Arundhati Roy, Tyeb Mehta, Michael Jackson, Kipling, Rushdie, Jinnah, Leonard Cohen, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, East India Company, Namdeo Dhasal, etc

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Sounds of Isolation

The Sunday Times of India, Times Review, December 9, 2007

Nina Martyris meets Anita Desai, whom Salman Rushdie calls ‘the Jane Austen of the Indian English novel’

Her red silk sari has a soft-spoken rustle to it, the pallu wrapped around to ward off the aggressive air-conditioning. The hair is neatly parted, plaited and coiled into a bun, the slippers are soft, flat and no-nonsense. And just as in her books there is at once about her an air of quiet observation and immense reserve. It is like a cordon sanitaire that wards off the intrusive question and clumsy attempt at flattery. In Anita Desai’s distilled world, there are no shortcuts to friendship or fine writing.

Seated in the clear light of day in a quiet corner at the Taj Land’s End in Bandra, Desai sips on a fresh lime soda, leaves the parrot-green wasabi nuts untouched and smiles at the lovely irony of it all: in the post-literate era, a 70-year-old Indian author being put up in a five-star hotel and given the treatment, all nine yards of it. The world has indeed turned. The same Indian author who as a young writer was turned away by journalism (“They had never heard of interns in those days”) and by the few publishing houses of the time (“It’s such a discouraging scene, they told me, why do you want to join and get even more discouraged?”).

The previous evening, Desai had been taken by her publishers to a big new bookshop in Andheri. “It was in a mall,’’ she says with the faintest wisp of comic disbelief at the grand commercial turn Mumbai has taken. “Well, not too many people turned up for the reading but those who did had read my books and knew my work, so it was nice.’’

Forty-four years ago when her first book Cry, The Peacock was published by Peter Owen, a small English publisher who liked to look out for idiosyncratic writing, she was paid 300 pounds. A Romanian imprint which wanted to translate it paid her all of ten pounds. “No one was interested in Indian-English writing then,’’ she says, “so we wrote in a complete sense of isolation. There was no community, only the rumour that Mulk Raj Anand and R K Narayan were writing. The publishers of the time were interested chiefly in bringing out reprints of foreign authors. The people too wanted to read the real thing, they didn’t want to read us. So one wrote for oneself.’’

The lid was blow off that isolation in 1981 when Salman Rushdie’s magnificent Midnight’s Children burst on the scene. “It was a terribly important book and its success gave a whole generation the confidence to write in English, and ask for big royalties,’’ says Desai. “But I do wish Indian authors didn’t all try to write a Salman Rushdie kind of book. We need to get that out of our system. Right now, in my hotel room, I’m reading a book by Rana Dasgupta called Tokyo Cancelled, and it’s written in an original way which is so refreshing.’’

Desai, who teaches creative writing at MIT, lives in New York in a quiet house by the Hudson Bay. Through the day, daughter Kiran writes upstairs and looks out at the hills, Anita works downstairs in her study. For the past year she has had to spend many days alone, what with Kiran jetsetting around the world after her Booker prize for The Inheritance Of Loss. “She never dreamt she’d see so much of the world in a year,” says her mother, who has been shortlisted for the Booker three times. “When she came back she was half her size, she had lost so much weight. She was so relieved when this year’s Booker prize was announced. She said now they’ll have someone new to chase.’’

Desai is in India for a number of reasons, all good. To start with, she has been made a lifetime fellow of the Sahitya Akademi, one of the few writers in English to have been accorded this honour. In order to mark the occasion, three of her best works have been reprinted—Clear Light Of Day, Baumgartner’s Bombay and In Custody with introductions by Kamila Shamsie, Suketu Mehta and Salman Rushdie respectively. And since we live in an age when awards, books, and films fuse and feed off one another, the luminous Merchant-Ivory film based on the third book, In Custody, has been re-released. It is a deeply moving film that scopes out the relationship between a famous decadent Urdu poet and a young devotee that captures at once the grandeur and grot of a florid, fading language, but when Desai first saw it many years ago, she was taken aback by how different it was from her own deathbed-of-Udru scene. Her world, she said, was grey, dull and dirty, not splendoured with colour.

Rushdie calls Desai “the Jane Austen of the Indian novel” for the acuity with which she perceives the minutiae of a housewife’s world. Her canvas is always a miniature one, the references to the momentous events of history always oblique. But although she is an extraordinarily gifted writer, Desai has never triggered the kind of electric celebrity rush that crackles in the wake of a Vikram Seth, an Amitav Ghosh or an Arundhati Roy. Some complain that her books are too weighted and grave, too stiff with descriptions of jacaranda and cicadas and scented spider lilies and koels. But those who stay with the prose and savour its spare bones come away enriched by the sharpness of her observation of human nature. She has the power to convey, in a few bracing words, a person’s character in Dickensian fashion. Take for example the descriptions of the faces of two separate characters: ‘Dr Biswas had a very honest face, she decided, painfully honest, like a peeled vegetable.’ ‘(The neighbour) had a face that was both sanctimonious and martial, like a hatchet in the hands of a fanatic.’

It is this unerring visual sense sucked of sentimentality that has given us so many unforgettable characters: Baumgartner, the German Jew in Mumbai, a cold, warty lump of a man who loves cats; Nur, the sluggish old poet who, at the prospect of money, opens one eye as if he had spotted a particularly tasty fly; Lotte, whose mouth is a tunnel of red from which might issue a trill or a howl; Ila Das with her shudder-inducing voice, her cracked tennis shoes, Christianity and poverty; and above all, the steely tall Nanda Kaul, erect on a hill in Kasauli, who wants to be left alone, to shut the world out. But like the twin towers, she is engulfed by devastation.

In most of Desai’s books, the opening lines hint at the quickening shadows beyond. Isolation is the thread that slips like a ghost through her novels, her protagonists hunger for it. Inevitably this cherished isolation is invaded, either by strangers or well-meaning busybodies or the blind hounds of history. A German Jew, a Muslim in old Delhi. The marching and the shooting. The shooting and the killing. The killing and the killing and the killing.

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