Copyright Random House
All rights reserved


In Custody and Beyond :

A Conversation with Anita Desai


Vanessa GUIGNERY and Alexis TADIE

University of Paris 4-Sorbonne

This interview, which took place on 18 March 2009 at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, was occasioned by Anita Desai's visit to Paris in 2009, when her novel In Custody was on the syllabus of the "agrégation".

A shorter version of this conversation was published in the special issue of Etudes Anglaises on Indian literature in English 62.3 (juillet-septembre 2009): 370-378.

We would like to thank the Director of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Monique Canto-Sperber, as well as Laurent Folliot and Agnès Derail for helping us organise the event at the ENS, and Marine Berthiot, Béatrice Berna and Anita Brivet-Rebeyrotte for helping us transcribe the interview.


Alexis Tadié: I was wondering if we could start perhaps with the genesis of your novel In Custody, how you came to write it. In Clear Light of Day there is also a reflection on Urdu poetry, on its disappearance from India after Independence. Is In Custody, in a way, a development of Clear Light of Day?

Anita Desai: Not consciously so. It was not that I was consciously following that thread of history. But this was my world. It was the world of Old Delhi, in those pre-Independence days, when one was really very much aware of Muslim culture having made Old Delhi, just the way the British made New Delhi, and they are two very different worlds actually. The world I grew up in was that of Old Delhi in which one still heard Urdu poetry being recited. When I went to school, half of the population there was studying Urdu, the other half Hindi. So I was very aware of that historical, multi-cultural world. In that sense, in 1947, with Independence and Partition, we had the most traumatic moment in Indian history, for my generation certainly. That was when it was all coming apart. So perhaps, again, in a very subconscious way, it was an effort to put them together again, these broken pieces, to hold them together again.

Vanessa Guignery: Talking about Urdu poetry, which is one of the main subjects of In Custody, I was wondering how you came to create that world of Urdu poetry and Urdu poets. Did you have specific poets in mind when you created the character of Nur? And how did you create the poems?

Anita Desai: If you were asking me this in India, it would be a very provocative question, but here I can safely say: yes, I did have a certain poet in mind. But he was actually a much more notorious person than even my character Nur is. So I never gave him away at all. To this day I have never given away his name. The book in itself created a good deal of controversy in India. And many of those who read it, and in fact some of those who acted in the film, criticized the book because of this portrayal of an Urdu poet. They felt that I should have shown him much greater respect, that I had not shown him the respect he was due as a poet. And this is a very Indian attitude: in India, one would hesitate to explain it, or try to excuse oneself, but because of his age, because of his literary status, one was not supposed to have revealed what goes on behind the curtains, which I did. But to me, that is what seemed the interesting part of him, the fact that somebody who lived the kind of dissolute life that he lived, which was not at all worthy of any respect, could still step out of that and at least, in his intellect and in his mind, create what I thought was great Urdu poetry. Of course I could not quote the poetry of the poet I had in mind. So I wrote what I do not even consider poetry - I consider it pastiche, really. I was trying to recreate the Urdu tradition of writing in couplets and using Persian imagery and metaphor. But again, when we came to make a film of it, that created problems. Some of the lines or words that I wrote were translated into Urdu. So, in my other life, I became an Urdu poet, a language which I do not write at all. But some of the more beautiful verse in that film and the ghazals that were sung, were actually written by a very great poet who lived in Pakistan after 1947. His name is Faiz. And some of the best poetry in that film was by Faiz.

Vanessa Guignery: You have just mentioned the fact that you could not of course quote Urdu poetry in Urdu, you had to write the poems in English. But you said once that even though you were writing in English, you were trying to convey a taste of Urdu in the English language.

Anita Desai: Yes, because the poetic tradition in Urdu is so totally different from English. It is classical, it is really pure. You are not expected to write in free verse or to be innovative. You are supposed to follow the tradition and write strictly within that tradition. So I could not break out of that. I had to recreate it, recreate it in English, which perhaps gives it a somewhat stilted feel. But it would be stilted even if you took real Urdu poetry, fine Urdu poetry, and translated it into English. It has very rarely been done well.

