| Kiran Desai poses in this recent picture taken by Jay Mandal for The Telegraph in New York
London, Oct. 11: Indian author Kiran Desai last night won the prestigious £50,000 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for her novel, The Inheritance of Loss, something her novelist mother Anita Desai failed to do despite being shortlisted in 1980, 1984 and 1999.
At 35, Kiran Desai is the youngest woman to win the prize and the first Indian since Arundhati Roy won in 1997 for The God of Small Things.
Unlike Arundhati, the new darling of the literary world may allow her novel to be made into a movie.
The Booker judges chose Desai ahead of other more fancied novels, including the bookies’ favourite, The Night Watch by Sarah Waters.
The Inheritance of Loss (published in India by Penguin India, an associate company of the ABP Group, the publisher of The Telegraph) was hailed as “a magnificent novel of humane breadth and wisdom, comic tenderness and powerful political acuteness”.
Hermione Lee, chairwoman of the judges and Goldsmiths’ professor of English literature at Oxford, enthused: “I think her mother would be proud. It is clear to those of us who have read Anita Desai that Kiran Desai has learned from her mother’s work. Both write not just about India but about Indian communities in the world.”
She added: “The remarkable thing about Kiran Desai is that she is aware of her Anglo-Indian inheritance… but she does something pioneering. She seems to jump on from those traditions and create something which is absolutely of its own. The book is movingly strong in its humanity and I think that in the end is why it won.”
That Desai made it to the shortlist of six from the long list of 112 was itself a surprise.
The Inheritance will now see a huge surge in sales. It tells parallel stories set in post-colonial India and the US.
In the foothills of the Himalayas, a Cambridge-educated Indian judge lives out a reclusive retirement until his orphaned teenage granddaughter comes to stay. His existence eventually comes under threat from Nepalese insurgents.
Meanwhile, his cook’s son, who has travelled to America to seek his fortune, ekes out a miserable existence as an illegal immigrant in New York’s restaurant kitchens.
Accepting her award, Desai said: “I didn’t expect to win. I don’t have a speech. My mother told me I must wear a sari… a family heirloom, but it’s completely transparent!”
She thanked her mother, to whom the novel is dedicated — “My mother, with so much love” — and father for their support and joked: “I’m Indian, so I am going to thank my parents.”
Kiran’s mother was not present in the audience last night. Her daughter explained: “She was so worried on my behalf that she gave me lots of advice and then went to visit my uncle, her brother, who lives in a Tibetan refugee settlement in a village which has no phone and no television, so she is probably sleeping very peacefully right now.”
Desai divides her time between New York, where she is a student of Columbia University’s creative writing course, and New Delhi. She was born in India in September 1971, lived there until the age of 15, then moved to England for a year to continue her education and then to the US.
She said: “I have an Indian passport and given what the political climate has been in the United States, I feel more and more Indian.”
Desai’s debut novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, was published in 1998. This is her second novel and took eight years to complete. The author admitted writing the novel felt “like a family endeavour”. “I wrote this book so much in her (mother’s) company it feels almost like her book.”
She went on: “It was seven, almost eight years of work…. I think I was devastated and sad by the end of the book.”
She said she returned to India to write parts of the novel. “I went back to write the Indian bits in India, so it wasn’t entirely from a distance.”
Although Sarah Waters had been favourite to win the award, on Monday bookmakers reported a surge in people backing Desai.
The bookmakers had initially made Kiran the 7/1 outsider. The judges — the poet and novelist Simon Armitage, the novelist Candia McWilliam, the critic Anthony Quinn and the actress Fiona Shaw — decided differently.
John Sutherland, chairman of last year’s judges and author of How to Read a Novel, commented: “Desai’s novel registers the multicultural reverberations of the new millennium… It is a globalised novel for a globalised world.”