Anita Desai’s writing career spans more than five decades. Her novels have been translated into 20 languages. And three have been short-listed for the Booker Prize. In her latest work of fiction, the Indian-born author explores time and transformation. She ruminates on art and memory and the sharp divide between life’s expectations. The men and women in Anita Desai’s three novellas – set in modern India — embark on unexpected journeys. Each faces opportunities of new hope and purpose — only to find they cannot escape their surroundings. Diane talks with master storyteller and author, Anita Desai.

Guests

  • Anita Desai author and novelist

Program Highlights

Anita Desai’s writing is often about art and language that exists on the margins. In a new collection of three novellas, the award-winning author explores the pain of being alone and the desire to disappear after failure. Her new book is titled “The Artist of Disappearance.”

What Is Disappearing In India?

Desai writes about a “vanishing world,” the one that she grew up in in India and that she said we see less and less of now. Desai grew up in the newly post-Colonial world, in the era of Nehru and Gandhi. “There was a great euphoria about Indian independence and the freedom struggle having won this great prize of independence. There was a great deal of idealism at that point and it was also very rapidly dashed, ruined by the partition of India and Pakistan and all the violence and the loss and the grief that that entailed.”

In India, Rich In Time

The biggest difference between Desai’s early life in India and her life now is that in her childhood, she always felt that the one thing Indians were rich in was time. “I couldn’t understand why people in the West always complained of not having enough time,” she said. But now it seems to her as if everyone is in a hurry and that way of life has passed. Both of Desai’s parents came from lands that were, in a sense, lost – her German mother immigrated to India in the late 1920s, and her father was from East Bengal, which became East Pakistan after the partition. So her parents settled and raised the family in Delhi, which was a strange place to them both.

A Kinship With Isolated Characters

Desai often writes about solitary characters, and she feels that people who withdraw into extreme solitude discover things about themselves that they may not be willing to display to the outer world. “So it’s a way of reaching deep into the souls of my characters,” she said. “What are they in the dead of night when they’re absolutely alone?”

“I’ve Never Written Anything Very Personal”

Desai has always invented both characters and situations, saying that all she shares with her characters is often the landscape. “If one is a writer, then one writes in order to create some kind of order out of the chaos of all the impressions, all the experiences one has,” she said. For her, it’s a way of creating some control, or some sort of order.

You can read the full transcript here.

Transcript

  • 11:06:54

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Anita Desai's writing is often about art and language that exists on the margins. In a new collection of three novellas, the award-winning author explores the pain of being alone and the desire to disappear after failure. Her new book is titled "The Artist of Disappearance" and Anita Desai joins me in the studio.

  • 11:07:31

    MS. DIANE REHMThroughout the hour. You can join us as well, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you and welcome.

  • 11:07:52

    MS. ANITA DESAIGood morning.

  • 11:07:53

    REHMWhat a beautiful cover of the book, this shimmering leaf that looks as though it could disintegrate at any moment.

  • 11:08:11

    DESAIExactly, I think it was really chosen...

  • 11:08:12

    REHMTell me about that.

  • 11:08:12

    DESAII didn't choose it. It was the designers...

  • 11:08:14

    REHMYou didn't choose it?

  • 11:08:16

    DESAI...that did it.

  • 11:08:16

    REHMWhat does it symbolize so accurately for you?

  • 11:08:22

    DESAIWell, for one thing, the colors strike me as being so very Indian. That red and the gold is certainly a very Indian combination, but I also look at that leaf as on the point of disappearance, although it's so vivid, so bright, it's about to disappear, too.

  • 11:08:43

    REHMThere's a fragility to that leaf and yet we know that trees represent strength, that there is a changing of the times and a changing of the season when the leaves appear and then disappear. And you're talking a great deal in this book of three novellas about disappearance. Why did that concept come to you in this book?

  • 11:09:21

    DESAITo tell the truth, while I was writing it, I wasn't considering a theme that would link the novellas, but I did write them one after the other so it must have been a theme present in my mind, a subconscious theme and the ideas, the stories seem to have grown out of that.

  • 11:09:46

    REHMTell me about your daughter, Kiran. She describes your work as centered on vanishing, forgotten worlds. Would you agree with that?