Alexis Tadié: In the novel, the conflict between Hindi and Urdu is enacted by the defenders of Urdu and by the defenders of Hindi. Could you tell us more about the portrayal of the conflict between the two languages?

Anita Desai: I was certainly very aware at the time of Independence that most of the Muslim population had crossed the border and gone into what became Pakistan. Because half of the population of the school I went to vanished at the time, overnight really. I was aware that because of the Muslim population moving out of India, it would be a struggle to keep their language, Urdu, alive. There were certainly many people in North India and in other parts of India who spoke Urdu. But the fact is that most of them were Muslims, very few Hindus studied Urdu or wrote it or read it. So it seemed to me it was a threatened language, and I think, since those pre-partitioned days, the number of schools and universities that offer Urdu are very few now. The major university in Delhi which offers Urdu is Jamia Millia and there is one university in Hyderabad - I am sure that there is another in Lucknow. But I do not think there are others, and very few schools would offer Urdu anymore. So it seemed to me it was threatened, and that an effort needed to be made to preserve it. Of course the government of India also recognizes this, and within India's constitution, which is a secular constitution, and it is a very good constitution, every religion and every language is given equal rights, so they do make some effort to have Urdu programs on the radio and on television. But frankly I do not think many people listen to those: it has very little effect. What has a lot of effect still is, strangely enough, Bollywood films. They have kept this tradition alive, of the Urdu language, of Urdu culture and poetry. So we cannot run down Bollywood entirely.

Alexis Tadié: In the context of the novel, I have the impression that the defenders of Urdu themselves are not perhaps always adequate defenders of the language.

Anita Desai: I think the main problem is that not enough translation is undertaken. Publishers are very timid about that: very little translation is done, and when it is done, it is not always of a very high standard.

Alexis Tadié: In your novel, in the portrayal of the town of Mirpore, you identify clearly the divisions between the communities. Did you want to address the rise of communalism?

Anita Desai: It is simply a reflection of the way India is really, the India that you live in, after all these years, that still exists. Those divisions - of course you cannot call them ghettos exactly, there is nothing which prevents you from moving from one to the other - but there is definitely a feeling that this is your neighbourhood, and it happens to be a Muslim neighbourhood, and that neighbourhood is Hindu. And it still exists, in small villages and in big cities, even modern cities like Mumbai.

Alexis Tadié: So could we say that in some way this is a political novel as well, in the sense that you are addressing these issues via the medium of Urdu poetry?

Anita Desai: Really, I think that when one sits down to write a book - at least this is my experience - you do not start with the bigger issues. You start with some very tiny details which have been in a way haunting you, that you have been thinking about, brooding over. And those are really the big issues. You just put together all these little details of this world that you are imagining, and the characters you are imagining. And it is only when it is there on paper that you look down and you see that actually you have drawn a map of a political world as well.

Alexis Tadié: And the map is very much the consequence of the trauma of Partition.

Anita Desai: Actually, three different cultures, three different worlds, came apart on that one historic day of 15 August 1947. The British left. Pakistan was formed. And India became a changed country. So it was a three-way break-up and the fact that the British left, of course was something that we had fought for and agitated for, and that was a day of celebration. But not all Indians were happy about Partition certainly.

Alexis Tadié: Not all Pakistanis either - there is a famous poem by Faiz about this.

Anita Desai: Yes, because for many of them, it meant leaving home, the mother country.

Vanessa Guignery: Moving away from the political background and coming back to In Custody, I'd like you to talk to us about the female characters. You said that when you first started writing this book, you thought of it as a male book, a book with only male characters, a male world, which is also to a certain extent what Baumgartner's Bombay is. But then you said that the female characters were screaming in the background and demanded admittance. Could you tell us more about how these female characters grew in the composition of the novel?

