Kiran Desai

"The Inheritance of Loss"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte JAN 29, 2006)

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Kiran Desai's beautiful new novel, The Inheritance of Loss, is mostly set in the town of Kalimpong in Northeast India, close to the Nepal border. Here live an old retired civil services officer, Jemubhai Patel, with his cook and dog, Mutt.  Soon his orphaned granddaughter, Sai, joins the judge in his decrepit mansion. Cut off as they are from much of the world, the three lead a tightly knit life with Sai getting an occasional distraction when she spends time with a pair of Anglophile sisters down the road or her math tutor, Gyan.

Sai's arrival sets the judge down memory lane and he remembers making his journey to England as a young lad leaving his hometown of Pilphit in the Western Indian state of Gujarat. The judge's solitary character combined with his extreme shyness is so intense that he soon evolves into a totally self-centered, cynical person: "He envied the English. He loathed Indians. He worked at being English with the passion of hatred and for what he would become, he would be despised by absolutely everyone, English and Indians, both," Desai writes. Nevertheless he strikes up a tentative attachment to his grand-daughter perhaps because she is a lot like him, a Westernized Indian, an "estranged Indian living in India."

The 17-year-old Sai and the slightly older tutor, Gyan, engage in a brief crush. Soon however, the politics of the moment envelop the relationship. Gyan ends up being transported by history, and finds himself rallying for the cause of fellow Nepali Indians who seek to have their own country or at least their own state. In India, during the 1980s, the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) led an often very violent movement seeking a Nepali state. Desai's book captures some of this history well.

Arguably the most beautiful portions of the book are the nuggets Desai paints of the cook's son Biju who gets by on the barest of bare from one minimum wage job to the other in New York City. "In the Gandhi café, the lights were kept low, the better to hide the stains. It was a long journey from here to the fusion trend, the goat cheese and basil samosa, the mango margarita. This was the real thing, generic Indian, and it could be ordered complete, one stop on the subway line or even on the phone: gilt and red chairs, plastic roses on the table with synthetic dewdrops," Desai writes when she describes one of the Indian restaurants Biju works at. 

Desai's writing is languid and beautiful with delightful turns of phrase. Even the forests of Kalimpong with their mists and darkness come alive in her writing. However, some of her character portrayals seem somewhat studied and clinical. At one point, Gyan looks at some revolutionaries protesting and complains: "The men were behaving as if they were being featured in a documentary about war." The same complaint could possibly be applied to some of the characters -- their actions and methods seem too rigid and preset, not organic. The judge remains a somewhat mysterious character till the very end. It is not satisfyingly clear why he became the person he did -- or why he eventually abandoned both his wife and daughter.

Where Desai does shine however, is not just in the detailing of Biju's life alone but in subtly contrasting his life with that of his father's. While seemingly different, their desperate bid to unsuccessfully shake off the burdens of poverty and class, are beautifully portrayed. Desai is at her best when showing how even globalization cannot solve the trappings of class.

A character in the book paints the act of immigration as an act of cowardice: "Immigration, so often presented as a heroic act, could just as easily be the opposite; that it was cowardice that led many to America; fear marked the journey, not bravery; a cockroachy desire to scuttle to where you never saw poverty, not really, never had to suffer a tug to your conscience; where you never heard the demands of servants, beggars, bankrupt relatives, and where your generosity would never be openly claimed; where by merely looking after your own wife-child-dog-yard you could feel virtuous. Experience the relief of being an unknown transplant to the locals and hide the perspective granted by journey." Biju, the cook's son, might not agree with the assessment.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 175 reviews


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About the Author:

Kiran DesaiKiran Desai was born in India in 1971 and educated in India, England and the United States. She is the daughter of Anita Desai. She is currently studying at Columbia University in New York, where she is the recipient of a Woolrich fellowship.

The Inheritance of Loss is the winner of the 2006 Man Booker prize.

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