  • 11:10:05

    DESAIWell, yes, I suppose she's right and that's because that vanishing world is one that I know -- it's the one I grew up in and you see less and less of it now in India. It is in the course of disappearing too so perhaps, in a way, these stories are an effort to capture them before they completely vanish from sight.

  • 11:10:34

    REHMWhat is it that's disappearing in India?

  • 11:10:41

    DESAIIt's a country that's been overtaken by such rapid change and throughout my childhood, I had a sense that nothing ever changes, nothing ever will change, it will always be the same as it is. So I look back now and think how wrong I was, how very much has changed.

  • 11:11:02

    REHMIs that -- do you think sort of the usual pattern of childhood thought, thinking that everything is going to stay the same as it is today and being both surprised and yet disappointed when it changes.

  • 11:11:26

    DESAIWell, when it changes, yes, it is a gradual surprise that overtakes you and it's a very mixed emotion that one has about it. Part of it, one is relieved, happy to see certain things vanish and then a fear of it vanishing altogether or in a way that you hadn't imagined.

  • 11:11:53

    REHMGive me a sense of the India in which you grew up.

  • 11:12:00

    DESAIWell, I grew up in -- certainly it was the post-Colonial world, but it was newly post-Colonial. I was a child in the era of Nehru and Gandhi and therefore there was great euphoria about Indian independence and the freedom struggle having won this great prize of independence. There was a great deal of idealism at that point and it was also very rapidly dashed, ruined by the partition of India and Pakistan and all the violence and the loss and the grief that that entailed.

  • 11:12:42

    DESAISo it was always a very mixed blessing with freedom, independence, but quickly mixed with disorder and chaos and therefore this new life began under a certain shadow. And, of course, over the years, the idealism has gradually faded and turned into cynicism and the old world of tradition has given way to a new world of materialism and materialistic wants and needs and a great sense of hurry or speed. And I think the biggest difference in my early world and the present one is that I always had a sense that the one thing -- we are very rich in, in India, is time.

  • 11:13:35

    DESAII couldn't understand why people in the West always complained of not having enough time. I always thought we have all the time there is and I think that's probably disappearing from India, too. Everyone is in a hurry. There's never enough time.

  • 11:13:56

    REHMYou actually grew up in a very interesting household with a mixed culture in your background. Talk about your mother and father.

  • 11:14:13

    DESAIWell, I grew up in north India in old Delhi, but that was home neither to my father nor to my mother. My mother came from Germany. She came just before, well, a good time before the war began really, I should think in 1926 or '27 to India after marrying my father.

  • 11:14:36

    REHMHow did she meet your father?

  • 11:14:37

    DESAIHe was Bengali from East Bengal. He'd gone to Germany as a student and he met her while he was a student, married her there and brought her to India. But his country was also soon lost, my mother's to Nazism and to World War II and my father's to partition because what had been East Bengal to him became East Pakistan after partition and then became Bangladesh so both my parents found that their homes had vanished. They were lands they couldn't go back to and they made a home in Delhi which actually was a strange place to both of them.

  • 11:15:28

    DESAIAnd I suppose I grew up with the sense of vanished lands, vanished pasts which existed for us only in what they told us, which are almost like fairy tales to us.

  • 11:15:40

    REHMDid your mother leave her family behind in Germany?

  • 11:15:49

    DESAIYes she did, she did. And during the war, there was no contact with them at all, no letters, no news at all. I remember it was one of the things I used to do as a child was accompany her to the post office with boxes of tea, coffee, sugar, cocoa and send them off. But we never knew if those boxes ever arrived at their destination. We just sent them. And her mother and her sister died during the war and after the war, she really had no family left in Germany at all.

  • 11:16:28

    REHMThat must have been a very lonely existence for her, even with your father and with her children.

  • 11:16:39

    DESAIIt must have been a very difficult time for her. I have no idea how she managed to survive it. I suppose she did it by accepting India as the one country that she had and her husband and children, the one family that she still had.

  • 11:16:56

    REHMDid she ever talk to you about that loneliness, the disappearance of her family, the long distance yearning that she must have had?

