and focussing on the individual - whereas in India there's a focus on community and society (the very headline of the piece is "To be Indian is to be generous and open").

    I was surprised by some of these comments. Found them short-sighted - though again, that's a reflection of my own tastes and attitudes (I love the great contemporary American writers and I don't think there's anything wrong with individual-oriented writing.)

  17. Thanks Jai. I see what you're saying about her comments being shortsighted. Whatever public pronouncements she makes seem to have more emotive than analytical value. Like when she said during the Shilpa Shetty debacle that the racism displayed in the house was similar to the impulse behind America's decision to invade Iraq. Sounds powerful, moves you in some way, but is ultimately analytically hollow.

    But she is a novelist and not a critic, scholar or essayist. I personally have become quite fond of her through book and her interviews.

  18. I don't think there's anything wrong with individual-oriented writing

    I do not think that is the lady's point at all. But then, as we discussed earlier ( Roth being a case in point ), focussing on the Self/Individual to the exclusion of Community/Society and relations thereto, tends to make your writing claustrophobic and obsessive. You know - its like analysis ( one you're done, the subject is dead :) - lysis ).

    I guess that is the reason one has moved away from the American scribes to European writers. You find a depth of perspective which was hitherto lacking ...


    I am a Bennignton friend of Kiran - and want to be in touch with her. I live in Switzerland, in Geneva and can be reached via


    or via www.egeneve.ch - please pass this on to Kiran (and remove this post).

    With my hearfelt thanks

    Ardan M.

  20. It was good to read the interview. I can't say I enjoyed the book, I gave up after reading about a third of it. But, have been curious about KD, and God knows there are not enough successful and at the same time humble non-assuming people, in the world. So, its nice to know about suchlike.
    By the way, am a first time visitor to your blog. And, enjoyed the ruminations of the pets, in your most recent post.

  21. I have been deeply touched by The Inheritance of Loss - thank you Kiran Desai. Thank you, thank you.

    You made a comment about just so many things to talk about or something on that order in your intro that I don't understand - I think Kiran can probably talk endlessly...

  22. Hi Jabberwock (again)
    I was pleased to read this review because I had felt a little solitary in my liking of Kiran Desai's novel, even if it was a little trying to swallow it all! So I was relieved to know that she pruned it: it's probably better as it is. But seven years!! I wonder how one emerges from a writing experience of 7 years.

    PS: Same thing, I availed myself of your interview to place a little allusion to it at the end of my review! (http://www.letstalkaboutbollywood.com/article-20767552.html)

  23. An enjoyable read The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. loved the way she wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal.