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The Artist of Excellence

By Murali Kamma Email By Murali Kamma
November 2011
The Artist of Excellence Anita and Kiran Desai in London, where they were attending an evening of events to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Wasafiri (www.wasafiri.org), a magazine of international contemporary writing. [Photo: Graham Fudger]

ANITA DESAI, whose novels were short-listed for the Booker Prize three times, is one of the most lauded Indian authors today. In an interview, she talks about her award-winning fiction, how she feels about India and Mexico, inspiration, a film adaptation of her work, hill stations, daughter Kiran Desai, and what it takes to become a writer.

Anita Desai is a rare storyteller in the current literary environment: she is a writer’s writer. That may sound daunting—but the canvas on which Desai word-paints with such lyricism actually depicts ordinary people in tales that are accessible even as they remain subtle. Her new book, The Artist of Disappearance (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is a good example. That the writing is so evocative doesn’t surprise, because it was the love of the English language that drew Desai to fiction. At the same time, the haunted “artists” of disillusion in this trio of novellas set in India are fully shaped characters, keeping the reader hooked till the end. Although it’s debatable whether the novella is the most suitable form for all three stories—the first two (“The Museum of Final Journeys” and “Translator Translated”) appear to work better than the last one (“The Artist of Disappearance”)—what’s unquestionable is Desai’s highly polished craftsmanship.

Born in Mussorie to a German mother and a Bengali father, Desai was raised in India, where she graduated from Delhi’s Miranda House and then got married soon afterwards. Despite the odds of that era, she emerged as a prominent fiction author in English, bridging the generations of R. K. Narayan and Salman Rushdie. While the works of Narayan and contemporaries like Mulk Raj Anand, who all grew up in colonial India, seem a little old-fashioned now, Desai’s fiction has remained engaging and relevant, making her one of the most acclaimed Indian writers today. But her writing, ironically enough, often reminds one of an older rather than present-day India. “I have to admit that my India is very much an India of the past—the postcolonial India, certainly, but the newly postcolonial India, which was the world I grew up in,” she told Khabar.

Moreover, though Desai is just a decade older than Rushdie, her writing—refined yet penetrating—retains an Anglicized sensibility, and is devoid of the ‘chutnification’ that many writers embraced after Rushdie came along. So, not only does her elegant prose sound more British than Indian, it’s also free of showy pyrotechnics and magic realism.

Three of Desai’s novels have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. First, from the early years, came the somewhat autobiographical Clear Light of Day. Then it was the most successful novel from her middle period, In Custody, in which a hapless lecturer from a small town tries to interview a once great (and now embittered) Urdu poet. Desai’s latest phase began when she moved to the West, and in the third Booker nominee, Fasting, Feasting—set in both India and the U.S.—she touches on Indian-Americans for the first and perhaps last time. Indian immigration is not her theme, as she noted. Nonetheless, it’s true that Desai has always focused on outsiders and misfits in her fiction.

Anita Desai has published two collections of short stories, and her other novels include Baumgartner’s Bombay, Fire on the Mountain (Sahitya Akademi Award), The Zigzag Way, and The Village by the Sea (Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize). A contributor to The New York Review of Books, she is also a recipient of the Alberto Moravia Prize for Literature and the Neil Gunn Prize. After retiring from MIT, where she’d taught creative writing for many years, she settled in Cold Spring, a small town in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Her youngest daughter, Kiran Desai, is a frequent writing companion; in fact, Kiran wrote a good portion of her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss, while living here. It won the 2006 Booker Prize (also known now as the Man Booker Prize).

It was from this home—surrounded by mountains reminiscent of Indian hill stations— that Anita Desai spoke to Khabar recently.

You’ve written several novels and short stories, but now you turned to novellas. I was wondering what attracted you to this form and also whether it revealed anything that you didn’t know before.

To tell you the truth, it wasn’t a conscious choice or decision. These stories seemed to fit into that form well. You know you have the material, and you have to find the right form for it. And each story seemed to have rather more material than one uses for a short story, [where] all you need is just a little episode, nothing more, a little gesture. At the same time, they were not like novels, going off into various directions, and encompassing diversions. They were very focused stories, and the novella simply seemed to suit them best.

Which brings me to the next question—how do these ideas turn into stories that you feel compelled to write? For instance, in the first story you write about this extraordinary museum at a feudal mansion in rural India. Was this something you heard about or was it purely fictional?

