Anita Desai

By Elmhirst, Sophie | New Statesman (1996), August 29, 2011 | Go to article overview

Anita Desai


Elmhirst, Sophie, New Statesman (1996)


Each of the novellas in your new book has a melancholic feel. What prompted that mood?

I think maybe it comes of my no longer living in India. All of these stories are based on memory and past experience. I miss India intensely, especially when I'm writing, because it remains my subject. After more than 20 years abroad, it remains the material of all of my work. So I'm constantly mining treasures of memory.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Has your perception of India changed?

I go back constantly. I'm in touch with family and friends there. But to be a visitor is very different from being a resident. If your mind exists there, your poetry exists there, but bodily you're elsewhere ... it creates a kind of weird disconnect.

In two of the stories, you evoke a colonial age. What draws you to that time?

It's the era I grew up in. It was post-colonial, but newly post-colonial. The old elements of the colonial were still clinging to it. It's what I grew up in and it's what I do best. So when I return to India now, I see how the past has gone and been replaced.

The 19th-century English novel crops up often in these stories. Was it a central part of your education?

I was giving all the characters my own experience and the kind of education I had in old Delhi, but I do suggest that it seems faded to the younger generation. I notice in India today that people read differently. I always think what you read is what forms your mind, what makes you.

You raise the question of how different languages tell different truths in India. Do you wrestle with language in your writing?

It was certainly very much in the air when I was growing up and going to school and university. In India, there was a great move to replace English with regional languages and with Hindi.

Yet even today an education in English is highly valued in India because it's no longer thought of as English, as colonial, but as an international language. In the past, I was made aware that I was writing in a language that was obsolete -1 was constantly told that I should be writing in one of the regional languages. I felt I was handling a language that was on the way out. …

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