Kiran Desai: Daughter of the diaspora

Kiran Desai took the Man Booker Prize with a novel that captures a world of people, and of cultures, forever on the move. Boyd Tonkin talks to a writer in transit
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It's the morning after her night of triumph. Kiran Desai, sleepless but still glowing with all the unaffected grace that she showed on the Guildhall platform, has been giving interviews since 7.30am. Soon, she will rush to Heathrow to resume the German tour that her Man Booker victory so noisily interrupted. We talk over tea in her Bloomsbury hotel. "English tea?" asks the waitress. When I answer "yes", of course I mean Indian tea. Thereby hangs the endlessly rich and tangled tale that has sustained so many creative careers - including those of Kiran and Anita Desai.

Kiran still hasn't been able to contact her mother, thrice-shortlisted for the award that her daughter has grabbed at the first time of asking. Anita is staying in a remote corner of India, in a Tibetan refugee settlement, without phone connections or TV. For mother and daughter, this counts as an unusual break of service. "I really complete adore her," Kiran says, without a touch of Hollywood (or Bollywood) gush. "I see her face and I completely melt. It's an amazingly close relationship, and usually I talk to her every single day." In her acceptance speech, the younger Desai avowed that "I owe her such an enormous debt that I can't express it in any ordinary way."

She has, instead, repaid it in a quite extraordinary way, with The Inheritance of Loss. In 1999, I judged the Booker, and we chose to name Anita Desai's exquisite Fasting, Feasting - with its twinned Indian and American novellas - as our official runner-up (to Coetzee's Disgrace). The two generations of story-weaving Desais touch on the same raw social nerves, and massage them deftly into literary art. Both write from, and to, the Indian experience of migration, of expatriation, of striving to succeed abroad yet yearning for an increasingly imaginary homeland.

For all their overlapping themes, a stylistic chasm of Himalayan size falls between the two authors. The daughter is exuberant, the mother austere; the former conveys a leaping, darting energy; the latter, watchful stillness and restraint. One bounces where the other glides. And yet... both, in utterly distinct voices, capture the sorrow that underlies the migrant's restless transits. Both are prose poets of modern disenchantment.

Set in the late 1980s, The Inheritance of Loss switches between the mouldy mountain fastness where Judge Patel broods on a fractured past in the company of his stranded granddaughter, Sai, and the Manhattan fast-food joints where his cook's son Biju fights to flourish in seething, treacherous America. Parts of the book were written at her mother's house in upstate New York, and on trips to Mexico and Brazil. "There are so many parallels between immigrants wherever you are in the developing world," says Desai. "There's an immediate understanding on many levels, in terms of relating to the old colonial powers, and to modern economic relations."

Her plot unfolds at around the time when the author first came with her mother to America. Biju's long quest, through an inferno of Manhattan basement kitchens, for the holy grail of a Green Card reflects his creator's urge to replace myth with truth in the stories of success that comfort mainstream America. "I was trying to complicate the simple American immigrant story that you're required to tell," she says. When she originally arrived, "I hoped for a much simpler dialogue, and to feel more simply about the whole process. It's a natural human desire, I suppose. You just want your contentment, a long time before you're willing to look at darker things."

For all the dash and fire of its language, the novel's frenzied New York sections do reveal a bitter core at the heart of the Big Apple. The past few years of panic and aggression have made her feel more of an Indian in America: "Politically, I disagree with absolutely everything that's going on". Also, "I realised that I just saw everything from a very non-Western perspective, from a very Indian perspective. I felt that gulf had just opened up, more than ever. Of course, I'm lucky: I see both sides, I travel back and forth so much."

Desai lives in Brooklyn, but pays a couple of visits to India every year. The family home is in Haus Khas, once a separate village but now a trendy suburb swallowed up in the South Delhi sprawl. "When I was growing up India," she recalls, "it seemed as if it would never change; it seemed to be caught in a time-warp, and nothing altered in years. There was a policy of closed doors against the world" - save for the odd visit by the Bolshoi Ballet.

