Sunday, October 15, 2006

Always an Outsider

My article on Anita Desai in Starmag today. Here's my original version of the piece. (The printed article got skewed Kiran-wards for obvious reasons! But I'm not at all unhappy with the rearrangement.)
“I see India with my mother’s eyes – as an outsider, but with my father’s heart.”

Novelist Anita Desai explains to her audience at the Ubud Readers’ and Writers’ Festival in Bali, that being an outsider has always felt perfectly normal to her. Although nearing seventy, Desai has a serene beauty about her, and speaks in a soft, carefully modulated voice.

Desai was born in Mussorie, a hill station north of Delhi, yet her father was a Bengali business man who had met her German mother when he went to study in Berlin, just ahead of the Hitler period. Neither of her parents revisited their original homes: the country her mother knew had been destroyed, and she did not want to see the new Germany.

The novelist grew up between cultures but it wasn’t until she went to school that she began to see herself as different from other children.

She says that her mother made a huge effort to bring her up as an Indian, but German was the language at home. She remembers her singing German lieder, and baking German kuchen, as well as cooking Bengali food. Her mother was also a great storyteller and fired the young Anita’s imagination with highly embellished stories from Hans Anderson and Grimm’s fairy tales.

Desai started writing aged six, and had her first work published at nine when a little piece she had written was chosen for a magazine. From the beginning she wrote in English, which she claims has always given her writing a sense of separation from other parts of her life. “I am most myself when I write,” she adds “In social life you are always adapting. But when writing, here you can tell the truth.”

When she began writing, she says, only a handful of writers scattered throughout India were writing in English. “It is a challenge to inherit a language which is not your own,” she says “you need to internalize it and recreate it.”

At the same time though, most Indian writers looked down on the language. “We believed ours would be the last generation to use it.” But when Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children “came like a thunderbolt”, she says, it gave later generations the courage to use English as an Indian language.

Married in 1958 to a businessman, Desai raised four children while continuing to write. Her first novel The Peacock was published in 1963, and was followed by fourteen more, including works for children. She reached the Booker shortlist three times: Clear Light of Day (1980), In Custody (1984), and Fasting, Feasting (1999).

Desai usually waited to write until her four children were out of the house because she felt that it would be distressing for them to see that her mind was elsewhere than on family life.

“When the inevitable happened and copies of a book arrived from the publisher, the children would tiptoe past it. It took until they were adults before they could face the fact that I had a separate life.”

She says that she has felt especially close to Kiran since her daughter started writing. “I can talk about things to her that I can’t talk about to the others,” she confides. The two of them share a house in upstate New York. Kiran writes upstairs, she writes downstairs and they tend to meet in the kitchen and they tend to meet up in the kitchen when they’re hungry.

When Desai moved to the West, first of all to take up and a take up a post of Cambridge University and later to New York, Kiran was only 15. Desai says that now she has very conflicted feelings about the move and the emotional impact of it on her daughter.

“One has to spend one’s childhood in one’s own country,” she says wistfully. But it is clearly the experience of living between cultures, and the challenge defining an identity as an immigrant which has given Kiran Desai the subject matter for her novel, The Inheritance of Loss, which this week won the ultimate literary prize, the £50,000 Booker Prize an award which for so long eluded her mother. It should come as no surprise though that the novel is dedicated to Anita.

Also in Starmag today, reviews of Booker shortlisted novels Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men reviewed by Tee Shiao Ee, and Kate Grenville's The Secret River reviewed by Tan Shiow Chin.

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