Rich in detail and heavy in irony, Kiran Desai’s second novel, The Inheritance of Loss, tells the tales of immigrants caught between a rock and a hard place in a post-colonial world. Thanks to this epic story, in 2006 Desai became the youngest-ever recipient of the prestigious Booker Award. The judging panel described The Inheritance of Loss as “a magnificent novel of breadth and wisdom, comic tenderness and powerful political acuteness.” In a gush of words, interrupted only by peals of laughter and sips of G&T, Desai talks to Maisonneuve about her latest work.
Maisonneuve Magazine: The Inheritance of Loss follows the lives of several transient characters of Indian origin. What was your own trajectory?
Kiran Desai: I left India when I was fifteen, went to England for a year then moved to the States. I still go to India every year, always.
MM: Was it in India that you wrote the novel?
KD: With this book I was in Mexico. I went with my mother [Booker-nominated author Anita Desai]. We used to go on writing vacations together, because she was writing a book and I was writing a book. It is a beautiful, wonderful country and it allowed me to really broaden the argument of my book, beyond the Indian immigrant experience in particular to the immigrant experience in general. And I spent some time in Guatemala and other parts of Latin America. It really helped.
MM: What was your impetus for exploring the immigrant experience in your writing?
KD: I wanted to write what I knew, as they say you should. I thought that I should write about the Indian experience of being in New York. It started out with a simple story based on my own life—going to college and school. Lots of small stories became important to the context of larger immigration issues, and that automatically made me write about the class divide. There’s a big class divide between India and the United States. I wanted to write this book, basically to discuss—what is called in the West—immigrant rights.
MM: The central figure in your book, Sai, is an adolescent girl living in the Himalayan Mountains as civil unrest breaks out. Somehow, she manages to remain naïve about everything that is happening around her, even though her Nepali tutor and boyfriend, Gyan, is directly involved in the uprising. How close is her perspective to your own as a young girl growing up in India?
KD: When I left India at age fifteen, I was very aware of all the strains and all that political tension, but I didn’t understand. It was only many years later—perhaps while I was writing the book—that I did. What better way to show how complicated a story is than to use a child in a country where there are incredibly conflicting claims, conflicting interests and nobody is right?
The arguments aren’t solved easily—there’s just too much history and it’s too complicated to find compromise in any way whatsoever. As a teenager you expect you’ll have the sort of wholeness you’re searching for, and I think in a world like the one she lives in, it’s more complex than that. You cannot create your own little happiness and live within it.
MM: Yet some of the older characters would be happy to live in their own bubble...
KD: Yes, but of course if you do that, the world’s violence is going to be upon you. If you don’t feel that you’ll be able to think about it at one time or another it’s going to be upon you. Just like the old ladies on the hillside, who are sitting in their old house perfectly happy and watching the BBC and thinking of themselves in a very romantic way.
MM: Gyan experiences a detachment from the other Nepalese protestors involved in the uprising; it’s as if he is just going through the motions. Where does his reticence come from and is it intended to be representative of how many would have felt in that particular situation?
KD: In a survival situation, there’s a lot of insecurity; people often go from one extreme to the other; they first try one thing and then all of a sudden a sense of terror sends them into the other.I thought I could only deal with the uprising by trying to concentrate on what one person might go through. A lot of people do falter.
Gyan was the hardest character—the most different one from me. I had to think about what it must mean for a boy like that growing up and finding himself in this situation, being a part of it, yet also longing for another world. He thinks he might leave, and go to Australia; he’s looking into other jobs. You know, we all have a hankering in a way for a small world and a wide world, for a pure world and for a messy world.
MM: Your descriptions of the Indian mountain village make it sound so much more vibrant and inviting than the Western places where the Indian characters try to settle. What are your most lasting impressions from living there?
KD: We used to have a house up in the mountains—on my mother’s side of the family. It was so magical in its beauty there, and the nature was so enormous that there was a reason why people would go there for spiritual rituals, why the Himalayans have become worshipped. It’s still very wild beauty; the monsoon rains really come down hard. We’re isolated for month: the roads do wash away, just like in the story. You are left isolated and your entire state of mind changes. It’s very old in those hills and you’re very close to that world of spirits, so it’s fascinating to be there. I love it. I can feel everything through the lens of that beauty.
Only a few families lived there in these old houses and, they were larger-than-life; there were amazing characters washed up there. There was a Swiss priest. There was the first English monk there, actually—there was the first English Buddhist monk, members of royal families.
MM: The reclusive beauty of the setting makes it all the more dramatic when violence intrudes on the characters’ lives.
KD: Yes. You could get caught up in that world, and yet it was extremely obvious that there was something completely different going on at this place and this time. In fact, there were twenty people living like that near an incredibly poor society. You had to get army escorts; the army had a huge presence in those parts, of course, with China being so close.
MM: In The Inheritance of Loss, there's a scene at Delhi airport, in which Indian ex-pats returning to visit family are complaining about how awful everything is in India compared to in their new countries. This seems so ironic coming after all we have seen of the struggles of Indian characters such as the Judge in England and Biju in New York. How much have things changed in India since you immigrated and how do you feel on your return?
KD: Some bits are changing so fast, and yet other bits are not changing at all. Every time I go back to India, I fly through Delhi and people are exactly like this. Non-resident Indians who are returning from abroad are all complaining right there and then: they say the country never changes, the airport never improves, why can’t we pull it together? Every other country manages it; no one here ever stands in line and it’s all broken to bits. Where’s the money that we’re supposed to be making? You know the airport hasn’t been fixed; the roads are all broken.
MM: Is it that they have to make a point of the fact they’ve moved on?
KD: Yes. They want to show the difference; the huge gulf between what they’re used to now and what it is and what a good thing it is that they’ve left because there’s obviously no hope anyway. You know, there’s an element of it that you want to go and see your family and feel superior. Meanwhile, I remember the Indian side of things from when I was a child and immigrant relatives would come back. We’d all laugh at them. They’d make all those same remarks and we’d make fun of them.
MM: Do you feel more at home now in your adopted countries, the US and England, than you do in India?
KD: Between the total lack of something and having it is a hard place to be, and it’s a position I find myself in a lot of the time. It’s an automatic thing, I think, in the process of immigration; you become aware of what you’ve lost very dramatically. Also, the question becomes whether you can be emotionally whole; will you ever be an emotionally entire person, or is there always going to be an element of loneliness in your life? I don’t think this can be resolved easily.
Sometimes, people decide to turn their back on one side of their life, say on certain members of their family, or they choose one world over another, thinking that you will gain fulfillment in just cutting one half off and refusing to feel any desire for it, you know, that question of going back to the airport and complaining bitterly; again, it’s just a way of trying to tell yourself that you’ve done the right thing by leaving, and you obviously made the right decision, and you are so much happier. The fact that you’ve returned to go to your relative’s wedding and run to the flea market to get all your clothes and you sit on the couch and chat means that you are desiring something. You have gone back for a reason.
MM: How does living in the gap between cultures feed into your writing?
KD: I think being between two worlds is a good world to write from, this world of the diaspora. Certainly, there’s a lot of company in this journey. It is very lonely, but it does keep you constantly emotionally awake, I find. You see the gaps between things. If you have a tidy little domestic situation, it’s hard to believe that gaps could exist between places and things.
(Photo credit: Amit Dahan)