India | 2000
Kiran Desai is the author of “Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard”, 1998; translated into 19 languages, published in 21 countries, and winner of the Betty Trask Prize in the U.K.
I spent six wonderful weeks at the Santa Maddalena Foundation. I have a contract with my American publishers, Grove Atlantic, for a second novel. I spent my time in Tuscany doing the earliest work, putting together a first sketch.
This book is set in a corner of the North Eastern Himalayas that belonged at various times to the kingdoms of Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim. Later, when the British lost their monopoly on the Chinese tea trade, they extended the territories of their Empire into this region. Now, with the addition of even more land, it belongs to India. The story takes place during one of the insurgency movements that have plagued this region ever since Independence. You could argue that insurgency is not the right word and that it is hard to attach blame in a situation so typical of India’s ongoing experiment in nationhood. There has never been real logic to the way the lines were drawn, any reason for patriotic sentiment. It is diverse in ethnicity, migrant workers move back and forth across borders, it has a large population of Tibetan refugees. People here speak many different languages. There is great disparity of wealth. In an effort to see the new in the light of the old, my narrative takes place in a colonial outpost where ghosts of the past live on alongside a very modern India. The current crisis is seen through the eyes of retired Indian judge who worked under the British Administration, and his granddaughter, characters as prickly and complicated as their journey through history.
Santa Maddalena was welcoming, inspiring and peaceful. And although we were at a so-called foundation, it was more like being in a very special home. The life is a real life, not an artificial one. So many foundations take on a sterility, a conference-type atmosphere. They end by treating art as more of an academic than a creative endeavor, contradict the very instinct for writing. Santa Maddalena is wonderful for its smallness and the way it exists without a rigid and complex system of rules. The house feels part of the life of the village and countryside. The forests grant it peace. There is a naturalness and ease that must come from knowing it to be a good place to work. So many writers and artists have been welcomed here. The real thing is happening. It kept my work alive. I wrote a considerable part of my draft, Santa Maddalena finding its way unexpectedly into the narrative in the shape of an Italian priest with a terrible greed for cheese!