Sushi for Breakfast
An interview with Kiran Desai
By John Freeman
Kiran Desai does not at first seem like an angry woman. Her voice as high and quiet as a young girl's, the first impression the 35-year-old novelist presents is of shyness, or humility.
And perhaps those are qualities she possesses. But listen closely to what she is saying, and a very different impression arises. Kiran Desai is not just troubled about the state of the world. She is enraged.
"Is it really such a brave new world?" asks the novelist on a recent afternoon in Manhattan, her brow crinkling. "I don't know if anybody would say so right now, but not long ago people would have said globalization was something fantastic and bold, and yet it seemed like a very old story to me—especially when I looked at it in light of my own family history. It seems pretty rotten."
These sentiments are certainly shared by the cast of her powerful second novel, The Inheritance of Loss, which recently won England's Booker Prize. Set in the ’80s in a remote Himalayan village, the book revolves around a society of people for whom leave-taking has been a way of life, and for whom arrival has almost always meant the shattering of a dream.
Take Jemubhai, a cantankerous, aging judge. Raised in a small Bengali village, he was sent off to Cambridge, all his family's hopes and dreams traveling with him. In flashbacks, Desai shows how he was ridiculed for his accent and became so shy he could barely walk to the grocery store for tea and milk. He returned to India embittered and confused about his place in society.
At the beginning of the novel, he takes in a wayward niece, Sai, while his last remaining servant worries over his own son Biju, who has been sent to the United States. In New York City, Biju bounces from one restaurant job to another, ultimately landing at an Indian café where he sleeps on the dining tables at night.
"There is this incredible desire to say that India's past is a story of great hope," Desai says, "that we now have this enormous middle class. But at whose expense? The immigrant community here constantly tells you they are the most successful immigrants, economically, but we are also the poorest of immigrants, which of course is not talked about."
Through the story of Biju, The Inheritance of Loss vividly re-creates this invisible scrum—the successful immigrants taking advantage of the new ones, the fight to stay alive. In one grimly funny scene, Biju scrambles to be first to the visa counter at the U.S. Embassy: "Biggest pusher, first place," Desai writes of him, "how self-contented and smiling he was; he dusted himself off, presenting himself with the exquisite manners of a cat. I'm civilized, sir, ready for the U.S., I'm civilized, mam."
In another scene, one of Biju's roommates ducks the calls of newly arrived emigrants from Zanzibar, who have spoken to his parents back home and been assured their son will provide them shelter and jobs.
"Immigration is not this sunny thing where each day gets sunnier," Desai says. "A lot of times it's about throwing people overboard so you can stay."
Desai has never had to struggle like this, but she has seen it up close.
"Part of the book started when I was living at 123rd Street in Harlem," she says. "I remember there was a bakery nearby very much like the one I write about, and a lot of the characters are from knowing the people up there, and talking to them."
Desai can relate to feeling trapped, however. She grew up in New Delhi when that town felt cut off from the world. "There was the feeling that books were the only thing that led you to the world," she says, fingering a glass of white wine. "You read really hard—that was the only thing you could do."
In this regard she was taking after her mother, Anita Desai, a three-time Booker finalist. Desai remembers when Indian writing was decidedly not hot or glamorous. "When my mother was writing, it was a very different world. There was no literary scene. There were no moneyed book tours. She just sent out the manuscripts from the addresses from the backs of books, even until the ’80s."
Like Sai, Desai was packed off to a remote Himalayan village for a year—in her case, to live with an aunt—and the place left an impression.
"It's awful, it's isolating. In the middle of the monsoon, you get reduced to nothing all over again, especially if you are poor."
In the book, the anger and resentment of being trapped this way spills over to a homegrown resistance movement for Kashmir, which draws Sai's well-educated, middle-class tutor away from her and into a much more dangerous endeavor. Today it would be called terrorism. "Why is there so much violence? Why is there so much anger?" Desai asks rhetorically.
"It's not surprising at all. The gap between the rich and the poor is greater than it's ever been, and sometimes the angriest people are the people who have seen both sides."
Again, Desai would fit this description. It took her eight years to write this novel, and along the way she learned the habit of solitude, moving around, living cheaply by herself and often around people who were poor. Her first book, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, had made a splash, earning praise from Salman Rushdie and acres of review coverage.
Rather than bask in the attention, Desai wanted to run away from it, she says.
"I was living in Latin America for a bit, I was working in Brazil and Chile, Mexico. I think something very odd happens to you when you spend a lot of time alone; I don't think Brooklyn writers go through it, because they have such a huge social life: I barely talked to people. The mailman would come by and I would hide."
Emerging from this cocoon once again, Desai may look the part of the glamorous young novelist, but she is doubly distrustful of the hullabaloo, because she knows it has nothing to do with the writing.
"Who is going to write an honest book? To look at something straight takes a lot of work. So who is going to do it? I don't know—no one is going to volunteer, it's much more fun to go to a literary festival and drink champagne or whatever, attend a conference and have a fantastic time. There's no better time to be a writer in that sense. You get so many goodies thrown at your head. You are writing for Travel & Leisure and eating sushi for breakfast."
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