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Newsmaker: Kiran Desai

If ever the twain shall read

Nilanjana Roy  |  New Delhi 

Kiran Desai
For the first decade of her writing career, Kiran Desai had been left to work in peace. That will change after her Booker win this week. At 35, she is the youngest woman to win, and only the third Indian, after Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy, to receive the judges' nod for a prize that has eluded authors as distinguished as Rohinton Mistry and Vikram Seth.

Her first reaction was to thank her mother, Anita Desai, who has three Booker nominations to her credit but no wins. "The debt I owe to my mother is so profound that I feel the book is hers as much as mine. It was written in her company and in her wisdom and kindness," Kiran said at the ceremony in London.

Her first book, the charming but lightweight Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, caused a brief ripple thanks to its endorsement by Salman Rushdie. It may not have made literary history, but it did establish "Anita Desai's daughter" as a writer with a potentially interesting voice of her own.

Kiran Desai began work on the novel that would become The Inheritance of Loss eight years ago. "I'm a slow writer," she explained, "it takes me time to find my characters, their histories, their voices "" I like to let the story unfold."

Anita Desai, who wrote The Zigzag Way in the same period, spoke of Kiran working upstairs while she worked downstairs, a comfortable harmony connecting mother and daughter.

Anita Desai's Mexico novel came out to good reviews; Kiran struggled with a book that was turning out to be way too big.

After the Delhi launch of Inheritance, Kiran talked of the difficulty of slashing 1,500 pages down to 300, of the days she spent interviewing Bangladeshi busboys, Indian waiters and other immigrants to the US to do justice to their stories.

Her characters are all outsiders: a retired judge living in Kalimpong, scarred by the loneliness and rejection he experienced as a young man living in England; Biju, the son of the judge's cook, discovering the harsh comedy of life as a continually displaced immigrant in New York's restaurants; orphaned Sai, the judge's grand-daughter, stumbling into a love affair disrupted as the hills go up in flames over questions of identity and belonging.

The Inheritance of Loss was richly layered, written with sensitivity and humour, and for over a year, no one wanted it. Kiran Desai collected rejection letters until Hamish Hamilton finally took it.

The editors who turned her down must have winced when the book made it to this year's controversial Booker Prize shortlist, which omitted writers like Peter Carey, David Mitchell, Andrew O' Hagan and Nadine Gordimer in favour of relative newcomers.

After eight years of silence, Kiran Desai woke up to a phone that rang off the hook. Even then, she was seen as a dark horse compared to frontrunner Sarah Waters.

Perhaps the only ones who weren't surprised when Kiran Desai won the Booker this week were those who had read and loved The Inheritance of Loss. Before Tuesday, this was a relatively small minority. Now that Kiran Desai has been shoved into the limelight, she should find the readers she so richly deserves.

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First Published: Fri, October 13 2006. 00:00 IST