  • 11:17:11

    DESAINot directly. It was something we sensed because she would tell us in such detail about her childhood and the happy times in prewar Germany and she could, in her old age, still remember the walk from her house to her school and name every shop she passed on the way, the baker, the butcher, the bookshop, every single thing was still vivid to her.

  • 11:17:40

    DESAIAnd the stories she told us were always about Christmas in Germany or Easter or summer holidays and it was just the most nostalgia behind those stories that gave us a sense of how much she had given up.

  • 11:17:56

    REHMDid you feel that she and your father, despite their extraordinarily different backgrounds, had a good and strong relationship?

  • 11:18:12

    DESAIOn the whole, I suppose, yes. Both were so completely devoted to us, their children and to making a life for us. They shared a lot and since both had lost families, land, those simply didn't exist anymore. This was all they had, just each other.

  • 11:18:36

    REHMAnita Desai, "The Artist of Disappearance" short break, right back.

  • 11:20:04

    REHMAnd welcome back. My guest in this hour, Anita Desai. She's an award-winning writer whose career spans more than five decades. Her newest book is made up of three novellas. It's titled "The Artist of Disappearance." You can join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Join us on Facebook or Twitter.

  • 11:20:45

    REHMI've always felt that novellas are very much like poetry. Even as you are writing a narrative, each and every word is so precious because the novella is short. Are you feeling the poetic mind as you're writing or are you censoring yourself as you are writing a novella as opposed to writing a novel?

  • 11:21:25

    DESAIWell, if I thought of them as novels, of course I would have taken the stories into many different directions. I would have been allowed depressions, diversions of all kinds. And I realize that in a novella, I can't do that. It has to be much more focused, a very focused story and yet it's not a compressed novel. It's not a little moment in time like a short story. It's more like a single significant episode in a life, allying all that is around it, childhood, old age, other adventures to recede into the background and to focus, to highlight just that one significant episode.

  • 11:22:17

    REHMTell us about the first story, "The Museum: A Final Journey."

  • 11:22:25

    DESAIWell, the narrator, the civil servant of course has a long career. He could have described his entire career, his childhood, his education, his marriage. He doesn't do it. He just describes this one short episode in his life when he was a junior officer. And something unexpected happens when he finds himself going around this strange collection of objects in the middle of wasteland really in a ruined crumbling mansion.

  • 11:23:01

    REHMWhy is he called there?

  • 11:23:04

    DESAIThe owners are no longer around. It's in the hands of a caretaker. The caretaker views this collection as in danger of being lost and he values it greatly because it's given him the meaning of his life. He's taking care of what he thinks is a fabulous collection. He hopes that the government might take over and so he comes to the civil servant and asks for some assistance.

  • 11:23:35

    REHMAnd the civil servant at first thinks he might be a great help and it might indeed enhance his own being to be part of that collection.

  • 11:23:53

    DESAIYes. He's been told the story of -- the history of this collection by the caretaker. And it's somewhat mysterious and he's somewhat intrigued. At least in a very boring life in this backwoods, he feels this might be a little interesting interlude. So he goes to look at it.

  • 11:24:14

    REHMAnd what happens?

  • 11:24:17

    DESAIHe very soon tires of it. He realizes this isn't great art. It's simply a jumble of objects put together by the young master of that mansion who had traveled a great deal and sent back this collection in boxes to his mother who still lived there. And although it obviously meant a lot to him, to the traveler and perhaps to the mother who received it, it really had no value beyond that.

  • 11:24:48

    REHMWould you read for us starting on page 27, the paragraph beginning unfortunately?

  • 11:25:06

    DESAI"Unfortunately, the next chamber was one of stuffed birds and it did little to improve my spirits. If anything, the glass eyes set in gray sockets were even more accusing and I was certain that the faded iridescent feathers were creeping with parasitic life. The only living creatures visible in these chambers were the spiders that spun their webs to make shrouds for the birds and the geckos that probably fed on the spiders. I saw one lizard flattened against the wall immobile, a pulse beating under its nearly transparent skin, to show it was just waiting for us to leave, for night to fall so it could come to life again.

