Anita Desai: Old ghosts in the new world

Anita Desai has forsaken India to write a novel about Mexico. She explains to Rhiannon Batten why she feels at home in another ancient and colourful land
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In Edinburgh, the International Book Festival was in full swing. Charlotte Square's glossy lawn had been pounded to brown by sensibly-shod bookworms. Over at the swanky hotel where many authors stay, a put-upon receptionist tried to magic kerbside slots for the Jaguars of the more successful writers. Across the room, a small Indian woman wearing a neat grey bun and an unostentatious sari perched serenely on a sofa, enjoying the chaos.

But the docile, grandmotherly image that Anita Desai projects is an illusion. Look closer, and you see that the sari glimmers with subtle silver freckles, a face framed by a pair of exquisite silver earrings and eyes that gleam mischievously. Then there's the soft, high-pitched voice. Although Desai, now 67, rarely breaches a whisper, she manages to capture the attention in a way that the braying Jaguar-owners never will.

It's a similar story with her short, neat novels, which seethe with an underlying turbulence. She can do sensuous; in In Custody - one of three Desai books shortlisted for the Booker prize - the unlikely hero imagines words "etched in elegant hieroglyphs upon the copperplate of the Delhi sky" (unsurprisingly, the novel was later made into a Merchant-Ivory film). Yet a few lines earlier, Desai picks apart a distinguished Urdu poet, quite literally, having him attacked, Hitchcock-style, by a flock of gluttonous pigeons.

In the past, she has been criticised for choosing to write about India's "failures and wrecks". She counters this with the quiet assertion that "it's easier to write about an unhappy person. With unhappiness, one has a feeling of going deeper. You become more aware of the shadows."

Desai's latest book, The Zigzag Way (Chatto & Windus, £12.99), is no exception to her trademark style, working dramatic religious rituals, a literal interpretation of ghost towns and violent revolutionary insurgence into what, on the surface, appears to be a straightforward tale of a young (mildly unhappy) American, Eric, attempting to excavate the family history. What marks this 14th book out from previous novels is that it's the first set wholly outside India, a product of the six or so years in which Desai has been travelling regularly to Mexico.

"The first time I went there I was driven by a bitter New England winter," she jokes. "I was teaching in America at the time and it was simply the closest sunny place. However, as soon as I saw Mexico, I knew this was a country I would write about." The resulting story recounts Eric's experiences in Mexico during the run-up to the Day of the Dead festival.

Finding himself at a loose end when his girlfriend, Em, insists on some time alone, he decides to search for traces of the Cornish grandparents who had once been part of a mining community in the Sierra Madre. Though the book's title reflects the recurring transatlantic shifts of Eric's family, Desai writes that it is also a reference to the way the Mexican miners meandered their way out from the pits, trying to avoid the breath-stopping currents of air pressing down on them.

She begins The Zigzag Way with the assertion that the ancient Chinese believed time is not a ladder one ascends into the future but a ladder one descends into the past. As Eric peels back the layers of the past, however, it is clear that the title also reflects Desai's approach to her story. The book jumps between eras, and such absorbing characters as Dona Vera are hacked from the narrative when their part in Eric's quest is played. A slightly saccharine ending ties up the one loose end that this orderly writer would have been better off leaving unravelled. But what saves The Zigzag Way is Desai's knack for conjuring a sense of place. Mexico may have been new territory, but she has captured it persuasively. This sense of atmosphere is most obvious in the final chapter, which culminates in the magnificently described Day of the Dead festival.

That Desai can write so evocatively speaks of an underlying engagement with Mexico. "I hope that people get the sense that I am telling the truth," she explains, "that I am not just creating an entertaining world." She adds that the book didn't really start to come together until she visited some of the old mining towns. She has friends in Cornwall and, when she visited Mexico's ghost towns and discovered that Cornish miners had worked in the Sierra Madre (and that they had introduced the joys of both pasties and football), a story began to take seed.

"The old mining towns are a fascinating aspect of Mexico, places that speak of great grandeur but which are now all in ruins," she murmurs. "I think that's what a writer really needs, some kind of empty space to which you can lend your imagination. If everything is given to you ready-made, you can't make fiction out of it." Dona Vera, she says, was inspired by another visit to Mexico.

Desai once spent a couple of nights at a hacienda in Chiapas that had been run by a European immigrant so fierce that she bequeathed a threat that, if anyone dared to take her place at the head of the communal dining table, she would haunt them. Fortunately for Desai's imagination, little was known about the woman's pre-Mexican life. "Mexico is so full of foreigners, people from Europe, from all over the world who made themselves new lives there," she sighs. "One wonders what they were running away from." Rootlessness is a theme the book circles around, with Eric directly asking another character what he thinks of "walking away, leaving behind one chapter, starting another".

Tellingly, Desai herself says she didn't feel like a stranger in Mexico. "The first time I went to Mexico, I felt utterly at home; I felt I was back in India. The food is similar. The people look Indian - everyone took me for a Mexican there," she says, adding that the familiarity felt especially acute straight from the US. "I was back in a very, very old country. There was a feeling that every stone would be ancient, which is the same feeling you get in India - another very old country with a very old culture. That gave me a feeling of great intimacy with Mexico. It wasn't a foreign place to me."

That Mexico is predominantly a country of Spanish-speaking Catholics she dismisses as a fairly superficial difference. "Both have had 300 years of colonial occupation, Spain in one case, Britain in the other. And although they have very different religions, their observance of religion and their rituals are very Indian," she insists.

Interestingly, Desai says the place she now feels most like an outsider is India. Born to a Bengali father and German mother, she was brought up in an otherwise typical middle-class Indian environment. After studying in Delhi and marrying a businessman, as her mother had done, she chose not to travel until the relatively late age of 45, almost 20 years after the publication of her first novel, Cry, The Peacock. "I had always imagined that my life would be spent in India. I couldn't imagine that I would have a reason to leave, but it must have been part of this general uprooting that's taken place."

You imagine that when she did travel it might have been to Germany, but she says she has no bonds there beyond language. "There is no family, no connection. There was nothing of Germany in our household, just a few books. My mother must have felt that it was better to let India absorb her," she shrugs.

When Desai finally ventured abroad, it was to America: "Two of my children went to study in the United States and I felt the need to be with them, to provide them with a home." She duly took up teaching jobs, first in Massachusetts, then in the city of Boston - a move that was to have a deep impact on her writing and her lifestyle. She now only visits India, spending the rest of her time shuttling between Cambridge, where she has also taught, and the US.

"I was suddenly in this country so utterly different from India, with no link to it," she says. "No one even knew where I'd come from. I wasn't really talking about it to anyone, and I thought I'd never be able to write about India again. The next book, Fasting, Feasting, triggered a separation with India. So much has happened over there that I haven't taken part in. I don't feel I can comment on it anymore. Now, when I go back I am the outside, I am the stranger."

Biography: Anita Desai

Born in Mussoorie, India, in 1937 to a Bengali father and German mother, Anita Desai was educated in Delhi. She published her first novel, Cry, the Peacock, in 1963. Later books include Fire on the Mountain (1977), Clear Light of Day (1980), In Custody (1984), filmed by Merchant-Ivory, Baumgartner's Bombay (1988), Journey to Ithaca (1995), Fasting, Feasting (1999) and the short stories, Diamond Dust (2000). Three of her novels have been shortlisted for the Booker prize. She is a fellow of Girton College, Cambridge, of the Royal Society of Literature, and of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She has four children; her daughter Kiran is also a novelist. She lives in New York State but has travelled in Mexico, the setting for her new novel The Zigzag Way (Chatto & Windus).