Anita Desai: I think there was a break in my writing at the time, with Clear Light of Day. I think after I had written Clear Light of Day I felt a bit claustrophobic in my own invented world. I felt that I had been going over this material of home and family and especially womanhood, the women in the family, so often that I myself began to feel restricted to this one world and I needed to make a break with it, I needed to try my hand at something which set a bigger challenge, which required more of me, which made a bigger demand than simply writing down what is most familiar and easy for you to understand. So, with In Custody, I decided I would try and explore the male world because in the India that I grew up in, the two worlds were still fairly separate. There was the man's world which was filled with action and ambition and enterprise, and there was the woman's world which was much more traditional. It had to do with holding the family, holding the old world together. So I wanted to step into that male world, and try and look back at the women's world and see how they thought about women. Did this in any way trouble them? What did they want women to be? And how did they regard them? So, to begin with, I thought I would write in the male voice and just keep out all female characters. At least, they would of course have to be marginal. There would have to be women in the margins, but I did not want any of them to take part in this male world, because in real life they did not, or to a very limited extent did.
But when I wrote the book and I was writing about Nur and Deven and the faculty in the small college and the lives they lead, I was aware that there were women in the background. They may not have been sitting in that mehfil, and quoting poetry or conversing with the men, but I could hear them, knocking pots and pans together in the kitchen and screaming loudly, and I could imagine them kicking against the situation and thinking that they too had something to say while they were not being listened to. So I found some of the women like the young Begum in the book, Imtiaz Begum, being extremely shrill whenever I gave her a voice; she sounded so shrill, like a harridan, and I did not like her very much myself. And I wondered: why am I creating such an unpleasant character if I want to create sympathy for women? Why am I not making them sympathetic? Why am I making them so nasty? And I realized that if women are kept locked up in the conditions that they are in, that is how they would be. They would be extremely nasty and shrill and make sure that they were heard somehow, even if just by making a great deal of noise with pots and pans.

Vanessa Guignery: At the same time, Imtiaz Begum is maybe the new voice of Urdu poetry, except that her voice is almost not heard, at least not heard by Deven.

Anita Desai: The one chance that Deven gets actually to sit down and pay attention to her poetry, he refuses to do so. He simply throws her manuscript aside: he does not even trouble to read it. And it has much to do with the women of her class, of her generation, not having an education at all, not being able to enter the literary world and very much wanting to.

Vanessa Guignery: Imtiaz Begum is a very ambiguous character and I would like to ask you about ambiguity in your novel, especially about the ending.

Anita Desai: I know it is not a cheerful or an optimistic book and it is not that Deven manages to write his biography of Nur and wins fame out of his very limited life; or that Nur happily settles in with his two wives and his little son. That would be totally unrealistic and I was not going to step into that at all. But I meant Deven, who was such a craven character through the book, to have this moment of realization that, although he thought himself caught in a trap - he is in custody almost, he is jailed, he cannot break out of it - I wanted him to become aware that this is only physically so, realistically so. But he has a certain freedom by having entered the world of poetry, and especially into Nur's poetry. He has won a great freedom, and that is being out of custody, that is a kind of reward, a freedom that he has realized. That is why I mixed these images together at the end. And in the book, in fact, it is a dream sequence when he thinks Nur will soon be gone, he will soon die. But his poetry will be alive and Deven is now out of custody and he is a custodian of that poetry. It has been put into his hands and that will be his new goal. He has been given a great goal in life now, to keep that poetry alive. So, out of custody, he has become now a custodian and he is proud of that. I have a scene in which he dreams of Nur's funeral and how he will be present with the poetry which will continue to live after Nur's death. This is one of the great changes that Ismail Merchant made in the film: he actually depicted the funeral, and I think it was a very good touch - I thought it ended the film on a note which had not been struck earlier.

Alexis Tadié: May I take the opportunity perhaps to ask you to talk about the film a little? I was wondering what it was like to have the novel turned into a film.

Anita Desai: To be fair, I have very complicated feelings about it as you can imagine. I had never thought of it as a film but I had known Ismail Merchant for many years ever since he started making films in India. He used always to ask me to write him a screenplay but I had never written a screenplay and I was not interested in doing it. But when I wrote In Custody, it seemed to be a book that came very close to his heart, because being a Muslim in India, he felt very passionately about this culture and how it should be kept alive. So he was determined to make a film of it; he asked me to do a screenplay, and I had never written one, had no idea how it is done. But he kept saying: "Just try your hand and do it". And I found it really painful writing because instead of writing, you cut out all the writing. You are constantly reducing and reducing to the bare bones of the plot and preserving hardly any of the language. There were a few moments which I enjoyed like writing the pastiche poetry, but otherwise it was a very painful exercise. Then we gave it to an Urdu writer in London actually, Shahrukh Husain, who did a marvellous translation of it. She translated it really very well. I realized that once Ismail Merchant began to film, it was out of my hands, completely. He chose to film it not in Delhi but in Bhopal which was more picturesque. The first time I saw the film - I had not gone to see any of the filming, I did not participate in it - I was just speechless. For one thing, I had pictured it in black and white. I don't know why, but in my mind, it was black and white and I have asked Ismail about it. And there it was, in glorious Technicolor. And all the actors and actresses were so beautiful and they were so gorgeously dressed and none of my characters are. So I realized that it had gone off into another world of its own. It did not belong to me anymore. So I have always found it very painful to watch.