  • 11:25:58

    DESAIIn one doorway, a gecko caught by the slam of the door had left it's fragile skeleton splayed against the plaster like a web spun by one of the spiders to stay 'til it peeled. Is this, I demanded, is this the young master's collection? If there was sarcasm in my tone, it was intentional. My guide, proving aware of it, quickly responded, no, no, no, no. No, this was left to him by his ancestors. Now we will go to see his collection.

  • 11:26:38

    DESAIAnd to my huge relief, we came out into a corridor completely bare of trophies, one side opening onto a courtyard where a marble goddess stood in a shallow basin of a waterless fountain. Her limbs are broken at the joints and (word?) crept up her sandaled feet to the hem of her robe. This stretch of corridor evidently led to the wing that held the items sent to the estate by the absconding master in containers that had created such a stir in the district and a legacy for the inheritors, if any.

  • 11:27:25

    DESAIAnd now my guide produced the ring of keys from behind his back because we had come to a door that was locked. Choosing one extraordinarily long key from the ring he inserted it into the lock and turned it with a great sense of drama. I followed him in with some trepidation and impatience. How many more hunting trophies and murdered spoils was I to be shown? The heat of the day was gathering in these closed unventilated rooms. And although it must've been noon, by now there was very little light here.

  • 11:28:06

    DESAIExcept I was astonished to find what the collection itself radiated. The chamber we had entered was hung, draped, laid and overlaid with rugs in the splendid colors of royalty, plum, wine, mulberry and pomegranate, moving into intricate patterns. I hesitated to step on one. They're surely precious. Besides had not been touched in ages by hands, still less by foot. Only a roger might recline on one with his (word?) while listening to the music of sitar (unintelligible). I could imagine these invisible potentates and pashas lifting goblets in their ringed hands, or better still the jay silver mouthpiece of a hooker.

  • 11:29:05

    DESAILives lived in such a setting could only have been noble and luxurious, not of this poor hard worked land all around. It was only when I lured my eyes to examine them more closely that I noted what the imperial colors concealed. Patches that were faded, threadbare, some even darned and mended clumsily."

  • 11:29:32

    REHMAnita Desai from her collection of three novellas. It's titled "The Artist of Disappearance." She read from the first titled "The Museum of Final Journey." And so we hear of the anticipation of this civil servant. We hear of his sort of looking forward to seeing gorgeous riches and luxuries. And he finds a threadbare rug.

  • 11:30:15

    DESAIHe eventually finds it very depressing -- oppressive. He wants to get away from it, these all to him dead objects fading without much value. And he's impatient and wants to leave. And then he's shown one final gift and that's the only living one that is still to be found there in this mansion. And it is an old aged sad elephant standing in the bamboo grove outside. And it hasn't died. It's still feeding and feeding. It refuses to die. And I've been asked, well, what does an elephant stand for? It is of course symbolic. Elephants are symbols of their longevity and also of memory.

  • 11:31:16

    DESAIAnd it seemed to me that all these objects in the museum, they had died once they'd been removed from their context, the lands and histories to which they belonged and come to this place which had no understanding of them and had been abandoned, too. But the elephant is the only thing one still has that still lives and that's memory. And that links up with the epigraph I've used for the book. It's a quotation from (unintelligible), one thing alone does not exist oblivion.

  • 11:31:55

    REHMAnita Desai. We're talking about her new book titled "The Artist of Disappearance: Three Novellas." And if you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. You can join us on Facebook or Twitter. I look forward to hearing from you. Do you feel a kinship with some of those isolated characters?

  • 11:32:39

    DESAII suppose I do. I've so often written of them. But it's interesting to me as a writer because I have a feeling that when a person withdraws into extreme solitude they discover things about themselves which they may not be willing to display to the outer world that only they know about. So it's a way of reaching deep into the souls of my characters. Of course I could go the other way and show them interacting with a society around them but that would reveal many different aspects of the character. The one that interests me is what are they in the dead of the night when they're absolutely alone?

  • 11:33:25

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First let's go to Peoria, Ill. Good morning, Chuck. You're on the air.

  • 11:33:45

    CHUCKHey, good morning.

  • 11:33:46

    REHMMorning, sir.

  • 11:33:49

    CHUCKWell, first of all, I love your show.

