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Friday, September 17, 2010

The Times of India, Oct 12, 2006

The Unique Inheritance Of Kiran Desai

The Inheritance of Loss is Kiran’s intimate itch, one that she has scratched, salved and picked at for seven long years. Now it has paid off—Kiran Desai is the youngest woman to have ever won the Booker

Nina Martyris

Comparisons, especially between mother and daughter, are odious. And therefore irresistible. As news of Kiran Desai's literary trophy for The Inheritance Of Loss flashed across the incredulous wires, readers across the world must have thought, inevitably, of her elegant mother. Anita Desai has come within inches of the coveted prize, not once but three times in the last 26 years, each time for a novel distinguished by a rare depth and beauty. What emotions played over her when she learnt that the youngest of her four children had won a laurel that has evaded her so unfairly? The loss is the Booker's rather than that of Desai Sr, a reclusive artist who has always been wary of the blandishments of Mediastan, and who calmly advised her daughter to focus on writing and not be distracted by the gaudiness of book prizes.

Kiran Desai has dedicated her prize-winning novel to Anita Desai, and she loses no chance to acknowledge the debt she owes her mother for the unique inheritance—not one of loss, but of a fine literary tradition. For giving her, a child of displacement who has floated between East and West, a Green Card into the creative, often lonely but ultimately healing world of the writer.

Anita Desai says that both she and her daughter have drawn from a shared pool of sources and experiences, and nothing exemplifies this better than the striking similarity between the broad outline of The Inheritance of Loss and a novel penned by Anita Desai long ago in 1977, the compelling Fire On The Mountain.

Broadly this is the scaffolding of both novels: in Anita Desai's novel an embittered old woman who has spent a lifetime in the service of her family and who wants nothing more than to be left alone retires to an old house in Kasauli where she lives with her cook until her great-granddaughter is thrust on her. In Kiran Desai's novel an old judge, ossified by hate and a deep self-loathing, who wants nothing more to do with the world, retires to an old house in Kalimpong where he lives with his dog and cook until his grand-daughter is thrust on him. Both the old man and the old woman are desperate seekers of silence and both are violently forced into the chaos of the world that they have shuttered and boarded out by conscious acts of self-will.

Similar. Yet in the hands of two different writers we get two remarkably different novels. And that indeed is young Kiran's triumph—to be influenced by her mother but to have also crafted her own unique persona. Anita Desai is a quieter writer—her prose is classical, there is a Western discipline to it; she is not one to startle you with a flash of sudden flair, something which Kiran does quite often, and sometimes overdoes when it comes to her descriptions of nature and the overwhelming mist that she feels she has to metion on every other page.

The Inheritance of Loss is Kiran’s intimate itch, one that she has scratched, salved and picked doggedly for seven long years. Geographically, the novel switchblades between the kitchens of New York where the cook's son is a migrant worker and the 1980s Gorkha insurgency of Kalimpong, capturing the nativist spite of both regions. Psychologically, it gets its dynamism from the expert exploration of stasis (personified by the judge, a human cavity with his powdered face and tight mouth that hasn't cracked a smile in a century) and the redemption which comes with metamorphosis. Emotionally it gets its intimacy from the aches andthe storm of crises in the lives of the small cast of characters, and the adolescent love which consumes the orphaned Sai; she yearns for her Nepali tutor, Gyan, her ‘Momo’, who in a fit of machismo has joined the Gorkha misadventure.

To use a phrase from her novel, Desai manages to “unpick a seam of despair” in the hearts of her characters, and to do so with the unsentimental but fine eye of a surgeon. One gets the impression that the author is viewing her canvas both from a distant height and from a sympathetic crack in the wall. Sympathetic because one by one each player goes through his or her humiliation, and in almost every case the shame comes when the protective shield of class and status are stripped away by the jeers and violence of the tired, poor Gorkha men who know no other way to stake claim to a better life than through the barrel of a gun.

In India, Kiran Desai has until now not been greeted with the rapture accorded to many less talented writers, probably because of an unspoken but strong feeling that she came from literary pedigree, and therefore had to be held to a higher standard. Or maybe it was because she didn't land a monstrous advance like a Pankaj Mishra or a Vikram Chandra. Nor did it help that Salman Rushdie in his Mirrorwork anthology to celebrate 50 years of post-Independence writing chose an excerpt from her first novel Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard, provoking sniping about the favouritism of the US gharana of writing. Having Rushdie as her blurb godfather with his untrammelled praise—“Kiran Desai is a terrific writer”—has had mixed results, provoking curiosity and heightening expectation to unreal levels. It is wonderful therefore that her second novel has slain the carping.

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