Now, Haus Khas is the kind of place where (as I noticed this spring) you spot a Costa Coffee, a McDonald's and a Pizza Hut next door to one another on the street. Yet for Desai, the globalising glitter of "Brand India" hides many kinds of harm. "The middle class seems so happy, booming and smiling and shopping and eating" - even buying into Western problems such as obesity. "But how can one also not talk of the downside of it all? The huge mass of poverty, the lack of infrastructure... You look at these multinational companies surrounded by slums."

Her novel's Indian landscapes disclose a very different sort of scene. For a while, Desai attended St Joseph's convent school in Kalimpong, and that damp town in the shadow of Himalayan peaks lends the book a truly unforgettable atmosphere. From a host of vivid details (like the highly-respected cobra couple living in a hole in Judge Patel's garden) to the political backdrop of the 1980s Gorkha insurgency in that part of West Bengal, Desai called on her own and others' memories before transforming them into a lavishly witty Indian Gothic style.

She returned to Kalimpong to write the chapters set there, and found that a sodden melancholy and oddity still clung to the place. "The people who lived in the hills were very similar to the ones in my book: larger-than-life, eccentric characters". In the Planters' Club, you will still find "ancient bearskins mouldering on the walls". Her aunt lives in the town: a doctor with a practice in the market, she cared for guerrillas and their pursuers during the 1980s rebellion. In her house once lived an old Englishwoman, who was found one day "in a big brass bed... blind and being eaten alive by maggots, abandoned by her watchman. Eventually, the woman died and the house was sold... Kalimpong is still amazingly like that."

In this spectacular backwater, the old judge snipes at his restless granddaughter. He looks back in sadness (and anger) at a career that began in the chilly disdain of the Raj. As well as reading memoirs by Indian Civil Service veterans, Desai drew on the life of her father's father, from a modest family in Gujerat. "My grandfather made this huge journey: from learning the English dictionary by heart, sitting outside under the streetlamp. Then he went to Cambridge, not as a fancy member of the Indian upper class with lots of money, but quite the opposite. He was living, painfully, as a lodger, and certainly never lost his very strong Indian accent." For such displaced persons,"It was very hard for them to put the different parts of their lives together, or even to reconcile themselves to history at all."

In the novel, that history repeats itself, as America becomes the focus of Indian diaspora dreams. "I see so many parallels with my generation," Desai explains. "Going to America, because it's clear where the balance of power lies, wanting to join in and learning the accent, learning the right lines to say - trying to make up a version of yourself to fit the picture."

Her own life in Brooklyn blends the broad horizons of the expat with the intimacy of a village. She talks to, and argues with, the many Indian authors who live in or visit the district: Amitav Ghosh, Suketu Mehta, Manil Suri, and the film-maker Mira Nair. "It's very cosy. We're very friendly." Meanwhile, e-mail broadens this boundary-busting community to embrace authors in England and South Asia, too. "What it will do to the writing, I don't know. But in terms of having company, and making sure you don't produce fake versions of things, it's very good."

For such cosmopolitan talents, she admits, the view from Brooklyn has its troubling side. "There's a lot of fear about what your next subject is going to be. There's the huge history, and emotional depth, of India - but you've left it. Modern India is not your subject: it belongs to a generation of Indian authors living in India. So you're left with half-stories - and this book is really made up of half-stories, or quarter-stories." True enough, but many happy readers will decide that the intersecting half-stories of The Inheritance of Loss add up, collectively, to the whole story of our mixed-up times.

Biography: Kiran Desai

Kiran Desai, one of four children of the novelist Anita Desai, was born in 1971 and brought up in India. She went to school in Delhi and Kalimpong, in the Himalayas, where her family had a house. After a period in England, she and her mother lived in the US from the late 1980s. Kiran attended Bennington College, and studied creative writing at Columbia University. She published her debut, Hullbaloo in the Guava Orchard, in 1998. It won a Betty Trask Award. She has spent the past eight years working on her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss (Hamish Hamilton). This week, it won the Man Booker Prize and made her the youngest woman ever to receive the award. Desai lives in Brooklyn and spends part of the year in India.