  • 11:33:51

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:33:51

    CHUCKAnd thank you for bringing her on the air. And immediately the -- your description of the leaf about to disintegrate, it just kind of jumped out. With people going through challenges today and I think about the author's mother and the strength and courage it took her to persevere, continuing to send the gifts by faith, not knowing if they arrived to her mother and sister. To me, that's just a sign of courage and continued to persevere in spite of the odds.

  • 11:34:26

    CHUCKAnd I guess my question is -- well, it's not a question, I guess you could say so. In thinking about the elephant as a symbol of strength, knowing that when people go through the challenges we're faced with today, the elephant is a sign of strength, being able to anchor and remember the things that matter the most if we don't have the things we think we're supposed to have. But thinking about things that matter the most and being strong and standing in there, what can you say as far as your book, how it relates, you know, in encouraging people today and all the challenges that we're faced with concerning the economy and job loss?

  • 11:35:03

    REHMWhat a wonderful question, Anita.

  • 11:35:06

    DESAIIt's too large for me. It's too enormous. I would not know how to relate it to the kind of problems and worries that one has in going about the world today. I don't know if I meant it to encourage or give anyone strength to go on. But I suppose a story which deals largely with symbols can be applied to so many situations today. Situations which are totally unlike those that I describe in the story being symbols, one could pick and choose and apply them to one's own life.

  • 11:35:47

    REHMAnd isn't that the beauty of literature?

  • 11:35:53

    DESAII suppose that is why we read it and love it.

  • 11:35:55

    REHMThat is why. We read to, I think, help us to understand, imagine, create not only other worlds, but to somehow take from that to apply to our own worlds. I thought his was a lovely question. And one thing I wanted to ask you. I was so interested to learn that Laura Ingalls Wilder was such a huge influence on your own career in writing.

  • 11:36:40

    DESAII think that's what my daughter gave away once when I was telling her how I used to have pen friends all over the world and write to them when I was a child. And I had one here in the states who sent me Laura Ingalls Wilder's book. I think it was "On the Banks of Plum Creek." And my daughter still has that book. She loves it. And I used to read it to my children when they were small. And yes, it was a world and a life totally different from ours, but that didn't matter at all. Once when I'd read it, once we loved it, it became one's own.

  • 11:37:20

    REHMIt expanded...

  • 11:37:22

    DESAIYes, exactly.

  • 11:37:23

    REHM...your own world. You could see different ways of thinking, living. I mean, that's what books have always done for me. Anita Desai. We'll take a short break here. More of your calls when we come back.

  • 11:40:04

    REHMAnd welcome back. We're going to take some more of your calls, 800-433-8850. Let's go to Somerville, Mass., good morning, Harriet, you're on the air.

  • 11:40:23

    HARRIETGood morning. Anita, thank you very much for writing and speaking. I have a different sort of disappearing story. I first went to India to study Hindustani vocal music in 1971 and I've lived some five or six years in Varanasi and other parts of India. And I have an adopted daughter from India who's 21 now and I speak Hindi and I'm blind. So I was thinking about how the visual changes and disappears over periods, but what I was recalling is that my Varanasi ride on the bicycle rickshaw from the train station to the university, the BHU, has utterly changed.

  • 11:41:15

    HARRIETWhen I went there, first, the only sound or the major sound you heard were the sound of rickshaw bells all those miles between the train station and there. And as you well know, and I've been back many times, the congestion and the noise level -- just the noise levels in India have gone up, oh, I don't know, maybe eight fold. And although I was sequestered at times in the university campus, which was still full of birds and very peaceful -- the other thing I wanted to say here I am simply a Caucasian woman who, by the way, lived two years in Germany and I have strong German connections, too.

  • 11:41:59

    HARRIETAnd, yet, I have this part of me that no one here sees, which is a disappeared and, yet, completely present part of me which is completely identified with India. So thank you for somehow bringing this forward both in your own life and also in the way you write about it. Perhaps we all need a place to re-experience loss and, I don't know, find a new view, perhaps. So thank you so much.

  • 11:42:36

    REHMHmm.

  • 11:42:38

    DESAIThank you so much. That's just a fascinating look into your world. Love to know more about it.

  • 11:42:45

    REHMWould you agree that the sounds of India have increased as Harriet suggested, at least eight fold?

