What Happened When Writer Anita Desai Left India

The day of my interview with Anita Desai, there are flash floods in greater New York and, after my train breaks down and I am stranded at the station, the 87-year-old plunges out in her car to fetch me. Desai is tiny, with a very direct gaze that makes one feel – unreasonably, perhaps – that she is often in the position of having to tolerate idiots. That the Indian novelist finds herself, at this stage of her life, living in a small town in the Hudson Valley some 90 minutes north of Manhattan strikes her as thoroughly absurd. “But then life in America always seems to me very random,” she says. There are worse starting points for a career in fiction.

The strength of Desai’s novels has always been, partly, in her ability to withhold, an instinct that has become more pronounced with age. Her latest novel, Rosarita, is the shortest yet – “I’ve come down to a novella!” she says, delighted – and tells the story of Bonita, a young Indian woman who travels to Mexico to study and stumbles upon unknown evidence that her late mother had once been there, decades before. It is about grief, and longing, and the fact that no one ever really knows about other people, even – or, perhaps, particularly – one’s own families. I found it very moving; you are never sure, in the narrative, of what is real, and what is the projection of a grieving daughter. But, says Desai, “readers are frustrated and would like more. I have had readers say, oh, but what happens in the end? I said, look –” she looks briefly indignant, “ – I’m not writing a Victorian novel starting with childhood and going on to old age and death! This is just one little section. A little piece of their lives. A fragment.”

We are in Desai’s house, on a quiet, hilly street, next to a small church and with views out towards a vast, wooded hill. So much of her writing is concerned with the natural world, which she builds with such detail that reading her can feel like an immersive experience. In her 1980 novel, Clear Light of Day, one of three of Desai’s novels that have been shortlisted for the Booker prize, Desai summoned Old Delhi so precisely you could feel the close air and hear the bugs whine. In Rosarita, Mexico springs to life with similar precision, a bus pulling up in the dust, “collapses to a halt;” a heron, flies by, “trailing its long mosquito legs”. At a fence, wild donkeys gather, “heads lowered in sleep or dejection”.

Desai loves Mexico; it reminds her of India. She first started travelling to that part of the world when she moved to the US more than 30 years ago and needed an escape from the Boston winter. She was teaching at MIT and the first winter, she says, “was like Siberia. The snow piling higher and higher and higher. And I was just desperate to get away.” When she got off the plane in Oaxaca, she practically squealed with delight. “Everything about it was Indian; the dust, the smells, the bougainvillea. The small houses. It was so familiar to me. It’s a very Indian country: the family life, the religious life. All of it.” Mexico, she says, is “a country that gets me writing, always.”

Desai might have moved or retired down there had it not been for her children, three of whom live in the US; two in New York, including Kiran, her daughter whose 2006 novel The Inheritance of Loss won the Booker, and another daughter in Florida. Her oldest son remains in India. What is curious, and perhaps inspiring, about Desai is how relatively late in life she undertook her own major journeys. Desai was married at 20, had four children, and although she published her first novel, Cry, the Peacock, in 1963 when she was still in her 20s, she didn’t leave India for a life of teaching and writing abroad until she was in her mid-40s.

That experience, which came about thanks to an invitation from Girton College, Cambridge, to be a visiting fellow, was transformative. Desai was familiar with England from a life spent in the library, and with Europe more generally, from her German mother. What was new was the experience of being regarded, “not anyone’s wife, or anyone’s mother. But as a writer. That was an amazing experience for me. Because in India it’s the other way round.” It took some adjustment. “I had to train myself to express my thoughts and opinions. I wasn’t used to that. I was never asked my opinion in India; I just kept quiet and listened to others. And then I’d go back to India and start expressing my thoughts and they’d all look at me and say, what’s happened to her?” She laughs. “Why is she telling us what she thinks?! That still happens, frankly. After all these years. When we go back, Kiran and I, we have to be very careful not to express too much of our thoughts.”

Kiran was a teenager when Desai moved to England, and moved with her for the life of the fellowship. After it ended, Desai set her sights on America, where her two oldest children were already studying. She won a post teaching creative writing at MIT, and later moved to Smith and Mount Holyoke. Desai’s late husband, Ashvin, a company director, never moved from India. “He used to visit. I used to visit there.” After a more traditional life in her 20s and 30s, it gave her space and time to write, without having to look after a husband. “Yes. Exactly. He was never very keen on giving up his life in India. He thought it was the best life possible. He didn’t want to come here and lead an American life, or an English life.”

