October 18, 2020
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Booker Prize

A Literary Inheritance

Kiran Desai becomes the youngest woman ever to win the Man Booker prize for her novel, The Inheritance of Loss — a prize that has eluded her thrice-nominated mother

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A Literary Inheritance
A Literary Inheritance

Writing about Kiran Desai's first novel, Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard, before it was even available in print, Salman Rushdie had heralded her arrival with these words:

Kiran Desai is the daughter of Anita: her arrival establishes the first dynasty of modern Indian fiction. But she is very much her own writer, the newest of all these voices, and welcome proof that India's encounter with the English language, far from proving abortive, continues to give birth to new children, endowed with lavish gifts.

Back then in 1997, these words had only been greeted with indignant raising of eyebrows as they appeared in Rushdie's controversial essay, Damme, This is the Oriental Scene For You! in the New Yorker. At the best, people dismissed it as Rushdie's attempt to be patronising or desperately trying to bolster his thesis about Indian writing in English. Kiran Desai's inclusion in Rushdie-edited anthology Mirrorwork, too, was criticised more for the absence of other stalwarts.

The book, when published in 1998, was received well universally, but the interest it generated, admittedly, was largely because of her famous mother Anita Desai.

But that was then.

Kiran Desai, by emerging as the winner of the £50,000 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for The Inheritance of Loss, has ensured that the acclaimed literary prize —for which her hitherto more-famous mother has been nominated thrice but never won—has finally found its way into the family.

Since the publication of her first novel in 1998 (a year after Arundhati Roy won her Booker), when Kiran Desai had finally surfaced again this year with her second novel in eight years, there had been a distinct buzz. The same Salman Rushdie had been even more effusive: "Kiran Desai is a terrific writer. This book richly fulfils the promise of her first." He was not the only one. But given the idiosyncrasy of the Booker juries in the last few years, the prospects of a win were seriously raised only when it finally found its way into the shortlist.

The competition was fierce. Peter Carey, the Australian best-selling novelist, had initially been tipped to break records by winning for a third time. But the jury did not include him in the shortlist, nor did it include the veteran South African Nadine Gordimer, who had won 32 years ago, or established British writers such as David Mitchell. Instead, from a total of 112 entries, 95 books were submitted and 17 books were called-in for the long-list. The shortlist was made up of six books, the other five being:

Sarah Waters, The Night Watch
Edward St Aubyn, Mother's Milk
Kate Greenville, The Secret River
M J Hyland, Carry Me Down
Hisham Matar, In the Country of Men

Until last night, however, Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss was only the second-favourite (the bookies' favourite was Sarah Waters' The Night Watch) though those who had read the book were confident that she had a good shot at the prize. The Bookies seemed to have sensed the buzz, for there had been a last minute rush for bets on Kiran Desai.

The judging panel for the this year's prize comprised of: Hermione Lee (Chair), biographer, academic and reviewer; Simon Armitage, poet and novelist; Candia McWilliam, award-winning novelist; critic Anthony Quinn; and actor Fiona Shaw. Eventually, when Chair of the judges, Hermione Lee, announced the winner and described the book as a "magnificent novel of humane breadth and wisdom, comic tenderness and powerful political acuteness," the 1971-born author became the youngest woman ever to have won the coveted prize. (Ben Okri is the youngest winner ever —he was 32 in 1991 when he won the prize for The Famished Road). Arundhati Roy, also the last Indian to have won the prize, was 36 in 1997 when she won the prize for The God Of Small Things.)

Kiran Desai's literary inheritance had been recognised, rewarded and, some may even say, retrieved.

It was almost like a "family endeavour", she was to say later, talking about her mother Anita Desai to whom her prize-winning novel is dedicated but who was not there at the award function: "I owe a debt so profound and so great, that this book feels as much hers as it is does mine. It was written in her company and in her wisdom and kindness in cold winters in her house... One minute isn't enough to convey it. I think she was so terrified on my behalf that she retreated as far as she could. She gave me lots of advice and now she is without a phone and without a television in a village in India."

She was disarming in her acceptance speech: "I didn't expect to win. I don't have a speech. My mother told me I must wear a sari, a family heirloom, but it's completely transparent!" And then, with characteristic humility, she went on to add, "I know the best book does not always win. The compromise wins."

