Explorations of the unknown

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Anita Desai: Brings a quiet, unhurried quality to her writing.
Anita Desai: Brings a quiet, unhurried quality to her writing.

Anita Desai talks about how challenging it was for her as a writer to step out of her comfort zones. Excerpts from an interview with a writer who has quietly but consistently practised her craft for over 45 years. ZIYA US SALAM

‘I never go back to a story once it is in print. If I did, I would want to re-write it entirely...’

There is an unhurried, laidback quality to her work that draws the reader in, like a flame attracts a moth. In the age of quick-reads, Anita Desai still draws attention with the same unwavering quality to her work that she first displayed when she penned Cry The Peacock, back in 1963. Nothing has changed her life. Neither three Booker nominations, nor being a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature or the Padma Shri she was conferred!

At one time, Desai, now with 16 books under the belt, said her life was not big or broad enough as it was all about family and neighbours. Now, people see a window into their life through her works. How gradual or pleasurable was this transformation?

Risking a break

“It was important to me. I could have chosen to remain confined within the limits of my world or to risk a break and step into the unknown. I chose the latter. It was challenging, at times frightening, because it separated me from what I knew intimately and well, but for the most part it was exhilarating and stimulating.”

An air of melancholy runs through most of her works. If in In Custody there is a brooding darkness, in Fire on the Mountain, she talks of estrangement and a sense of loneliness in solitude. Isn’t the work a bit dark?

“If you find it dark, it is because it was meant to be. I did not set out to write a cheerful, amusing or optimistic book and of course it is not,” Desai says.

Incidentally, Fire on the Mountain is part of a three-book series brought out in paperback by Random House India. The others being the much-acclaimed Fasting Feasting and Collected Stories.

The same feeling of melancholy and darkness runs through In Custody too. Yet, when it was adapted to cinema by Ismail Merchant, there were pleasing colours and a happier feel. How far does Desai agree with such cinematic adaptations? She was reportedly initially “shocked” to see the film!

“I had to accept the fact that the film is a totally different medium from the written word which I saw as uncompromisingly black and white. Filming it in gorgeous technicolour with attractive and splendidly dressed actors in beautiful settings transformed it into something entirely different from my book: into a Merchant Ivory film. An adaptation is very rarely the same as the original — and this is not rare exception.”

Similarly, Fasting Feasting has more than a ring of irony to it. It is said to be her most socially acute novel. Does Desai agree? Is it still her most ambitious work?

“I don’t myself attach adjectives or labels to my books. They were written not to suit either but as explorations. In Fasting Feasting I was exploring the paradox that lies in finding that opposites are sometimes startlingly — even if not obviously — alike.

Her “explorations”, as she calls her writing, have a quiet quality that makes it wistful for a generation that has grown up thinking being gay means being glad! Yet she comes from the times when it meant to be just happy. How has been this dialogue with people removed more than a generation?

“I am not at all sure I understand the distinctions you make between being glad/ happy/ gay. But I am prepared to understand that the new generation that reads my works will respond to it differently from the way my own generation did,” says Desai, born as Anita Mazumdar to an Indian father and a German mother, speaking German, Bengali Urdu, Hindi and English! Incidentally, she first learned to write in English, in school — she is a product of Delhi’s Queen Mary’s school — making it her “literary language”!

The new edition of Collected Stories comes with a new unpublished story. From this bunch can she pick for us one story she would like to go back to again and again?

Desai would have none of it, preferring to keep a distance from her work, now open to public dissection and interpretations. She just says, “Oh, I never go back to a story once it is in print. If I did, I would want to re-write it entirely and at that stage cannot.” May be she does not need to rewrite at all! And her life, once said to be confined and limited, now has enough shades to give us more stories. Unhurried, untapped, unpublished.

Random House is reissuing Anita Desai’s books in India.



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