Inheritance of gain

Print edition : November 03, 2006

KIRAN DESAI POSES with a copy of her book at the awards ceremony in London. - STEPHEN HIRD/REUTERS

At 35, Kiran Desai becomes the youngest woman to win the Man Booker Prize.

THE story of Kiran Desai's Man Booker Prize, which was awarded in a ceremony held on October 10, is linked by way of trivia as well as by literary inheritance to the story of Indian writing in English. While Kiran was attending the awards dinner, her mother, Anita Desai, who had been shortlisted for the prize three times but never won it, was away in a Tibetan settlement near Dehra Dun, without access to telephone or television.

Before the 35-year-old Kiran Desai became the youngest woman to win the prize, the youngest woman winner was Arundhati Roy, just a month short of her 36th birthday, with her 1997 novel The God of Small Things. Kiran Desai's first novel, Hullaballoo in the Guava Orchard (1999), had received an enthusiastic commendation from India's first Booker winner, Salman Rushdie, for "the first dynasty of modern Indian fiction", with an excerpt finding its way into Rushdie's controversial anthology of Indian writing, Mirrorwork.

Trivia apart, the Chair of the Booker judges, Hermione Lee, spoke about Kiran Desai's awareness of her literary inheritance, especially that of V.S. Naipaul, Rushdie and R.K. Narayan, and her original way of taking it forward: "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."

And so it would be a pity if another sweet little coincidence for Indian writing were to go unmarked - for the date of Kiran Desai's awards ceremony, October 10, also happened to be the birth centenary of R.K. Narayan. After all, Kiran Desai's first book, set in small-town India, features a likeable cast of characters who could have wandered down south into Narayan territory and felt entirely at home there. But it is her second novel - also with ordinary, eccentric characters muddling along in a small hill station in the northeastern Himalayas, besides a struggling immigrant trying to make his way in the kitchens of New York restaurants - that really pays homage to Narayan's tradition of gentle and humane storytelling.

Their starting points are very different: Narayan grew up in Madras (Chennai) and Mysore, Kiran Desai in India, England and the United States. But some common threads can be traced in their development as writers. Like Narayan, the son of a school headmaster, Kiran Desai is the daughter of a writer who was also a teacher. Both began as struggling writers.

Narayan's memoir tells us that he was a daydreamer, often settling down with a pile of books by the Kukkarahalli tank in Mysore. Kiran Desai, too, had her years of struggle, living for years in the U.S. on a student visa (she has a green card now but has not yet taken U.S. citizenship), deaf to those in her family who wanted her to get a job and health insurance.

Swami, in Narayan's first book Swami and Friends, is a restless dreamer. Like Sai, the young girl in Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss, Swami is obsessed with his own story. More than anything else, there is a common Chekhovian sensibility running through the novels of both writers - delicate stories that unfold in evocative natural settings and that are imbued with a gentle concern for ordinary people caught up in a changing world.

Kiran Desai's first novel was magic-realist in style, with hints of the delicious humour that is now a hallmark of her prose, and it won the Betty Trask Award for a first novel. Apart from finding a place in Mirrorwork, an extract was also featured in The New Yorker's India fiction issue. But the novel did not really make waves.

Her second novel, instead of coming within the conventional two- or three-year period that is recommended for young novelists, has come after a painful seven-year apprenticeship. Kiran Desai has spoken about her mother's influence, saying that the novel "was written in her company and in her wisdom and kindness". The novel's dedication, `To my mother with so much love", recognises this inheritance.

ANITA DESAI, KIRAN'S mother, was nominated for the Booker Prize three times, and reached the shortlist, but never won.-

Anita Desai, daughter of a German mother and a Bengali father, is one of India's pioneering women writers in English. She has written 16 novels and short story collections and won awards, critical acclaim and a dedicated readership for her thoughtful, elegant treatment. One of her novels, In Custody, was made into a Merchant-Ivory film featuring Shashi Kapoor and Shabana Azmi. She was nominated for the Booker Prize three times, and reached the shortlist with her novels Clear Light of Day (1980), In Custody (1984) and Fasting, Feasting (1999) - but never won.

Born in India in 1971, the youngest of four children, Kiran was 14 when her parents separated. She attended high school abroad while her mother taught for a year at Cambridge. They then moved to the U.S., where Kiran attended Bennington College, Hollins University and then a creative writing programme at Columbia University.

At 35, Kiran Desai is the youngest woman to win the Man Booker Prize. Ben Okri, who won in 1991 for his novel The Famished Road, is the youngest winner at 32. Kiran Desai becomes the first woman to win the 50,000 prize since Margaret Atwood won it in 2000 with The Blind Assassin.

