Kiran Desai - Interview


Kiran Desai: I grew up in India, so you have to learn a whole new way of doing clothes when you move to the west. Fashions don't carry over, so if you fly between places you will inevitably look wrong in the country you're going to. Definitely going to India you look bad if you go in your western clothes. Everyone comments on how awful you look right away. The sky is different, the street is different, the dust is different – only Indian clothes work.

Heidi Julavits: So do you have both of those wardrobes?
KD: No, I don't. I always look wrong when I go back to India. I feel ashamed of myself when I feel right in New York, because there's something wrong with this place. I'm always stunned when I walk into a party and I find all these women are really wearing little high heels, and girls are dressed in tiny clothes that look really horrible, in fact, and they're so miserable in the cold of winter, wearing tiny little high heels in the snow. These women have no pride.
HJ: Many people see saris as being more uniform, if they don't have an eye for where the differences lie, where personal flair comes in.
KD: That's right. It's in the way you tie them. But also, every tiny community and all the weaving families, they have a code of symbols, and the patterns can be handed down six, seven generations. They're so complex. The wedding sari will have its own special symbols – it's this huge code. They're beautiful. The plants and shells and creatures and birds … I miss that, because in America, you don't have animals all over your clothes. Well, you do sometimes, but I'm not a fan of leopard print.
HJ: Just actual leopards.
KD: I lament having to give up Indian clothing now that I'm here. It's one of the most fun things about being an Indian woman. But it's really time-consuming. All these people manage to have clothes like that because they have servants. With the saris, you wash these great lengths of fabric, then you hang them on huge lines or down your balcony. Then you starch them and then someone stands on one end and you stand on the other end and you pull it to make it tight and starchy. Then it's ironed. So it's a lot of work.
HJ: I never think of saris as being starched. I think of them as being more flowing.
KD: Well, the cotton ones are starched. Traditionally they're dipped in rice water and then starched, so you walk around so stiffly. Then gradually the humidity and sun get to them and they become really crumply.
HJ: They wilt.
KD: Starched clothes also sound so different. I once interviewed weavers in different parts of India, and they were telling me how important the sound of silk is. If two women are going through a door together, and they rub saris, they should make a kssshh. They complained that cheap Chinese silks are flooding the market. They don't have the right sound. It should be rustling.
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