But Hermione Lee, the chair of the Booker judges, dismissed any such suggestion "The winner was chosen, after a long, passionate and generous debate, from a shortlist of five other strong and original voices," she said, ruling out the possibility that there had been any compromise. Lee elaborated the reasons for their choice: "I think her mother would be proud. It is clear to those of us who have read Anita Desai that Kiran Desai has learned from her mother's work. Both write not just about India but about Indian communities in the world. The remarkable thing about Kiran Desai is that she is aware of her Anglo-Indian inheritance - of Naipaul and Narayan and Rushdie—but she does something pioneering. She seems to jump on from those traditions and create something which is absolutely of its own. The book is movingly strong in its humanity and I think that in the end is why it won."

It is an inheritance that Kiran Desai was quick to acknowledge: "I'm Indian and so I'm going to thank my parents," she said in her acceptance speech. Being Indian is something that seems to matter a whole lot to Kiran Desai, for she reverts to the same theme, at another point, "Given what the political climate has been in the States, I feel more and more Indian in so many ways."

Considering that the book is partly based in Kalimpong, Desai who is currently doing a creative writing course at Columbia University, USA, pointed out that she "went back to write the Indian bits in India, so it wasn't entirely from a distance". And it shows, consider the following for example:

"This state-making," Lola continued, "biggest mistake that fool Nehru made. Under his rules any group of idiots can stand up demanding a new state and get it too. How many new ones keep appearing? From fifteen we went to sixteen, sixteen to seventeen, seventeen to twenty two. . ." Lola made a line with a finger from above her ear and drew noodles in the air to demonstrate her opinion of such madness.

Set in the mid-1980s, about a Cambridge-educated Indian judge who lives a reclusive retirement in the foothills of the Himalayas, in Kalimpong, the book describes the upheavals in his life with the arrival of his orphaned teenage granddaughter; and is interwoven with movements to Manhattan where his cook's son attempts to keep one step ahead of the US immigration department. Critics have pointed out the similarity of the plot of her novel with her mother's 1977 novel, Fire on the Mountain. Kiran Desai laughs it off as inevitable perhaps given the shared literary DNA that both the books should deal with old, embittered and reclusive Anglophiles whose solitary lives are disrupted by the arrival of a grandchild.

As Lee points out, "When you talk about a reclusive judge who has denied himself love, it makes it sound terribly gloomy but there is an extremely comic ebullience about this. The book takes on the lives of the smallest characters." But Kiran Desai's book is far wider and sprawling in scope as it touches on the issues of multiculturalism, globalization, inequality, even insurgency:

In Kalimpong, high in the northeastern Himalayas where they lived—the retired juge and his cook, Sai, and Mutt—there was report of a new dissatisfaction in the hills, gathering insurgency, men and guns. It was the Indian-Nepalese this time, fed up with being treated like a minority where they were the majority. They wanted their own country, or at least their own state, in which to manage their own affairs.

But the book goes far beyond simplistic political posturing or commentary. "I never set out to be political," Desai reveals. "I started writing about people I knew, my grandparents, my parents," she says, but admits to attempting to write about the "less heroic side of globalisation that's being so championed". Yet she is quick to emphasise the wit and the humour in the book, even though it deals with "very broken people and half stories and stories full of fears and gaps and so much hypocrisy in the world".

Her novel, which moves between Kalimpong and Manhattan, she says, deals with "the enormous anxiety of being a foreigner". She should know, for she was born in India, lived in England as a teenager for a year before moving to America. "I think there are many experiences that people have. They deal with deal with the journey to the West in different ways."

"It was seven, almost eight years of work, writing half stories, quarter stories, stories in eighths, of broken people, difficult lives and I picked the novel out of it." she adds. "It was quite a difficult, emotional experience for me. I think I was devastated and sad by the end of the book."

Would the prize money come in handy? Of course it would. She was worried, she says, about having to take up teaching to support herself. "My mother told me never to be a writer because it's such a difficult profession. But of course I grew up reading really hard all through my childhood."

This year marked the first time that a daughter followed her nominated-mother for the prize and went on to win. Who knows, the mother may yet have a surprise in store for us.

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