Alexis Tadié: I must say I was disappointed not to see the Jama Masjid which is really so central to your character. It is much more vivid than Bhopal. The end is also significantly different in some ways. Is that something that you wrote in the screenplay or is it Ismail Merchant's idea?

Anita Desai: Not that dream sequence. I think I still had it as a dream and Ismail then added on a great many touches of his own, some of which were I think quite inspired. There is the visit that Deven and Nur pay to the Saint's tomb, to the pir's tomb, and a very beautifully ghazal is sung as a background music: there is no dialogue, there is simply music. That was a scene he wanted and I think it was really lovely. I think he did the funeral scene very beautifully. But he also played out the conflict between the two begums, which really is not that strident in the book, and he sort of melodramatized it and made it very strident. He said: "For the sake of film, you have to have something more exciting going on". So that was disappointing to me.

Vanessa Guignery: Moving away from In Custody, we would like to know more about your relation to literature, to other writers, and first, in particular, your relation to contemporary Indian literature.

Anita Desai: As a young woman growing up in Delhi, I was completely influenced, totally influenced by the English Literature I studied: that was my subject. And in all my earlier books, I use a great deal of it, I quote from it. But once I started writing myself and publishing, I became aware of my contemporaries and the fact that we shared several problems. By contemporaries, I mean other Indian writers who were also writing in English, and therefore having the same problems of translation, not only of language, but from one culture into another. They were actually of an older generation. There were the writers R.K. Narayan, Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand, with whom I did not have much in common and we lived very separate lives. I cannot say that we met and talked a lot, but I think we became aware that we shared a certain world between us.
But it was only much later that I started reading contemporary Indian fiction. I certainly felt that in the 1980s with Salman Rushdie writing, young Indians with literary ambition gained a voice and gained confidence in that voice, and started writing with a great deal more originality and confidence than perhaps the older writers had done. And I do follow their work now. I do not read everything. Whenever I go to India, I see. But the publishing world there has changed: instead of publishing at the most half a dozen Indian writers, they now publish them in the hundreds. And I certainly do not keep up with all, but there are certain writers I do look forward to, look forward to their work and to read it. And you will forgive me if I say my daughter is the one I follow most eagerly.

Alexis Tadié: Could we ask you for other names as well?

Anita Desai: I think that India now has a lot of very interesting and different writers. I think of Amitav Ghosh whose books are mostly historical, and I think of Amit Chaudhuri who does not write historical works or epics in the same way at all: his works are very small and exquisite and delicate little vignettes. I find them both really interesting. Most recently I have been reading some young Pakistani writers like Mohsin Hamid, and Daniyal Mueenuddin I think is the newest and youngest, and I think him very good.

Alexis Tadié: Can I ask you also about your relationship to other writers in English literature. I was wondering whether, in Fire on the Mountain, perhaps in Clear Light of Day as well, there might be a relationship to Virginia Woolf, or Jane Austen, as well as other writers. I was wondering whether this was a relationship that you would like to reflect on?

Anita Desai: Yes, of course, we read and studied Jane Austen's work in school, in college, but I think it was Virginia Woolf's writing again which was a fresh, different voice. She showed us how you could break away from the stranglehold of a plot-driven story, and write about other areas of one's experience and one's consciousness, that one could write about much more fluidly, much more liquidly. I think that was an influence too. Also the writing of some of the Japanese writers I had read at that time, writers like Kawabata, and wonderful diaries of Sei Shonagon, people like that. I love the way they used imagery, how they could use tiny details in order to suggest vast worlds. So as a young woman I certainly tried to learn from them. I felt I was a student of those.