  • 11:42:55

    DESAIYes, certainly, in the cities and there are more and more of the cities now. You would have to go very far into the depths of rural India to regain some of that peace which was common to us earlier.

  • 11:43:11

    REHMHere's an interesting email and, Harriet, that was such a beautiful statement. Thank you for calling us today. Here's an email from Allison who says, "Your descriptions are beautiful. I used to write poetry myself to save a specific moment in time." She goes on to say, "I have a tendency to grieve many things, but once I've written down the situation as it was exactly, only then can I let go of grief." She wonders is that true for you and do you re-read your books to relinquish grief if you are grieving something else again.

  • 11:44:07

    DESAIYou know, I don't think I've ever written anything very personal. I've always invented characters and, for the most part, situations, too. All I share with my characters is often the landscape. The situation, but I think one writes. If one is a writer then one writes in order to create some kind of order out of the chaos of all the impressions, all the experiences one has. They're chaotic. They don't make sense, but when I'm sitting down and writing them down on paper and seeing them as sentences, they begin to make sense. I think it's a way of imposing order or creating some kind of control over what otherwise is completely out of control.

  • 11:45:00

    REHMYour second story translator translated is about a woman in the depths of solitude who feels very strongly that she wants to do something that will help her in her own understanding of herself. And she turns to the translation of a writer she so admires. Would you read for us from that?

  • 11:45:47

    DESAI"Prima not only read the collection of Swarna Devi's short stories, but returned to the bookshop to see if they had anymore of her work. They did not, but in the college library she came across a journal the writer had kept while living in the tribal areas to the south. It was bound in green ricksine (sp?) and the library flap at the back showed that it had been issued to readers exactly twice in the last seven years.

  • 11:46:20

    DESAIPrima borrowed it and took it back to read in the hostel and found the journal entries, many of them of an anthropological nature, and the notes on village life in the forest provided a backdrop for the fiction she had already read, but were otherwise disappointingly dry. Prima had little interest in nature or the rituals and ceremonies of tribal society per say and found the notes lacking in the characters and events that had made the short stories so lively and engaging.

  • 11:46:59

    DESAIShe asked her companions at the hostel if they knew anything of the life of this author so oddly divided between literature and anthropology. Oh, she goes to those areas with her husband, they told her. He's a doctor and runs clinics there. Who wants to read about that? It suddenly occurred to Prima that the writer might live in this very town. She was told casually that, yes, they believe she did. Well, cried Prima, can you tell me where?

  • 11:47:33

    DESAIHer mind leapt ahead to that prized objective of any serious student, a personal interview. Besides such a meeting might create another link to her mother's world and there was so little time left. She was due to return to Delhi in just a week. Someone told her in which part of the town Swarna Devi's husband had his practice, but no one could give her a specific address. They Swarna Devi's work from their school syllabus, but that did not make her a local celebrity. Instead, it just made her one of them.

  • 11:48:16

    DESAIPrima went there on foot one day after her class to see if she could find it for herself. It was a neighborhood rather like a suburb on the far outskirts of Delhi where the city petered out into the dusty plains. A jumble of small bungalows no longer new, many with signboards on the gates to denote their middle class status, doctors, lawyers, advocates, specialists in gynecology, homeopathy, (word?) , urology and all the schools that gave evening classes in typing, shorthand and tailoring.

  • 11:48:58

    DESAINot knowing the exact address and coming across the same surnames repeated over and over, Prima gave up suddenly conscious of the dust gathering between her toes and invading the folds of her neck and elbows sticky and gritty at the same time. She could not continue to traipse up and down maize of little streets with dogs barking at her through closed gates, men staring at her from bicycle and radio repair shops and concrete bus shelters under stunted, locked trees.

  • 11:49:39

    DESAIDefeated, she returned to the hostel. It did not matter, she told herself, as she packed for the long journey back to the capital. She had found the subject of her studies and that was all that mattered. How could she have returned without one?

  • 11:49:58

    REHMAnita Desai reading from the second of three novellas in her new book titled, "The Artist of Disappearance." And we're going to now go back to the phones, 800-433-8850. Let's go to Jeffrey in Baltimore, Md., good morning to you.

