Anita Desai is one of India's foremost writers. She has written numerous works of fiction, including Clear Light of Day (1980),
In Custody (1984), and Fasting, Feasting (1999)-all shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize-as well as Baumgartner's Bombay (1988) and The Zigzag Way (2004).
In Custody was made into a film by Merchant-Ivory productions, starring Shashi Kapoor and Om Pura. Her most recent work is The Artist of Disappearance (2011).
A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in London, the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York,
Gorton College and Clare Hall at the University of Cambridge, and most recently Sahitya Akademie in India,
Anita Desai has also been a Professor of Writing at MIT and has frequently been honored with awards, among them the Alberto Moravia Prize for Literature and the Padma Shri.
Born in Mussoorie to a German mother and a Bengali father, she was educated in Delhi, and currently divides her time between USA and Mexico.
The Books Interview: Anita Desai
Each of the novellas in your new book has a melancholic feel. What prompted that mood?
I think maybe it comes of my no longer living in India. All of these stories are based on memory and past experience. I miss India intensely, especially when I’m writing, because it remains my subject. After more than 20 years abroad, it remains the material of all of my work. So I’m constantly mining treasures of memory.
Has your perception of India changed?
I go back constantly. I’m in touch with family and friends there. But to be a visitor is very different from being a resident. If your mind exists there, your poetry exists there, but bodily you’re elsewhere . . . it creates a kind of weird disconnect.
In two of the stories, you evoke a colonial age. What draws you to that time?
It’s the era I grew up in. It was post-colonial, but newly post-colonial. The old elements of the colonial were still clinging to it. It’s what I grew up in and it’s what I do best. So when I return to India now, I see how the past has gone and been replaced.
The 19th-century English novel crops up often in these stories. Was it a central part of your education?
I was giving all the characters my own experience and the kind of education I had in old Delhi, but I do suggest that it seems faded to the younger generation. I notice in India today that people read differently. I always think what you read is what forms your mind, what makes you.
You raise the question of how different languages tell different truths in India. Do you wrestle with language in your writing?
It was certainly very much in the air when I was growing up and going to school and university. In India, there was a great move to replace English with regional languages and with Hindi. Yet even today an education in English is highly valued in India because it’s no longer thought of as English, as colonial, but as an international language.
In the past, I was made aware that I was writing in a language that was obsolete - I was constantly told that I should be writing in one of the regional languages. I felt I was handling a language that was on the way out. That’s not how it’s turned out to be. English literature is no longer central, but the English language is.
In one of these stories, you write about translation. Do you have a good relationship with your translators?
It varies a lot. I grow close to some translators, because they take the trouble to get in touch with me, to question me about the text. Some of the best of them have spent time in India, lived in India, so they are meeting me halfway.
But there are so many translations I have no way of checking. I don’t know a word of Turkish or Chinese or Japanese. I’m just throwing my text to the wind, and I have no idea what they turn into.
Why did you write at novella length?
I hadn’t written in this form before, and I think the ideas couldn’t have been encapsulated in the short story. To me, a short story is an episode; it’s a brief glimpse into another person, another life, but not more than that.
And these novellas have something beyond that - they have more experience crowded into them. At the same time, I think of them as being very focused, unlike novels, in which you can go off in many different directions and pull the strands together again.
You’ve taught for a long time. Have you enjoyed the experience?
It has always been bizarre for me. I never taught before I came to the US and I never thought I would. I needed to, at that moment in my life - I had two children at university, and I’d come here in order to pay the bills, something I couldn’t do from India.
I did for a while also teach modern Indian literature in translation, which is perhaps what got me thinking so much about translations - their words, their value. After that, I taught courses in creative writing - I’d never heard of such a thing in India, or ever attended such a course. I had to teach myself how to teach, really.
How did you do that?
I think I let the students teach me. They were my teachers, and I listened to them, and gradually I managed to see what they needed and how I could fit those needs.
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