Vanessa Guignery: What about poetry? At one point, you said that you were more interested in reading poetry than in reading fiction, because poets use a language that you would like to emulate.

Anita Desai: I think as a young woman and as a young writer, my interest was much more in prose and in fiction. But that led me into also reading a great deal of biography and history, with later books like Baumgartner's Bombay and The Zigzag Way. I found myself reading chiefly travel and biography and historical work. I read very much less fiction now but I always read a great deal of poetry. I find the best way of starting a working day for me is to sit down at my desk and first to open a book of poetry and read a few lines, a few pages. I still consider poetry as a model, even for a prose writer, because I think poets have the gift of using very few words, very brief lines and yet revealing a great deal through that.

Alexis Tadié: You said earlier that the writing of a novel starts with the small idea, the little intuition that grows and develops. I was wondering if you sometimes look at your œuvre and you realize that there are themes or concerns that have developed or have grown, or on the contrary alleyways that you thought were going to be explored and then were not. I was wondering whether you had a sense of an itinerary in some ways.

Anita Desai: When I write a book, it is really a very personal journey or a personal quest, and I am not really considering that it may be so for a readership, for anybody else. So I am always extremely surprised if some reader writes to me, or comes and tells me that this has struck a cord in them or that they know what I am writing about, that it is a part of their world too. Because I write it with a sense of being quite on my own and then it opens up into a realization that actually it is a shared world. But to begin with, I never know quite where I am going or how things will work out.

Questions from the audience

Q: I would like to know more about the Hindi poems and their parody in In Custody. Could this be a reminder of the inanity of the division Hindi/Urdu, and, thinking of Kabir and Mirabai, of the tradition of mixing traditions and mixing imagery?

Anita Desai: I think it is very perceptive of you to remind one that there was Sufi poetry, there was Sufi music and Sufi saints and they did manage to combine these two cultures. And they are still revered although they may have been dead for centuries, they are very much alive in their music and their song, and yes that would have made a completely different story. But I think by setting it in contemporary times and having contemporary writers and being engaged in a contemporary conflict, I had to look at the Hindi poets the way an Urdu writer would, and the Urdu poets the way a Hindi poet would, with a certain degree of competition over there. And yes the Hindi poems that I made up, they are not by any means quotations, they were made up and they are of course parodies, they are mocking the tradition. If anyone were at that moment to have quoted a Sufi song the whole atmosphere would have changed completely. This competition would have disintegrated.

Q: I felt that in In Custody there is a bitter-sweet tone, a mixture of humour and drama. But I was surprised when I read some of the American and British reviewers that they did not insist on that particular side of your work.

Anita Desai: Since I do a certain amount of reviewing myself, I am aware that you are expected to take sides, to have an opinion on what you are reviewing and that does not allow for ambiguities; and in my writing certainly I would like to have room for ambiguity, because I do not want to put everything down on paper in a way to tell my readers: "this is how you must think of Nur and this is how you must think of Deven". I think there should be space where the reader enters and can have their own thoughts about the characters. If you do not leave that space and if the reader is not able to imagine to some extent for himself, then it becomes a very confined and static world and it is not going to live long, I think. A book lives long in your mind if you can continue to think about it.

Q: I would like to know more about your position vis-à-vis postcolonial theory. Would you agree with Homi Bhabha who sees culture as a strategy of survival? Do you share the feeling of Salman Rushdie who once said he did not understand a thing about what academics said about his work?

Anita Desai: I would not dismiss the concept of the strategy of survival as a whole because that I do feel strongly about, how most people tend to cling to their culture so that even if they are displaced they still have a boat to carry them. But in literature I agree with Salman Rushdie. It is really like the two ends of a telescope: the writer is looking in at one end and seeing very tiny segments and putting together these little fragments, whereas the critic, the academic is looking at the scene from the other end of the telescope and seeing it in a context, never taking a work in itself, which of course as a writer, you do. It is your work, you take it just in itself, you are not trying to place it in any context.

Q: In Custody seemed very pessimistic and the only gleam of light one could see for Urdu was the fact that Bollywood actually took it up and made it very popular. Do you feel that way?