  • 11:50:27

    JEFFREYI was wondering whether that Ms. Desai knew -- his mother knew her family had died -- their family had died. As it does -- did she ever find out how and did she ever -- did she ever -- if she did, did she ever tell Ms. Desai about it?

  • 11:50:51

    DESAII don't know that all the male members of her family died in the war -- fighting in the war. Her mother and sister must have died of sickness, old age in her mother's part.

  • 11:51:08

    REHMHmm, thanks for your call, Jeffrey. And to Peoria, Ill., good morning, Bert.

  • 11:51:15

    BERTGood morning. I came out of the health department today after getting my shots for my trip to India next month. I've been there twice before. I think that "In Custody" is by far my favorite book and just nails India. And as I hear you describe the second of your novellas about a student pursuing their favorite writer, it reminded me of "In Custody." I loved the movie "In Custody." I wonder if Ms. Desai liked the movie and I know it ended a little bit different.

  • 11:51:59

    DESAIWell, it was an interesting experience, I have to say. The director of the movie is my (unintelligible) someone I had known for a long time since I was a young girl. And he asked me to write the script for him, which I'd never done, but when he read "In Custody," I think it related to so many of his own passions, his obsessions, ones with also poetry, with music and he was determined to make a film of that. And he did it with such enthusiasm -- such passion, really which completely swept my own hesitations aside.

  • 11:52:40

    DESAII certainly didn't look upon the film as a reflection of the book. I realized he had taken the book and contributed so much to it of his own experience, his own loves, and made something else out of it -- much more colorful, much more elegant than my book. And it couldn't have been otherwise. If he hadn't brought his own, you know, his own love and excitement to it, it would -- he couldn't have made the film.

  • 11:53:13

    DESAIAnd I think some of the idea works its way into this story of the translator who carries the act of translation a bit too far, but she couldn't have done it otherwise. She had to take it over and turn it into a creative act not simply an act of translation.

  • 11:53:32

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." When you say she took it too far and made it into an act of creativity, what do you mean? She overstepped her bounds how?

  • 11:53:53

    DESAIShe was so in love with the work of Swarna Devi that she had so much to express herself about it that she couldn't just do a literal translation, which is done automatically without much involvement. She gets too deeply involved with the work and it becomes a creative act for her, the creative act which had been suppressed for so long. She's a very suppressed character. And now she lets herself go and becomes free to take over this act of writing and it's not a very faithful translation and she is called up on that.

  • 11:54:33

    REHMShe is called up on that and retreats to her place of almost anonymity in her own teaching rather than the joyful experience she anticipated.

  • 11:54:54

    DESAIThat's right. She just creeps away in hurt and in shame, I suppose, too, and back into hiding, really.

  • 11:55:03

    REHMAnd finally to Naples, Fla. and to Anita, good morning, you're on the air.

  • 11:55:11

    ANITAHello, I am so happy to hear such marvelous women. The world needs more of both of you.

  • 11:55:18

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:55:19

    ANITAI had an experience wherein I went to Tibet this summer and visited sacred places and in so doing, I believe, I witnessed my own death. And in the return to the United States and my things and the people I love I find myself completely changed. And I wonder if that is similar to the voodoo or voodam (sp?) practice of experiencing your own death as part of a ritual? Do you have any ideas about that?

  • 11:55:59

    DESAII don't. I don't have any experience of that or of ritual, But I suppose you are talking about an experience many of us have of, I suppose, we call it out of body experience, by which, I suppose, we mean when we lose our sense of self and stray.

  • 11:56:22

    REHMAnd moving into a totally different kind of culture...

  • 11:56:27

    DESAIYes, exactly.

  • 11:56:28

    REHM...can bring on that kind of experience.

  • 11:56:32

    DESAII suppose being taken out of, I would call, my own context. Suddenly being free of it would surely give you an experience of another possibility.

  • 11:56:47

    REHMAnd that's precisely what Anita Desai's new trilogy of novellas does, gives you another sense of possibility. The book is titled, "The Artist of Disappearance." Thank you so much for joining me this morning.

  • 11:57:11

    DESAIThank you so much for asking me. I've enjoyed it.

  • 11:57:13

    REHMI'm glad. And thanks for listening all, I'm Diane Rehm.

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