Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

A Lifetime of Habit with Anita Desai

I could scarce believe that Anita Desai, that enduring titan of letters, would be in Ottawa. I wasn’t alone; festival founder Neil Wilson confessed to being jittery about whether Desai—roped in from Montreal where she was in attendance as the Blue Met Grand Prix laureate—would actually arrive and speak to us. She was a tender presence, and her soft register as she read a selection from her novella The Artist of Disappearance, transported me to my childhood in India where my Malayalee patti (Tamil for grandmother) whispered stories as I fell asleep.

I’ve never read any of Desai’s books (a situation I’m bent on remedying immediately), but when my fiction book club was in its early, amorphous days six years ago, one of our books was Kiran Desai’s (Anita Desai’s daughter) The Inheritance of Loss, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2006. Its prose was so beguiling and self-assured that Desai the younger seemed immediately to join the ranks of bright young stars such as Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Monica Ali. Within our intimate group of four, The Inheritance of Loss opened up new avenues of vulnerability and friendship and indelibly convinced me that a reading life without fiction is a thoroughly impoverished one. It formed part of my own early journey of falling in love with and discovering literature like a rustic Danish diner sampling Babette’s feast.

So I came to the evening thinking, “I wonder what Kiran’s mother is like.”

Peter Schneider of the Canada Council for the Arts, was our mediator. Schneider did a stand-up job with David Mitchell last fall, and his steady demeanour exudes both his mirth and moral seriousness towards literature, reminiscent of the respected critic James Wood. Even as they began after Desai’s brief reading tapered off, the first thing that struck me was their mutual self-restraint and maturity: it added a certain elegant dignity that only comes with time and apprenticeship to reading and writing.

You could sense this self-restraint and maturity in Desai’s confession that she hardly reads her earlier work. She described how she found her voice in Fire on the Mountain and this development was her true starting point. I could hear the inbreathed sighs from the audience at this display of humility. Desai mentioned how she was aware of a community of established Indian writers in mid-twentienth century, post-colonial India. These included luminaries such as R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand and N.C. Chaudhri. Yet, Indian publishers were not keen to give a young Indian writer a chance, preferring the stable sales of textbooks and established writers, usually from Great Britain and America.

Desai would say, “We didn’t have writers festivals, and one rarely met other writers.” But there was a rare exception - a neighbour in Old Delhi, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (as trivia would have it, the only person to have won both a Booker and an Oscar). Jhabvala was a German who had married an Indian architect, and Desai had a German mother, so it was their shared roots that drew them to each other. Desai recalls, “We discovered that we both wrote, and I remember Ruth putting her first published novel [To Whom She Will] in my hands, and I thought…it would be possible.”

Desai also gave credit to younger writers such as Salman Rushdie (she wrote the foreword in the Everyman edition to Midnight’s Children) and the brilliant observations of her peer, V.S. Naipaul in his Indian trilogy. In many ways, a colonial heritage has now become wholly adopted to Indian ends, as English is as Indian a language as any.

One of the special highlights of the evening was to hear Desai speak with tenderness towards her daughter Kiran, whose The Inheritance of Loss she termed “a profound book.” Desai also mentioned working for the inimitable Robert Silvers of the New York Review of Books, where Desai had been penning essays since the early 1990s.

There’s only so much a meagre review like this can capture and convey. But I know many years later I’ll recall with special fondness the evening where I sat and gave my attention to this thoughtful, warm woman whose “lifetime of habit” will be one that will endure.