Interview with Kiran Desai on the newly launched PEN Delhi Centre and threats to freedom of expression in India
Booker-prize winner, Kiran Desai, spoke on behalf of the PEN Delhi Centre which was launched at PEN’s 79th Congress in Iceland in September. In a brief interview between readings, Kiran spoke with PEN International’s Sarah Clarke about threats to freedom of expression in India and the role of PEN.
The New Delhi PEN Centre has just been created. What role do you see for PEN in Delhi?
I see an extremely important role for PEN. The past years have been so bad for writers and for freedom of speech in India and people are anticipating darker days ahead. In India they’re failing on two levels; there are the threats from various groups aimed at writers and then there is a complete failure of government and local politicians and police to protect writers. In fact, instead of protecting them, they blame novelists which is fascinating really. There’s a clause in India, the incitement of trouble clause or creating a nuisance in a public place clause, which can easily have a writer clapped in irons and which can be, and is, abused to such a degree. In this way it’s the writer who ends up being attacked.
How has this repression on writers played out?
I feel it’s almost every writer at some stage or another who gets attacked. There are, of course, the high-profile stories but there are also the everyday attacks on less well-known writers which aren’t always reported but which are equally important. I’m thinking of the (2010) banning of Rohinton Mistry’s book in the state of Maharashtra and its withdrawal from the syllabus of Mumbai University. This happened long after the book was written but it had just come to the notice of Shiv Shena (a nationalist political organisation) who burnt the book (for insulting the leader of the party). At the same time the head of Bombay University’s English Department received death threats and had to go into hiding.
And then there are cases of art shows and of artists who are attacked, but it doesn’t even stop there, because the professor of the artist who has been attacked may also be attacked. So I feel it’s extremely important for PEN to have a strong presence in India right now.
What has your reaction been to the recent revelations about surveillance?
Certainly it makes one nervous of being watched all the time. But I live in a protected cove because I write by hand at my desk. And no one can read my hand-writing! But for journalists this must be extremely frightening. This is another issue in India where journalists are increasing facing and some of our bravest journalists are under increased threats.
As a writer of the Indian diaspora how do writers from the Indian diaspora support Indian writers in India?
The links between the diaspora and Indian writers in India run very deep, both in terms of writing and where there are threats to freedom of expression. In the famous incident where Salman Rushdie was banned not just from the Calcutta, but also the Jaipur, book festival, writers within and outside of India came together to support him. The local journalists rallied and a lot of local authors stood up for him in the media as did writers from abroad. As soon as this happened the diaspora in New York, London and India was talking about it and trying to support.
But while the literary world is so linked, it’s still impossible for international authors to reach the local government, for example in Rajasthan. And that’s why it’s so important to have a PEN Centre which is on the ground to communicate and get the message across to the local authorities about freedom of speech and to pressure them to protect writers.
Have you ever faced threats for your writing?
The Inheritance of Loss deals with many intertwining subjects including the Nepalese insurgency in Northern India. As is sometimes the case, it was only when the book started to receive attention (it won the Booker Prize in 2006) that this became a problem. In Darjeeling there was a group of people who felt I hadn’t portrayed them as they wished to be portrayed.
It was then that I realised that when you’re working in certain parts of the world, writing is not really free. It’s not really free and people don’t read a novel as fiction, rather it’s seen as representative of a group of people. So you’re no longer describing one individual mathematics tutor but a whole community which is a very different way of reading fiction. I think it’s a problem of representation really and of thinking that writers have too much power.
At that time I was told I shouldn’t return to Kalimpong in Darjeeling where I had spent some of my childhood. I got threats that they were going to burn my book in the street and while this was minor in comparison to what other writers face, I still don’t feel welcome. I haven’t gone back, not that I think I’d be hurt, but I’m too nervous and don’t know how to defend myself against these criticisms because I don’t think I did portray the movement unsympathetically – certainly that was never my goal.
And does that impact on the way you write now?
No, I don’t think so. As a writer you can always be criticised – for example for making a place too beautiful or too ugly. Just because you set a story in a place doesn’t mean that you’re writing about specific people. Some of my next book is set in Delhi which is so chaotic and messy.
As a writer I’m aware of the huge rifts between places, between the Western and non-Western worlds and we’re looking at a different new world now. I think shame has such an effect not only in the personal sphere but in the political sphere too. The rage that builds up and nobody knows where it comes from is very interesting for a novelist to address. The violence, frustration and anger often leaves people stunned. And so I want to explore this now, at more of a spiritual than a political level, to try and understand what is happening.
Thank you so much Kiran for opening the New Delhi Centre and for speaking with PEN.