This year, it was a shortlist that left out substantial novels by big names - past Booker winners Peter Carey's Theft (Carey has already won twice), Barry Unsworth's The Ruby In Her Navel and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer's Get A Life. Also out of the picture was David Mitchell's Black Swan Green. The 2006 shortlist included The Secret River, Kate Grenville's novel about life in a 19th century Australian penal colony; Carry Me Down, M.J. Hyland's novel about an unusual boy; In the Country of Men, Hisham Matar's semi-autobiographical debut novel set in Libya; Mother's Milk, Edward St Aubyn's story of a dysfunctional family; and the bookmakers' favourite, Night Watch, Sarah Waters' finely crafted love story set in wartime London.

Hermione Lee explained the philosophy behind this unusual but very interesting shortlist: "A distinctive original voice, an audacious imagination that takes readers to undiscovered countries of the mind, a strong power of storytelling and a historical truthfulness."

The impact and importance of prizes is clear from the book's sales figures: The Inheritance of Loss, published by Hamish Hamilton, had only sold a little over 2,000 copies when it was longlisted. This figure rose to 500 copies a week when it reached the shortlist. After the award was announced to this "magnificent novel of humane breadth and wisdom, comic tenderness and powerful political acuteness", the figure would have increased even more dramatically. And fittingly, for this is a novel that deserves to be read.

The epigraph from Jorge Luis Borges sets the tone for a novel concerned with the struggles of little people, a novel for our troubled times: `They speak of humanity/My humanity is in feeling we are all voices of that same poverty... " An elderly retired judge is spending his last years in Cho Oyu, a crumbling hillside bungalow in Kalimpong in the northeastern Himalayas, with his pet dog Mutt.

Although the novel is set in the 1980s in a time of turbulence and change, the judge comes from a generation for whom identities are fixed: he is referred through most of the novel as "the judge"; his cook, as "the cook". It is only in the judge's memories of his painful student years in a racist, colonial England that he is referred to by his name, Jemubhai Patel.

His granddaughter Sai, the child of a Gujarati mother and a Zoroastrian father who is part of an Indo-Russian space collaboration in the last days of the old Soviet state, is orphaned when her parents die under the wheels of a bus in Moscow.

When Sai comes to stay with her distant, embittered grandfather, it is the cook who gives her the warmth and affection that he (the cook) is unable to give his son. For the cook's son Biju is an illegal immigrant far away in New York, drifting from one temporary job to another in the underworld of restaurant kitchens.

Back in Kalimpong, Sai and her young Nepali tutor, Gyan, begin to fall in love. Meanwhile, in the world outside Cho Oyu, a growing insurgency is threatening to explode across the hils.

The characters form a motley assortment of outsiders, retirees, daydreamers and failures - some of whom, like Sai, are still involved in a search for happiness, while others have resigned themselves to a life where time stands still. This is a novel about the everyday difficulties of modernity - the little struggles and contradictions, the fork and knife, the visa queues, the daily humiliations, the self-consciousness of learning English in small-town India. It is also about the inevitability and many faces of oppression, the paradoxes of growth and injustice, and communities struggling with the violence and pain of change.

Most of all, its concern is for the poor, the people who "needed certain lines" because "the script was always the same, and they had no option but to beg for mercy". It is only very rarely, in a desperate search for expression, that those lines can be forced to change.

Here is Biju at the Gandhi Cafe in New York, feeling sorry for himself after breaking his leg: "Looking at a dead insect in the sack of basmati that had come all the way from Dehra Dun, he almost wept in sorrow and marvelled at its journey, which was tenderness for his own journey. In India almost nobody would be able to afford this rice, and you had to travel around the world to be able to eat such things where they were cheap enough that you could gobble them down without being rich; and when you got home to the place where they grew, you couldn't afford them anymore." It is at this moment that, in an ironic moment of self-assertion, a moment of quiet rebellion against his fate, Biju first decides that he will go home after all.

Living in Brooklyn, often going off to visit her mother in upstate New York or to travel with her to Mexico and writing part of the novel during a stay in Kalimpong, Kiran Desai wrote 1,500 pages in over seven years before finally cutting the novel down to 300 pages.

A pity, one would say - for the novel is so lovely that more of it would only have been lovelier. One is nevertheless grateful for the breathtaking, overflowing richness that remains in the descriptions - a leak in the toilet playing honky-tonk, the cook hissing softly to himself as he takes in the soup tureen, the hiccuping back drain at the Queen of Tarts bakery - as they vividly evoke both the misty mountain atmosphere of Kalimpong and the rat-infested underbelly of New York.

There is an accumulation of wisdom in its sweet half-stories and fragments that are sometimes just one or two sentences long. Composed of ellipses, broken paragraphs and sighing musical sentences that sometimes stop in the middle, the novel hints at a lot but never says everything - forcing us to reflect for ourselves on the aching turns of subcontinental history, the painful creation and recreation of borders and the endless cycles of oppression endured by the poor and dispossessed even while the future shines brightly for those who are more privileged.

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