I can tell you quite exactly that the idea came to me when I was walking through the Museum of Oriental Art in Venice. It was a collection put together by some young Italian nobleman who traveled in the East and sent boxes and boxes of things he collected and bought, to his home in Venice. Eventually his family turned their family home into a museum. And the idea came to me that it would make a marvelous story. To begin with I thought of writing it from the Venetian point of view, but then I took the idea away and mulled it over for several years. And then it seemed to settle quite naturally into the backwaters of West Bengal, an area where I had toured with my sister and my brother-in-law who were civil servants in that area. It just seemed to fit neatly into that place where one does see ruined mansions and lost fortunes…just stranded there in the fields.

It’s interesting to see that you transplanted the story to India, because you’ve lived now in this country for several years. Does it become harder to write about India? Do you make frequent trips like the trip you mentioned? How do you keep in touch with the Indian scene to keep writing stories about India while living here?

You know, this book has come out in India and in England, and many reviewers have commented that this is an India of the past. I have to admit that my India is very much an India of the past—the postcolonial India, certainly, but the newly postcolonial India, which was the world I grew up in. And that’s the India that I know best and still write about. I do visit India from time to time now but to me it’s a foreign India, an alien India. I don’t relate to the present-day India.

Which is interesting, because Prema in the second story and Ravi in the last story seem so out of place in the India that they live in. India is more materialistic, and they seem quite the reverse. So I guess you also don’t feel very much at home in the new India.

I don’t. Also I have a feeling that that’s the material for young writers who actually live in India, and are in touch with it, and have their fingers on its pulse. I don’t. So I still write about the India that I’m most familiar with and is best known to myself.

Some critics have suggested that Indian writers living abroad tend to be nostalgic. Is that something you’re concerned about or try to avoid in your writing?

I certainly avoid nostalgia, because I don’t feel that’s a valid response. The India that I grew up in had a great deal that was wrong with it. I don’t try to whitewash that. I try to write fiction that is truthful. The whole point of writing fiction is to tell the truth.

At the same time, though you’ve lived in this country for several years, you’ve expressed some ambivalence about this country. Bharati Mukherjee recently told us that she sees herself as a writer in the American mainstream of immigration literature. I don’t believe you see yourself that way.

I don’t see myself that way at all. I’ve never made immigration my subject really. I’ve written about Europeans in India. I’ve written a few books where the central characters were Europeans traveling or living in India. But I’ve never written about Indian immigrants living here, except briefly in an earlier book called Fasting, Feasting, which perhaps could be called practice novellas, one set in India and the other set in the U.S. But apart from that I’ve never touched the subject of immigration. Again, a writer chooses the material they’re most comfortable with. I feel there are so many young writers writing about this experience of immigration that I don’t really have anything to add to that.

It’s interesting that you’re drawn to Mexico. The Zigzag Way is set in Mexico. I’m wondering what drew you to the place. Did it remind you of India? Do you still keep in touch with Mexico?

Yes, very much so. When I’m in Mexico I feel I’m back in India. It’s the old familiar world to me. I can relate to it completely. But in The Zigzag Way too I didn’t write about Mexicans living in Mexico. I wrote about European immigrants coming to Mexico for various reasons. Mexico has such a rich cultural heritage, also such an amazingly interesting history. It draws me for that reason.

Going back to an earlier novel, In Custody, which was made into a film by Ismail Merchant, what did you make of his screen version (Muhafiz)?

Ismail Merchant, whom I’d known for many years, was a close friend. He felt so strongly that this novel spoke to him…just asked him to turn it into a film. I handed it over to him and I realized quite soon that it would be transformed by his own vision of the book. He saw the world that I’d written about quite differently from the way I did, for instance. At a basic level, I saw it very much as a black-and-white world. It was rather gritty and noir-ish. And Ismail couldn’t help himself. He just had to transform it into a very colorful, very lush scene, by using extremely good-looking actors dressed in beautiful costumes in evocative settings. It was not at all my vision of the book. But it was his. And I realized if I had to allow him to do it, I’d have to hand it to him completely. I couldn’t interfere.

So, unlike Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, you were never drawn to writing screenplays? I know she’s a great friend of yours.

She is. And no, I never have [written screenplays] because I realized that this is always going to be so. The writer has his or her own vision, and the director will have a completely different one. And the two seldom match each other.

