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The year was 1997, 50 years after independence. The New Yorker marked that anniversary with an iconic group photograph of some of India’s leading novelists: Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and Arundhati Roy, among others. Journalist and author Bill Buford sensed “an uneasy intimacy” in the “edgy group” and noted that “most of these people had never met before”. There was at least one pair in that photograph for whom that was absolutely not true. Anita Desai and her daughter Kiran Desai were bound both by books and blood.
Twenty years and a Man Booker Prize later, discussing inheritance and influence in literature on stage with her mother at the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet this January, a conversation I was moderating, Kiran cringed at the memory. “I had barely finished my first book…. I was a very young author,” she said. “I shouldn’t have been there in that photograph at that time. That was something I should have had to earn.”
“I felt I should not have been there,” her mother interjected. “I was the grandma of all these young writers. I was embarrassed by it.”
Not grandmother, but godmother, I reassured her, reminding her that in his introduction to her novel Baumgartner’s Bombay, the writer Suketu Mehta calls her the “godmother to the current generation of prodigal Indian writers in English”.
Kiran added that on this visit to Kolkata, her mother kept remarking that she felt like everyone’s grandmother because everyone seemed to have grown up reading The Village By The Sea.
Indeed, for many Indians, that novel, a school text, is their introduction to Anita Desai. “I always ask if they hated it,” smiled Anita.
Later, as we sit by the pool of the majestic Oberoi Grand hotel while mother and daughter have a late mezze lunch, I ask Kiran about her first Anita Desai book.
She furrows her brow and then bursts out laughing: “I think it was The Village By The Sea.” But at least it was not her school text. “I knew the family you wrote about,” she tells her mother. “We would go to our aunt’s house in Thul (near Mumbai, where the story is set). It was a landscape we knew. It was lovely to read a story about us.”
The Village By The Sea was out in 1982. By then Anita Desai had already been a published writer for nearly 20 years. In 1998, her daughter made her debut as a writer with Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard and then won the Man Booker for The Inheritance Of Loss in 2006. “I have four children. All of them told me they never want to become writers because I led such a boring life,” remembers Anita. “Kiran wanted to be an environmental scientist.”
This year, the director of the Kolkata Literary Meet, Malavika Banerjee, pulled off a coup of sorts by getting mother and daughter to show up together, since both are fairly publicity-shy and neither had a new book to promote. Kiran is finishing her much awaited third novel. Anita’s last book, The Artist Of Disappearance, came out in 2011. It’s the “second or third time we are travelling together,” says Kiran, dubbing it a “working vacation—making notes, diary-keeping, reading, I less so than her”.
Passage to Kolkata
The Desais have a Bengal connection that many are unaware of. Anita’s father, D.N. Mazumdar, hailed from what is now Bangladesh, while her mother was from Germany. In the late 1950s, she lived in Calcutta (now Kolkata), where her sister, an IAS officer, had a house; her second book, Voices In The City, is set in the city. Calcutta in the 1950s, says Anita, felt like a metropolis in comparison to old Delhi, where she had been living. Kolkata was also the place where she landed her first job—at Max Mueller Bhavan. “There were two German gentlemen and I was the odd-job person. I looked after the library, lent out books, typed out envelopes for invitations to events,” she recalls. “Then my brother said, why are you doing these things? Don’t forget you are supposed to be writing.”
“That’s quite unusual,” responds Kiran with surprise. “I can’t imagine my brothers doing that.”
“I always give my brother credit for that,” says her mother.
The duo has just returned from visiting Jorasanko, the home of Rabindranath Tagore, and the Kali temple in Dakshineswar. They have browsed the second-hand book stalls on College Street and wandered into the hallowed Coffee House which, Kiran says, was like “walking into a Satyajit Ray film”. “Nostalgia is the great enemy of art,” Anita had warned in her inaugural address at the literary festival just days earlier. It’s hard to escape it though in Kolkata, a city steeped in nostalgia.
“We had a kathi roll at Nizam’s,” says Anita. “I remember my brother and sister going to all-night music concerts and then having a kathi roll at Nizam’s. It was still very, very good.”
“They offered us something called a diet roll,” adds Kiran. “But we went for the original.”
The artist of disappearance
The Desais seem to be good travel companions, keeping an eye on the clock for each other, gently nudging a memory, protective of each other. When asked if, as a writer, she was intimidated by having Anita Desai as her mother, Kiran says no, but then adds that it is only because of the kind of mother Anita is, gentle even in her critiques. She says her mother “had a great silence I was conscious of as a child”. It’s only in retrospect that she understands that it was part of the “extraordinary discipline” that went into her mother’s work. She “vanished” every morning when the children went to school and put away her books and papers once they came back. She timed the drafts of her novels with the beginning of summer vacations—a school schedule imposed on a writing schedule.
Anita has no complaints: “Because the time was limited and I knew I couldn’t overstep that, I think I made good use of those hours. People often ask, how could you write when you had small children at home? The fact is I wrote much more in those years than in the years when I had far more time to myself.”
At that time in old Delhi, there was no writing community, no workshops. The only other writer she knew was Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, whom she had met through her mother. She would borrow her books, go over to her house but, more than anything else, she saw in that woman, walking her babies in a stroller, the possibility of a writer’s life. It’s a different world now, crowded with literary festivals and writing groups. In Brooklyn, where Kiran lives, the joke goes that you just have to take the subway and you will likely stumble upon a South Asian writer. When Hullabaloo came out, Kiran recalls someone saying, “Oh not another young Indian woman writer!”
