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August 9th, 2011

#62 – The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

The year that Kiran Desai won the Booker Prize, I was working at Random House of Canada. She attended a party, that I think was thrown because it was the International Festival of Authors, and I remember thinking that she was both regal and beautiful — I was in awe. Normally, I don’t get starstruck by authors, especially ones where I have never read their work, but I was incredibly familiar with her mother’s writing (many courses in post-colonial literature and a slight obsession with Baumgarter’s Bombay), and found myself hovering around her trying to get a word in edgewise or at least shake her hand. Neither happened. I’m sad about that now, only because, years and years later, I have finally gotten around to finishing The Inheritance of Loss, and did not find it lacking in the least. In fact, it ultimately lives up to the image I have of Desai: tall, gracious, and utterly beautiful.

The Inheritance of Loss follows the lives of a select group of people living near the Kalimpong mountains. They are as cut off from the world around them as they are, ultimately, from themselves — their geography forming an incredible metaphor for the loss each character has in terms of self-awareness as the novel progresses. There’s the judge, Jemubhai Patel, who hides away in his decrepit, falling down house because he’s both determined and disabused by his own false societal notions (an Indian who aspires to be English, he feels cut-off from his own society and therefore physically removes himself from it), and his cook, whose son, Biju has escaped to America and is forever in search of an elusive green card — both men have been living together for decades upholding a false sense of classicism as the house, the world, and their archaic notions crumble down around them.

The novel slips back and forth between Biju’s “life” in NYC and the post-colonial pre-uprising world of Kalimpong in the mid-1980s. As with any sweeping narrative that includes real-life events, the characters are forever changed by what happens around them, even if they aren’t entirely prepared for what’s about to happen. Desai has a wonderful sentence to describe this, two “aunties,” old-school, upper-class Indian sisters who feel a false sense of assurance in terms of both their status and their property, fall askew when huts start erupting on their front lawn and rebels tear out their garden for the common good:

“Only before, the sisters had never paid much attention for the simple reason that they didn’t have to. It was natural they would incite envy, they supposed, and the laws of probability favoured their slipping through life without anything more than muttered comments, but every now and then, someone suffered the rotten luck of being in the exact wrong place at the exact wrong time when it all caught up — and generations worth of trouble settled upon them.”

The characters in the Kalimpong portion of the book fall from grace, so to speak, as the Nepalese claim their land, their fortunes, and their guns in the name of the new state. Whether or not the uprising is successful is irrelevant, for it leaves every single person n the book forever changed — caught between who they imagined they were, and how perceptions can shift ever so slightly in the matter of minutes, Desai’s narrative excels at putting these subtle, yet extraordinary occurrences into words.

Set against the huge political momentum, is young love. The judge’s granddaughter Sai, falls in love with her tutor, Gyan, who gets swept away in the Nepalese insurgency. Their relationship remains as doomed as the Gorkhaland uprising itself (of which, the actual history is unknown to me [yes, I know, it’s just a Wikipedia click away] because the novel’s ending doesn’t resolve the conflict nor the characters’ stories). And this forms the other central dichotomy of the novel: how the personal becomes indelibly intertwined with the political when the lovers sit at opposite ends of society. Sai’s no longer rich, but she’s not poor either, she, like her grandfather, is awash in English education and eats with a knife and fork; Gyan, who lives in a small, tin house at the outskirts of town, wants to use his own education as his ticket out of poverty, but isn’t quite sure he’ll make it. After all, his childhood friends are asserting their manhood in the streets, shouting, holding more than placards, and forcing change.

I earmarked so many passages that it would be redundant to rewrite them all, suffice it to say, that I haven’t been moved by single sentences within a larger narrative like this in a long time. I can see how and why this novel won the Booker, it’s a perfect post-colonial piece of fiction — one I would have adored to study in school if I was still of the studying kind. Yet, it’s a dense novel to get through, and it’s full of the sights and smells of places that will feel familiar but also distant. It’s strange to think of the NYC of Biju’s world: sleeping in rat-infested basements, moving from one kitchen to the next, crowded into tiny rooms with holding bunks instead of beds, forever hiding your identity for fear of being deported. The NYC of my world consists of office towers and hotel rooms, meetings and great cocktails, shopping and shows. I know Biju’s world exists. But for once, it would be nice to know that the melting pot world of false hopes actually remains alive in someplace other than rhetoric.

This is a sad book, as the title suggests, but the ending, with its glorious, difficult passages, feels utterly real — the past catches up to the present, people lose everything but their skin, and pride definitely comes before the fall. All in all, am I ever glad that I finally got around to reading this novel. How did my life exist before it?

2 Responses to “#62 – The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai”

  • Kailana says:

    I have owned this book forever and still haven’t read it!!

  • Neha Sharma says:

    I read Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss in 2007 when I was in 7th grade. Though I couldn’t completely understand all the nuances of the prose back then, I read it in one sitting. When I read it later, I couldn’t hold back tears of joy. This book was fresh, unusual, exhilarating, brilliantly insightful, funny, sarcastic, happy, depressing..everything. It had every human emotion wrapped up in words and what a balance it maintained! Kiran Desai has been my top author ever since. This book will leave you changed. A must read.

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