I know you taught at MIT for several years. It’s a renowned university, but we don’t associate MIT with creative writing or even literature. What was it like to teach there? And can writing, given your own background, be taught formally?

Very few people know that MIT does have a writing program. I think it was initially started to teach students of science and engineering how to write their papers. And gradually poets and novelists and essayists infiltrated that program and started teaching courses in poetry and drama and science fiction and various other things. They accepted me into it. In fact, I was taken on by another writer who was actually an astrophysicist but was interested in writing fiction. He allowed me to teach this thesis course in writing fiction, and it was very challenging because the students weren’t students of literature. Many of them had read very little literature, in fact, but they were interested, and they were young people who also liked challenges. So it was a very invigorating time, really. I enjoyed myself immensely. Whether I could really teach them to write, I don’t know. I couldn’t say so, really. All that I was able to do was give them the time, the structure, in which to experiment, to try their hand at something different, something artistic, and see if they had any ability for it or not. That’s what writing programs do. They give you the time, and the chance to experiment.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers? What sort of authors should they be reading, for instance?

That was always my first advice to all my students—you must read. You can’t judge a piece of writing unless you’ve read a great deal. And then you’re able to develop that insight, that instinct for what is good writing and what is bad writing. In order to do this, you should read and read and read. I made them read the classics of the short story form because that’s what they were writing for me—the short stories of writers like Chekhov, James Joyce, and Hemingway, and all those masters of that form. I would encourage them, and when students had a bent towards this kind of writing I’d try and encourage them to read more deeply.

Your daughter [Kiran Desai] is also a well-known writer, and I understand that you often work together—or at least in the same house. Do you read and maybe critique each other’s drafts before somebody else sees them?

No, we don’t. She did write her book [The Inheritance of Loss] while in the same house with me. She would go upstairs and do her writing in her study every day. In fact, she’s doing so right at the moment. We talk a little bit about what we’re doing. We’re both really private people and we don’t show each other our drafts. She did show me the first draft that she had completed and got ready. And I did critique it to some extent. I didn’t do any serious editing—I just gave her my own reactions and responses to what she had written. And then she sent it to her editor at the publishing house. It’s been my experience that your family and friends are not likely to be the best critics of your work. It’s best to hand it over to a professional editor.

We look forward to interviewing Kiran one day. …It must be picturesque and very quiet, where you live. Do you find the place inspiring?

It’s called Cold Spring, in the Hudson River Valley—a little village, hardly more than a hamlet. It’s absolutely beautiful, being on the river, and up in the hills. And the strange thing about it is that it reminds me so much of an Indian hill station…like Mussoorie and Kasauli. You look out the window to the roof tops and the trees and the hills and you do feel that you’re in a little Indian hill station again.

Coming back to your latest book, in the second story you write about Prema and her struggles. It reminds one of the English vs. Bhasha (vernacular language) debate that went on for a long time in India. Do you think the view that only native languages can authentically capture the Indian experience still exists? Or has it largely faded with the rise of English?

That was the question one was always faced with, and at the time I started writing the only other writers of English on the scene were the triumvirate—R. K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, and Raja Rao. And there was this question—how can you present your Indian material in a foreign language. My answer was not a popular one. It was that English is an extremely capricious, flexible and rich language, and it has accommodated the literatures of many parts of the world—not just India, but Africa, Southeast Asia, and many other parts of the world, too. It is a very flexible language, wonderful to work with. And now I think the debate has somewhat died down, because Indian writers have started writing in a very explicitly Indian English manner.

After Rushdie came along…

Yes, Rushdie showed that this language may be bastardized, but it’s capable of presenting very serious ideas, really. So it has been used in that fashion to greater or lesser success. But there’s still a simmering resentment among the writers of the Indian languages because the English writers are the ones who get known outside.

They make money, too. The Indian [language] writers don’t make as much money.

I’m not sure that’s right anymore. I have been told that really successful writers, writers of bestsellers, say in Bengali or Marathi, do just as well as writers in the English language.

So, what’s next for you, Ms. Desai? Are you working on a novel, or do you want to stick to novellas now?

I’m depleted completely after writing these three novellas. I do think that as one ages one’s energy fades as well. I’m looking forward to going to Mexico this winter. It’s always been a wonderful place to write for me. I just sit on my patio, look out on the sierra and see if I can make myself work again.

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