Three-time Booker nominee Anita Desai talks about a lifetime spent on the move and how travel has inspired her writing.
As someone who’s moved so many times—23 address changes in 75 years—how do you define ‘home’?
‘Home’ is a backpack filled with relationships and memories that I carry around on my back wherever I go.
Of the cities you’ve lived in, which is your favourite?
Cambridge, England, where I once lived in a tiny Victorian house next to a graveyard and where I bicycled around the colleges and meadows, is my favourite. Venice is a city I would have liked to make my home.
How do you look back on all those years of movement?
I never planned a life of travel and change; in my static Old Delhi years it would have been an inconceivable future. But once I took one step, I followed it with another and that led to all the others. The changes came about slowly and naturally to fit into the arc of my life.
What do you remember of your childhood in Old Delhi?
My Old Delhi consisted of a bougainvillea-smothered bungalow with pigeons on its verandas and great trees looming over it; of the scrubby, rocky hill of The Ridge, its peacocks and porcupines; of the Jamuna River and its riverside scenes of washing spread out on the sands, melon fields and temples of Queen Mary’s School for girls to which my sisters and I bicycled down quiet roads lined with huge peepal trees.
I remember the library at Maidens Hotel that I frequented with my mother, Exchange Stores where we bought sweets with our pocket money and Atma Ram and Sons in Kashmiri Gate where we bought our books. Later, there was Miranda House and Delhi University across The Ridge, and the No 9 bus that took me to it as a college girl.
Your father was from East Bengal. Did you ever vist?
I never visited my father’s home in East Bengal and so have only a few of his reminiscences to recreate it for me. But Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy did so with such poetry and tenderness that it moved not just me but my father to tears when we went to see it at a matinee in Darya Ganj.
Do you like the actual act of travel—of hopping onto a plane or a train and heading off to discover a new place?
No, I emphatically do not like the act of travel—packing bags, taking taxis, the airports and planes are all a nightmare. I have to somehow struggle through to get to where I want, or need to go. The only form of travel I do enjoy is sitting on a park bench and watching the world go by.
How have your travels reflected in your writing?
Almost all the travel and all the places I have known have found their way into my writing. In Baumgartner’s Bombay, I was able to recreate my mother’s memories of pre-War Berlin, and by quoting a German-speaker, to use the language I first heard as nursery rhymes and fairy tales. The Himalayan mountains that were the backdrop of my childhood summers—and my children’s childhood summers—found their way into first Fire on the Mountain and then, more recently, into The Artist of Disappearance. Yes, I carry those mountains on my back too, wherever I go.
Do you need to have experienced a place and its culture to be able to write about it?
It is possible, I suppose, to base one’s writing on a piece of research—I did that with the history of the Mexican Revolution in my novel The Zigzag Way—but even that book could only acquire the texture of reality after I had lived in the places I wrote about.
Now, living in New York, what for you are its highlights?
The marvellous museums—The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Asia Society, the Rubin Museum of Art—with their ever-changing shows. They are the city’s richest treasure.
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