Anita Desai: I did not mean that to be the one optimistic note in In Custody. To me, the one optimistic note was Deven's realisation that the poetry will live, that that will not die. When I wrote that, I had not even considered a film, of course. I had not even imagined that it would be made into a film. The fact that it was led to very ambiguous feelings on my part. It was no longer my book I felt. I did not think of that as the optimistic part.

Q: What do you think of the academic teaching of creative writing?

Anita Desai: I was often asked this question. Can you really teach anyone to be a writer? Can you really help to write a book? My thought about the creative writing programme in which I taught was that all it does - and this is also my thought about the programmes my daughter was a student of, I never studied creative writing, but she did - and what I think it does, and it is a very great thing, it gives a young person the time and the structure within which to write. For one thing, it is very difficult for you, as a beginner, to tell your family, to tell your friends you are writing a book and therefore you need time. That time may be two years and it may be ten years, and people then tend to come around and say: "Well, have you finished your book or why haven't you finished your book yet?". But if you attend a writing programme, then you are expected to write, that is what you are told to write. At the end of your year or two years, you are expected to show a manuscript. And I think that is a good discipline. If you are serious about your writing, then that discipline is not a bad thing. Also, the class provides you with the structure within which to write. And it makes you more alert as a critic. I think if you are writing on your own, which I did through all my youthful years, you become very isolated, you are not that aware of what a struggle it is to write, you do not develop a critical sense. It was only later in life that I began to realise how important that is for a young writer, not only to be able to write but also to be able to read, alertly, with great awareness, and to be able to tell a good piece of writing from a bad piece of writing. And in a good creative writing course, I think that is another thing that you do learn: you do get pointers and are told what is good, what is bad, what you should develop and what you should avoid.

Q: When writing In Custody, were you thinking of the readership? For example, we do not know in which language Murad and Deven are speaking, we do not know whether it is Hindi or Urdu.

Anita Desai: No, actually I did not and I have to tell you that by opening up the book today, I could not even tell you: "This line would have been spoken in Urdu and this line would have been spoken in Hindi", because I am not conscious of it at all. In North India, especially growing up in Old Delhi, we were totally used to using words from both languages. For our vocabulary, we would dip into Urdu at times and into Hindi at times, and put them together, and everyone in Delhi would understand you, and that is how it is to this day. I would really have to think hard about "is this word of Urdu origin or is it of Sanskrit origin?" It is not always clear even to me. What I was trying to do in the dialogue is simply replicate in English the tone and rhythm in which they would address each other and speak, and I was conscious of wanting at times for them to sound respectful as when they speak to Nur: Deven would use very respectful language and when he speaks to his contemporary Murad, he would speak in a much more informal way, of course. And it was just that tone that I wanted to capture, rather than vocabulary and differences in language. As for the readership, how could I imagine that there would be a reader or readers who share my mix of languages? I am perfectly aware that each of you has several languages but they are a different mix, they are not the same as mine. So I cannot really count on readers having the same mix: that would be very restricting again, that world has to be opened up to readers, to make it possible for you to step into my world, although you bring different languages to it.

Q: Can you tell us more about how you write? When you write a page or a story, do you start thinking in an Indian language first or do you, in the middle of this, turn or shift to English or do you sometimes do both?

Anita Desai: I do start with English. I think if you were to start with Hindi or with your regional language, as some Indian writers do, and then attempt to translate it into English, the reader would soon be aware that this is a translation, it would not sound original, it would sound as if you are quoting from a text or you are translating a text. And it creates all kinds of problems, for instance, in using proverbs which are notoriously difficult to translate into another language. So you start tripping up. I think this would cause you to trip up constantly. If you are writing in English you have to be thinking in English. There cannot be a division between the two.

Q: Could you say a few words about your relation to Mexico and Mexican culture?