“I don’t envy Kiran. I see her fighting to try and maintain her private world,” says Anita. She remembers when she started writing, it “was like being in a dark cave. No sound, no sight, no stimulation. “I envied writers who had more of a community. Now I almost feel nostalgic. Now I envy the darkness out of which my writing grew,” she adds.
The zigzag way
After her first few books, Anita fretted that she “was constantly writing and rewriting about the domestic situation, about the woman’s place in her family”. She made the decision “to open the door and step out into a world that was not of (her) own experience”. For example, the very masculine world of Urdu poets which she delineates in In Custody.
The hills where she grew up emerge in Fire On The Mountain. Her mother’s memories of Germany are transferred to Baumgartner in Baumgartner’s Bombay. Kalimpong, where she lived for a while with Kiran, becomes the home for the irascible judge in Kiran’s The Inheritance Of Loss, a book which Rushdie has said owes an “immense artistic debt” to Anita’s Fire On The Mountain. Anita’s travels to Mexico inspire The Zigzag Way while Journey To Ithaca has stopovers in India, Italy and Egypt. Her stories, she says, often begin with a place. The characters come later to populate it.
It’s only natural. Anita herself is the product of great journeys. Her parents were truly exiles, removed from their lands of birth. Her mother never returned to war-torn Germany. Her father talked very little about his native Bengal. But once he took her to see a matinee show of Pather Panchali in Delhi. When they came out into the bright light of a Delhi afternoon, she saw to her shock that his face was bathed in tears. “I realized how much loss he had suffered. He never made it evident to us. It is what Kiran talks about—the inheritance of loss,” she says.
“While I was writing The Inheritance Of Loss, I began to understand that I was the product of great journeys and great dislocations,” says Kiran. When she received the Booker, she saluted her mother, shortlisted three times for the same prize, saying, “This book feels as much hers as it does mine.” She says her mother taught her something invaluable. “To write in Indian English and not make a caricature of it,” she says. “It is an act of granting yourself dignity and granting your characters dignity. It’s something I think of constantly.”
Writing from the outside
The writer, as James Joyce puts it, is always at an angle to the world. Being an outsider and a drifter makes that angle that much more acute. But as Kiran realized after winning the Booker, it can be tricky being the outsider who was once an insider of sorts. Protests erupted in the hills of Kalimpong from those offended by her portrayal of Nepalis in her book. There were threats that the book would be burnt.
She admits she was taken aback at suddenly finding her characters representative of all Nepalis. The Gujarati judge in the book was not very pleasant either, she says mildly. “I could see where the protests were coming from,” she says. “But I also thought it was a moment to be internally strong because if one is swayed by this, at the end you would come to the logical conclusion that you, as an outsider or a half-outsider, have no right to write at all. You would have no place to write from.”
She says an “immigrant writer is lucky”, she knows the strength of that “in-between place” of being “slightly on the outside looking in”. “In the end, it’s a maturing as a writer, that you write whatever you want. The only criterion is whether it’s good or not,” she asserts. “You have to stand up for your work.”
But these days a writer is under pressure to stand up for a plethora of other issues. As Kiran and Anita speak in Kolkata, back in the US, Donald Trump is issuing executive orders affecting a subject at the heart of The Inheritance Of Loss—immigration. “Sometimes I think I should speak out,” muses Kiran. “But then I think it will come into our work. One should do what one does best.”
Her mother agrees. “I have always tried to resist being this representative of Indian writing or Indian womanhood or India itself. It’s a role that one’s asked to play. But that’s not where your writing comes from.”
Kiran says her writing has kept her connected to India in a way she had not imagined, not just through family but through readers. But her mother feels that these days she is too removed from India. “You have missed so much you don’t have the right to enter into, to take over other people’s stories.” Some critics wrote her latest work had little to do with modern India. She says she had to accept that.
But the roots remain. “The summers of the north make me whatever I am,” Anita had once said. “Yes, that veranda, that slowly revolving fan, and just reading and reading,” she reminisces.
Those endless Delhi afternoons when “time stopped long enough so you could read libraries”, adds Kiran. “Leaning over the roof and watching the road, seeing who was walking by, who was coming home, coming back from the market. You got to understand the working of the neighbourhood. It was a feeling of great security.”
Once Kiran had to write an introduction to an exhibition by the Italian painter Francesco Clemente. An interviewer asked him how he started painting and he said that when he was growing up in Naples, the afternoons were so long he learnt how to wait, and that was essential to all his work. The interviewer said, “Wait for what?” “He said for the mind and the material to develop its own narrative. The interviewer didn’t understand but I immediately understood,” laughs Kiran. “I now think how lucky we were to grow up in India.”
The Kolkata afternoon is fading, and as dusk falls and the birds return to roost, the clamour of their loud chirps almost drowning out Anita’s soft voice, Kiran gets up to get ready for her last session at the literary meet. Her mother opened the festival. Kiran closed it, a bookend of sorts, marking in her own quiet way the rich inheritance of a literary life.
In an exclusive conversation with Lounge during the Kolkata Literary Meet, Anita and Kiran Desai speak of the complexities of being immigrant writers looking into a world they are no longer a part of. Here are three books each on the bookshelves of Anita Desai and Kiran Desai, respectively.