When I visit my mother, I catch the train from the Harlem stop and travel north along the Hudson river, named Muhheakantuck by the Indians, “the river that flows both ways”. Her 170-year-old house has a silvery stone for a front step, horsehair insulation in the attic, wide floorboards of pine; they glow a fox colour in the light that is always luminous in this house, and is twinned to silence. It is a writer's house, an exile's refuge. Magazines and papers pile up, bookcases spill over. When we are together, I feel we are alone on a raft. Family is scattered, India is far. All that has truly persisted in my life is here. I sometimes used to buy India Abroad for my mother on the way, or mangoes from Haiti or Brazil, or typewriter ribbon. This time I dared a recorder from Radio Shack of which we were both scared, worried we would proceed to play out her novel In Custody, where Deven visits the poet Nur to record Nur's words. He fails, his tape recorder fails. But this one works, and I ask her to talk about her past. Her work has, over the years, centred on forgotten, vanishing worlds, art and language that exist on the margins. The epigraphs to her novels (TS Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Borges …) often make reference to the persistence of memory. She writes: “The ancient Chinese believed time is not a ladder one ascends into the future but a ladder one descends into the past.” Her new book, The Artist of Disappearance, is made of three delicate stories about the frailty as well as the transforming power of art.
Kiran Desai In Custody was set in the Old Delhi of your childhood, but what did you know of the Germany of your mother, the East Bengal of your father? Did you know your grandparents?
Anita Desai No, so it was always a fusion of the known facts and imagination, because the known facts were so few.