Booker surprise for bookmakers: Desai inherits literary success

After eight years in the shadows while writing her second novel, Kiran Desai is now basking in the spotlight of winning the Man Booker. By Louise Jury
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The Independent Culture

She had spent the last eight years as a hermit, struggling to write The Inheritance of Loss, the follow-up to her acclaimed debut. But after the solitude of writing, Kiran Desai was flung into the spotlight of international media yesterday when she proved the surprise winner of the 2006 £50,000 Man Booker Prize.

The result was a shock to the bookmakers who had made Desai, daughter of the thrice-Booker-nominated author Anita Desai, the outsider when the shortlist was announced a month ago. As interest in the 35-year-old Indian writer grew, the odds shortened but she still cost the industry in excess of £150,000 when she became the youngest woman ever to win.

"We were cheering on anyone but Desai or [Sarah] Waters," said Ladbrokes spokesman Nick Weinberg. "It will definitely be a black Wednesday for the layers when punters turn up for their winnings."

But the bookies are set to be the only losers from the prestigious win that traditionally boosts sales 15-fold.

Within 90 minutes of receiving the winner's cheque at a ceremony at the Guildhall, in London, on Tuesday, Kiran Desai had appeared on BBC2's Newsnight, BBC News 24, Radios 4 and 5 and the World Service, ABC television and radio for Australia and RTE television for Ireland. Only close to midnight did she escape to the party celebrations at the private members' club Century, hosted by her publishers Penguin who were marking their first Booker Prize success in 15 years.

The relentless merry-go-round re-commenced at first light when the schedule organised by the Booker publicists Colman Getty entailed arrival by 8.15am at BBC Television Centre for a new bout of questioning before further rounds with journalists from India and elsewhere overseas.

The impact of the win and attendant publicity is likely to be colossal. Rodney Troubridge, of Waterstone's booksellers, said: "It's very fascinating. There are lots of stories there - her and the eight years writing and her mother - and there's been massive press interest. I think the book's going to do well."

Yet Anita Desai had always advised her daughter, one of four children, not to become a writer. "My mother told me, 'Never be a writer, it's such a difficult profession. It's so hard,' said Kiran. But always an inveterate reader, the daughter eventually tried her hand at a few stories and was hooked. Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, her first novel, was published in 1998 to acclaim and she continued her writing at Columbia University's creative writing course in New York.

She knew she needed to capitalise on her initial success, but found it difficult. "I was writing full-time [but] I lived a very strange life. I'm sure I grew quite odd. My family, everyone told me I did. I was scared of people, scared of the phone, and I grew poorer. I wasn't a pretty sight by the end of seven years."

Eventually her mother became the first person to read her efforts. "Certainly in terms of what it is about, she was the only person who could understand it and understand what I was trying to say," she said. For her mother remains a literary as well as a personal sounding board. Hermione Lee, chair of this year's Man Booker judges, said it was clear that Kiran Desai had read not only VS Naipaul, RK Narayan and her friend Salman Rushdie - the cream of the Indian diaspora - but her own mother, too.

Anita Desai has long lived in America, but she was born in a hill station north of Delhi in 1937, the daughter of a Bengali businessman and a German mother. They spoke German at home and Hindi to their friends.

Anita's work examines themes of foreignness and division which some commentators believe stems from observing the anxiety her own mother experienced about the situation in wartime Germany, a country to which she never returned.

They are themes Kiran has, arguably, inherited. The plot of The Inheritance of Loss tells the parallel stories of a family in the foothills of the Himalayas and of illegal immigrant workers in New York. And she has described her own sense of alienation from America even though it is her main home. (She also lives in New Delhi.) "I think it has been a very difficult time in America to be an immigrant and a foreigner, to be part of the non-Western world," she said on Tuesday night.

With that sense of alienation apparently came a sense of responsibility to address larger questions such as globalisation.

"Given what the political climate has been in the States, I feel more and more Indian in so many ways. It's certainly not something I would subtract from myself," she added.

She jokingly referred to her Indian heritage on Tuesday night as she embarked on warm tributes to her parents for their help and support.

Yet, ironically, though mother and daughter normally speak every day, hours after a Desai had finally triumphed at the Booker, Anita remained blissfully unaware.

With a pragmatism perhaps prompted by long-practised disappointment, Desai senior was out of telephone and television range in a Tibetan refugee settlement with her brother while her daughter was making her witty and articulate acceptance speech.

The veteran author had imparted sound advice to her daughter before she left, however. "She said, 'Everyone around you is going to be very excited and worried and nervous. But you've got to go on and write your next book whatever happens'," said Kiran.

Unfortunately, at present the new literary star has no idea what the next book will be about and certainly has not started it.

But with a £50,000 vote of confidence behind her, perhaps it will take slightly less than eight years this time round.

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