The Inheritance of Loss book review
Kiran Desai’s second novel, which was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2006, is a multigenerational tale of migration, identity, and the cultural legacy of colonialism. If this sounds a bit too academic for your tastes, let me assure you that The Inheritance of Loss, while disturbing and, at heart, pretty cynical, is a perceptive and frequently witty read. Something you can’t always say about the books that win the big prizes.
Set in the 1980s, at a time when India’s political landscape is being fundamentally transformed, the story begins in Kalimpong, where Sai, an orphaned teenager, lives with her grandfather in a damp and decaying house in the north-eastern Himalayas. The grandfather, Jemubhai Patel, is a former judge who, as a young man, went to Cambridge on a scholarship, full of idealistic notions of the English. He found a cold, class-driven society where, shy and self-conscious, he withdrew into himself, as isolated as if he were invisible: “For entire days nobody spoke to him at all … elderly ladies … moved over when he sat next to them in the bus, so he knew that whatever they had, they were secure in their conviction that it wasn’t even remotely as bad as what he had”.
He returned to India ground down and bitter, hating the British for being the cause of his humiliation, and despising all things Indian. This includes his young wife, whom he married just before setting off for England. After repeatedly abusing her, he sends her back to her parents, refusing to see ever see her again, or the daughter she gives birth to a few months later. Keeping himself aloof from his countrymen, he refuses to let himself feel anything but contempt for his neighbours. His education and adopted mannerisms are English but his skin colour is not; as such, Patel lives a reclusive existence as a man effectively without a country. His only companions are his granddaughter, his drunken cook, and his beloved dog, Mutty.
Biju, the son of Patel’s cook, is determined to leave the squalor of India behind him. He lands a US visa and arrives in New York full of dreams of success and prosperity. What he finds is what you might expect him to find; he is, after all, an undocumented immigrant without money, skills or connections. Unable to find work that pays him a ling wage, Biju drifts from one menial restaurant job to another, working for next to nothing and living in squalid basement rooms cheek by jowl with other immigrants. The caste system that drove Britain’s colonial empire is thriving in America: “Above the restaurant was French, but below in the kitchen, it was Mexican and Indian. . . .It was horrible what happened to Indians abroad and nobody knew but other Indians abroad. It was a dirty little rodent secret”.
Back home in Kalimpong, Sai has fallen in love with her tutor. Gyan, who is four years older than Sai, is Nepalese and initially as naive as she. For a brief period, their burgeoning love affair not only provides the one note of hope in the story but gives Desai an opportunity to play with the narrative, as she describes the delight they take in each other’s appearance: “Her ears she displayed like items taken from under the counter and put before a discerning customer in one of the town’s curio shops, but when he tried to test the depth of her eyes with his, her glance proved too slippery to hold; he picked it up and dropped it, retrieved it, dropped it again until it slid away and hid.”
All too soon, however, Gyan becomes involved with the Gorkha National Liberation Front, a group of activists demanding a separate state for the Nepalis in India. Under their influence, he comes to view Sai in a different light: “It was a masculine atmosphere and Gyan felt a moment of shame remembering his tea parties with Sai on the veranda, the cheese toast, queen cakes from the baker, and even worse, the small warm space they inhabited together, the nursery talk— It suddenly seemed against the requirements of his adulthood.” He breaks off relations with her, much to her despair, and although he later regrets his actions and resolves to win her back, they are still apart at the end of the book. His rejection has completely changed her worldview: “Never again could she think there was but one narrative and that this narrative belonged only to herself, that she might create her own tiny happiness and live safely within it.”
The Nepali separatist movement becomes increasingly violent; paramilitary groups roam the countryside, terrorizing the villagers and helping themselves to food and ammunition. When Gyan reveals the fact that Sai’s grandfather has some old Army guns in the house, soldiers break in, steal the guns, and humiliate the old man by making him serve them tea. In a harrowing climax to the story, a GNLF demonstration turns violent and bloody, leaving many dead wounded and initiating a dark, troubling period of unrest.
Back in New York, Biju is worried about his father. When he manages to contact him by phone, the connection is poor – neither of them can hear the other and he eventually decides the only way to put his fears to rest is to return to India. Months of living in filth, dealing with poor plumbing, bad food, and exploitive working conditions, have combined to make him forget the wretchedness he left behind. He longs for the comforts of home, forgetting that there aren’t any.
“This way of leaving your family for work had condemned them over several generations to have their hearts always in other places, their minds thinking about people elsewhere; they could never be in a single existence at one time”.
Against the advice of his friends in the States, Biju buys himself a plane ticket home, via London, Frankfurt, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Bahrain, Karachi, Delhi, and Calcutta, from where he plans to get a bus to Kalimpong. But when he finally arrives in Calcutta he finds that, with all the upheaval in that part of the world, the buses to Kalimpong are no longer running. He accepts a ride from some soldiers who rob him of his luggage, his savings, and even his clothes. His great American experience has left him with less than he had when he started.
The Inheritance of Loss is a wonderful book to read, but a hard one to love. Desai is such a wonderful writer, especially of comic scenes that have you laughing out loud, that you want to embrace this expansive intergenerational tale of wholeheartedly.
The message, however, is simply too bleak. Where other writers (Zadie Smith comes to mind) would have us believe the world is becoming more diverse and welcoming, Desai paints a grim picture of an international caste system that keeps the immigrant – the poor ones, anyway – firmly at the bottom.