Did he try to persuade her to stay in India? There is a long pause. “Yes, I have to admit. Yes.” And did the separation feel, at the time, unconventional? “Yes, I’m sure there must’ve been talk about it, it’s not the usual way for a couple to be. Less so, now. You can have separate lives, and travel, and meet. At that time, it wasn’t.”

Desai’s parents had been an unconventional couple, too, meeting in Germany in 1928, where her father was studying and her mother was a school teacher. The pair met through a mutual friend, a German sculptor who had stopped Desai’s father on the street one day and asked if he would model for him. Decades later, Desai saw the bust he had made of her father in a Berlin museum. “My mother must’ve found this foreigner somehow very intriguing. In the 1920s there were hardly any Indians in Germany, and India was still something romantic. Poetry and philosophers.” Two adventurous people, and both exiles, in a way. “My father was from what was then East Bengal,” says Desai. “And when he came back from Germany, East Bengal became Bangladesh; so he lost his ancestral land too. Both my parents had a sense of starting strange new lives in north India, which belonged to neither of them. A strange place to both.”

Desai in London in June 1965. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images

The children spoke German at home, but Desai’s mother never went back to Germany, not once. “She was an only child and I always think what must it have been like when her mother saw her off, her only child, at a time when it took months to travel by boat. She said that her mother told her: when you have children, don’t keep talking about Germany to them. Bring them up as Indian. They’ll be born in India and they should grow up to be Indian.”

That sense of being uniquely tied to one place left Desai a long time ago. When she returns to India these days, she finds it is not the country she left. On the other hand, America is alien, too. “It’s just not my country. And other people here see me as a stranger, too.” It suits her, somewhat, as a background condition – “always being apart. Perhaps that is being a writer. One is always an observer rather than a participant.” It is this sense of dislocation that is so powerfully conveyed in Rosarita, and that captures something of Desai’s own, elective isolation. About her life as a writer, she says, “I never asked anyone for help at all. I was too nervous and afraid. I thought if I ask and if they tell me, they’ll shake me off doing what I had set out to do. What I want to do.”

Perhaps that is a form of confidence, too? “Or being lacking in confidence?!” She laughs. “Being very guarded. Now I think, well, it would’ve been nice to have had someone to share it with.”

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For Desai, the experience of living in a small town for the past 20 years has been mixed. She landed here as a result of her great friend, the late Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and James Ivory, who had a home slightly further up the valley she would visit. It struck her as beautiful; and, by reputation, it is a liberal enclave, although Desai says this is not the case at all. “It’s largely white. Some Hispanics have moved in, but very few. One American family moved in and he was threatened in very unpleasant ways – they hung a noose from a tree in his yard. The family moved out.” She then tells a fantastic story about the time Roger Ailes, the disgraced former head of Fox News, moved in to a compound on the hill you could see from her window.

“He built himself a huge house and bought all the houses around him. He bought the local newspaper and gave it to his wife, Elizabeth, to be editor. He bought the little church next to me, a tiny Baptist church with maybe 10 people in their congregation, and brought in a man from Fox News, who we suspected was a defrocked priest, and stuck him in there. And he changed the village completely. Made it so much more conflicted. All these old resentments, conflicts, all came to life. He’s left his mark.”

Ailes and his wife sold up and left shortly after the sexual harassment scandal broke in 2016. “His wife gave up the paper. And of course he died, luckily for her. They moved to Florida. He fell down and broke his neck. And we all said, well.” She blinks. There is something pleasingly novelistic about this, the image of Desai, down the hill, flintily regarding the fall of Roger Ailes.

Desai rarely goes into the city these days, and her trips to India get less and less frequent. For all its shortcomings, she doesn’t consider the town a terrible place to have wound up, although, she says, she has no interest in involving herself in its affairs. It’s an instinct for separation that shows up in her fiction. In the new novel, Desai uses an unusual mode of narration, telling the story in the second person, so that throughout the book, she addresses the heroine as “you”. She writes, “Your mother never lived in San Miguel, never even visited Mexico. You know that – the absurdity of such a suggestion!”

It was partly the novelty, she says. She had never written like that before. But it was also done with an eye on effect. “If you keep describing people as ‘you’, you are distancing yourself. In other words, not getting too involved, yes.” She wanted to get at the tenuousness of life, a deceptively modest ambition within which lies a much greater truth: that we are not as bound to our circumstances as we may like to believe. “Well, what does one have? Just a few threads to hold one. After that, memories. Which may or may not be quite true.”

Rosarita by Anita Desai is published by Picador (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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