Anita Desai: It was an odd experience to go to Mexico for the first time, simply going looking for the sun during a very cold winter in Boston, and arriving in Mexico and stepping on to Mexican soil and immediately feeling utterly at home, feeling as though it had always been your country, you belonged here, you understood it, you knew it. After reading a great deal of history and biography, realizing that there are links between the Indians of India and the Indians of Mexico, they must at one time have been part of one race. That shows physically: when I am in Mexico everyone takes me for being Mexican. And it shows itself in so many ways. They are of course Catholics not Hindus but the way they observe their religion, their rituals, the way they observe their festivals with lights and fireworks and flowers is exactly what I knew in India. There is a very thin line of difference between the two. I am not the only one who has felt that way. There was Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet, who spent many years in India, wrote a great deal about India, and to him too, it was as if it were another homeland for him. But when I wrote the book, it was not about that Indian connection. I wrote it because I felt a certain confidence that I was not misrepresenting the country. I was, to some degree at least, understanding it. We do not observe the day of the dead in India, we do not have that festival or those ceremonies but I could understand the beliefs behind it certainly and participate in those. So with that little bit of confidence I had I was able to set the book in Mexico.

Q: I would like to know more about your experience of bilingualism. Do you think that the fact that you wrote In Custody in English can explain why your perception of India is different from that of Indian readers?

Anita Desai: I do not know that it has so much to do with linguistics, but if you are bilingual and have a foot in two different worlds, certainly there is a question of translation of one culture into another. I think language is perhaps the easiest part of it. Probably the culture is more difficult to translate. You may pick out the example of Nur: in India he would have been written of much more respectfully, and here in Europe you can see that he is not a figure that you would respect, except for his work. That is one difference. Having grown up in a multicultural world - because the India I grew up in was still a British territory at that time and, as I said, I read English literature, I studied it - made me live in different worlds. I was not consciously translating from one to the other any more than I was consciously translating from one language to another. It is a habit of thought. There are many people in India, it is not only I as a writer who do it. There are many Indians who have a much more Western outlook and there are many Indians who have a very traditional outlook still, and we are aware of this even in India amongst ourselves. We cannot think of writing for one society and not for another society. If we start doing that, it will make our writing much more self-conscious, we will not be able to give free rein to our freedom of thought. After all, when you are writing you have to have that freedom of thought and freedom of language. You cannot write if you do not have that. So I think a writer needs to be free to cross from one to the other, unless you are writing about a very traditional world, which I have not done.

Q: On the last page of In Custody, there is a beautiful image about the dawn and the laughing breeze, and one of the poems you invented is also about the dawn and the breeze. These images reminded me of both Faiz and of T.S. Eliot. Could you tell us more about the relation between imitation, taking up images which are part of a tradition, and creating new poetry?

Anita Desai: In a way, that links with the previous question: that one's writing does not involve simply language, it involves the world from which language came. One has to know India and especially northern India, how dry it is, how hard it is, how you cannot sleep at night because of the heat, and then dawn arises with that first little breath of cool air. Language has grown out of that culture, they are inextricable, they are intertwined, they belong to each other. So when Indians and Urdu poets are using such imagery, it really belongs to their world. You might be in a place with no electricity, where you light a lamp, a candle to write by, and therefore you know the imagery of the candle and the moth, and of darkness and dawn. I think it is of literature being not simply literary and intellectual. It just belongs to a much deeper, more profound world than that.

Q: Do you think that you have influenced or been influenced by Hindi or Bengali authors?

Anita Desai: As a very young girl in school, I cannot say that I was influenced by the Hindi I read, I think simply because our Hindi text books were not the best, the choice was poor. But as I grew older I went and lived for a while in Bengal, in Calcutta and started to read Bengali literature, Bengali prose and poetry, and certainly that influenced me a great deal. I saw the links between landscape and language, and it opened up the regional world to me, much more so than Hindi.

Q: Did other literary works about literature or about art have any influence on In Custody?

Anita Desai: Not at the time that I was writing In Custody but of course it is something that interests me greatly and if such a book, such writing comes my way, I read it with very special interest. But I do not know if I would go further into this exploration, because in a way, it can seem a very confined world. Artists in an artists' society or writers in a writer's society can seem to have little relation with the outer world, and I think the reason that African writers are not restricted in any way and do write about the relation of artists and politics shows a way out of that. If you don't have it, it can seem a very self-indulgent limited world. So I think it is a way of enlarging that, by bringing in the wider world outside and see how it relates to your own writing. But at the time I was writing In Custody, no, it was not in my mind.




Top of the page
Retourner en haut de page