If someone were to ask me to list my five all-time favourite writers, Anita Desai would make the list on any given day. I was introduced to her work in my “Indian Writing in English” course in the BA English programme at Jadavpur University, and since then I have read all of her books except the earliest works, which are either hard to find or out of print.

Reading Desai’s fiction many years after they were published is a strange feeling. They are often reminiscent of a time and India that no longer exist. For instance, in Baumgartner’s Bombay, we meet a Jewish refugee who has fled Nazi Germany; in The Clear Light of Day, the gramophone music that the Das children listen to reverberates long after you’ve read the last page; in In Custody, the fading fame of an Urdu poet makes you aware of our precariously-perched cultural heritage in the age of breakneck modernity.

Still, Desai’s fiction remains so widely read (and studied) and loved is because it transcends time to tell humane stories of nostalgia, longing, regret, and hope. Her clear-eyed prose is a lasting example of what beautiful writing should be.

Born in 1937 in Mussoorie to a German mother and Bengali father, Desai has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times – in 1980 for The Clear Light of Day, in 1984 for In Custody, and in 1999 for Fasting, Feasting. In her latest novel, Rosarita, a young Indian woman is caught unawares when an eccentrically dressed woman claims to know her mother. At 94 pages, the novella is a philosophical enquiry into a person’s half-known self, where fantasy and reality exist in close quarters of each other.

When I was given a chance to interview Desai, I knew it was an opportunity of a lifetime.

Excerpts from the conversation:

Your first book, Cry, the Peacock, was published in 1963 while you were still very young. How did you find the right break and what was the English-language publishing scene back then like?
In 1960, no Indian writer had ever heard of a literary agent – perhaps there wasn’t one. In order to find a publisher for my first book, I sat down in front of my bookshelves, opened one book after the other, and took down the names and addresses of their publishers. I then sent my book off to one after the other as the refusals came in. I think it was the thirteenth who accepted it – Peter Owen, who, I later discovered was known to have an interest in foreign authors, even unknown ones, which is why he took a risk with me.

As for the publishing scene, when an American publisher later asked me what it was like to be an Indian writer (of course he meant one in English), I said it was like being deep inside a dark cave, alone with one’s work. “No bo-oum?” he asked, and I replied, “No bo-oum at all.” Of course, we were referring to EM Forster’s cave in A Passage to India.

How things have changed! Judging from the number of manuscripts that arrive daily and hourly on publishers’ desks, I would guess no country has more aspiring writers than ours. Agents, contracts, royalties, awards! Writing workshops, reading tours, festivals! There’s competition, yes, but also a camaraderie that has emerged where there had once been a lonely vacuum. It is a good time to step back and look at the long curve that has brought us here. I must admit that when I look back, I am inclined to retreat into that cave of solitude where I found writing came from, where one could think without interruption, where no one was watching. After all, that contained a great – if daunting – freedom.

Fire on the Mountain brought you the Sahitya Akademi Award. What did the win mean for you? You were already publishing actively by then, did it affect your career in any significant way?
The Sahitya Akademi was a very exclusive publishing house that only published its prize-winning authors and translators. The books were never widely available to the public. I don’t know if it still follows these rules or has branched out beyond them.

So what the prize meant for me was that my book was translated into all the major Indian languages and its readership was more spread out. At least that was the intention.

I read Clear Light of Day as a part of my undergraduate syllabus. The harsh Delhi summer and the growing tension in the family perfectly complement each other. I’ve often felt you employ weather and the climate at large to play a supportive role in your fiction. Would you say it’s true? Because after all these years, I still remember the evocative description of the summer quite well.
Weather and climate! Yes, they are inevitably a part of my landscape. I don’t think of them as merely background, but as having their own roles in the story.

In Custody must be your most beloved novel, and what an enviable cast its movie adaptation has. Were you a part of its filming process and what was it like?
When In Custody came out, Ismail Merchant decided it was the book he wanted to film and direct. I wrote the original script, he introduced many changes. We had it translated by Shahrukh Husain into Urdu, and it was very satisfying to have it in the language it ought to have been in in the first place. The music was a marvellous addition to it, and many of the actors were brilliant.

But it was no longer my book. Language is of the least consequence, I discovered, in a medium devoted to the visual. The black and white print of my book could not survive the move to a more glamorous genre. I don’t take any credit for the film it was turned into.

Actors Shashi Kapoor and Om Puri in the film adaptation of 'In Custody'. | Image source: Merchant Ivory Production.

I recently read Baumgartner’s Bombay and was quite fascinated by how you use German in the book. You grew up speaking the language. Did you ever write in it? And how did English become your language of choice?
I spoke and heard several languages at home and in school, but English was the first I learnt to read and write, and has remained my literary language. However, I was always aware of the ones that I was excluding and struggled to find ways to include them. One day while walking in the Lodi Gardens, a name fell out of a tree and hit me on the head: Baumgartner. And the name grew into a person, a character who allowed me to enter his world – Germany as a Jewish child, then the circle of foreigners stranded in India during the Second World War. I found English could encompass both those experiences, and it was a joy and relief to discover that. After all, English has planted itself in many parts of the world, it is elastic and adaptable, the reason for its survival.

While reading Rosarita I realised that Bonita and Anita actually sound similar. In fact, I thought of Rosarita as your own mother who travelled to India from Germany. Is there a chance that you were looking back at her life through the memories you have of her?
No, there is absolutely no connection between my mother and the fictional Rosarita. I needed a name that might belong to either India or Mexico and could slip across borders, both geographical and imaginary. The book is about eluding borders, after all, both of time and place.

The Anita Desai we encounter in Rosarita is very different from her other novels. First, this is your slimmest book. Second, the prose is very sparse and there’s a shift in tone too. Did you want to reinvent yourself in your “comeback” book?
I would not call it a “comeback” but an experiment – in using the second person voice for the narrator, for instance, and using poetry rather than prose as a model in the use of metaphor and imagery, stripping it all down to the barest essentials.

The Indian subcontinent, UK, and US editions of Anita Desai's latest title 'Rosarita'.

It’s interesting how your novels are set in various cities in India and abroad. Do you write from memory of your travels or do you prefer living in these locations for some time before you write about them?
I keep diaries while travelling and use them as pegs on which to hang the narratives I might later write. One needs to have those initial reactions and responses as well as time in which to take a more measured and thoughtful approach.

You’ve also written for children and the books are deeply loved. What made you want to write for young readers? And is the process of writing any different than that for adults?
I wrote my children’s books when my children were small which is when I saw their world through their eyes and experienced it as they did.

Writing for children requires constant awareness of their presence and an absence of adult responses and reactions. Writing for adults, of course, comes more naturally.

How has your writing process changed since 1963? You’ve lived through the age of the pen, typewriter, and now everything is done on the computer. What does a typical day of writing look like? And what role does your daughter (novelist Kiran Desai) in your writing?
I am ashamed to say I have proved totally resistant to computers and have to depend on others, most often my daughter who steps in to help. I still belong to the world of writing by hand – letters, diaries, novels – all unfortunately causing much trouble for others.

I have spent at least a part of my day at my desk, writing, ever since the age of seven, usually at those times of the day when others are out, or sometimes at night when they are asleep. Silence and solitude are essential.

Also read:

Sunday book pick: A Jewish refugee in Bombay in Anita Desai’s novel ‘Baumgartner’s Bombay’