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BookBrowse Reviews The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

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The Inheritance of Loss

by Kiran Desai

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai X
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2006, 336 pages

    Paperback:
    Aug 2006, 384 pages

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Winner of the 2006 Booker Prize

From the book jacket: Published to extraordinary acclaim, The Inheritance of Loss heralds Kiran Desai as one of our most insightful novelists. She illuminates the pain of exile and the ambiguities of postcolonialism with a tapestry of colorful characters: an embittered old judge; Sai, his sixteen-year-old orphaned granddaughter; a chatty cook; and the cook’s son, Biju, who is hopscotching from one miserable New York restaurant to another, trying to stay a step ahead of the INS.

When a Nepalese insurgency in the mountains threatens Sai’s new-sprung romance with her handsome tutor, their lives descend into chaos. The cook witnesses India’s hierarchy being overturned and discarded. The judge revisits his past and his role in Sai and Biju’s intertwining lives.

Comment: Set in the mid-1980s in Kalimpong, high in the northeastern Himalayas (where Desai spent some of her childhood), The Inheritance of Loss centers on three people living together in an ancient house named Cho Oyu - an embittered old British-educated judge (in the words of the novel, one of the "ridiculous Indians .... who couldn't rid themselves of what they had broken their souls to learn"), his orphaned granddaughter, and their cook.  As the story unfolds, insurgency is growing in the region as the people press their demands for an independent state (see sidebar for more on this).  This growing unrest is contrasted against that of Indians settled abroad, in particular the cook's son, Biju, an illegal immigrant who stumbles from one job to another in the USA.

When talking of the characters in The Inheritance of Loss, and of her own life, Kiran Desai says, "The characters of my story are entirely fictional, but [the journeys of my grandparents] as well as my own provided insight into what it means to travel between East and West and it is this I wanted to capture. The fact that I live this particular life is no accident. It was my inheritance."

Desai describes The Inheritance of Loss as a book that "tries to capture what it means to live between East and West and what it means to be an immigrant," and goes on to say that it also explores at a deeper level, "what happens when a Western element is introduced into a country that is not of the West" - which happened during the British colonial days in India, and is happening again "with India's new relationship with the States."  Her third aim was to write about "what happens when you take people from a poor country and place them in a wealthy one". "How does the imbalance between these two worlds change a person's thinking and feeling? How do these changes manifest themselves in a personal sphere, a political sphere, over time?"

In her words, "These are old themes that continue to be relevant in today's world, the past informing the present, the present revealing the past."

As one reviewer comments, "although relieved by much humor, The Inheritance of Loss may strike many readers as offering an unrelentingly bitter view. But then, this is the invisible emotional reality Desai uncovers as she describes the lives of people fated to experience modern life as a continuous affront to their notions of order, dignity and justice. We do not need to agree with this vision in order to marvel at Desai's artistic power in expressing it."

"[People in the West are] scarcely aware of the overwhelming feeling of humiliation that is experienced by most of the world's population [which] neither magical realistic novels that endow poverty and foolishness with charm, nor the exoticism of popular travel literature manages to fathom."  - Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk speaking after 9/11. 

About the Author: Kiran Desai was born in India in 1971, she lived in Delhi until she was 14, then spent a year in England,before her family moved to the USA. She completed her schooling in Massachusetts before attending Bennington College; Hollins University and Columbia University, where she studied creative writing, taking two years off to write Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard.

Her mother is Anita Desai, author of many books, three of which have been short listed for the Booker Prize: Clear Light of Day (1980), In Custody (1984) and Fasting, Feasting (1999). Anita Desai currently teaches writing at MIT. Her maternal grandmother was German, but left Germany before World War II and never returned. Her grandfather was a refugee from Bangledesh. Her paternal grandparents came from Gujarat, and her grandfather was educated in England. Although Kiran has not lived in India since she was 14, she returns to the family home in Delhi every year.

She first came to literary attention in 1977 when she was published in the New Yorker and in Mirrorwork, an anthology of 50 years of Indian writing edited by Salman Rushdie - Strange Happenings in the Guava Orchard was the closing piece. In 1998, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, which had taken four years to write, was published to good reviews. She says, "I think my first book was filled with all that I loved most about India and knew I was in the inevitable process of losing. It was also very much a book that came from the happiness of realizing how much I loved to write."

Eight years later, The Inheritance of Loss was published in early 2006, and won the 2006 Booker Prize last week.

"Writing, for me, means humility. It's a process that involves fear and doubt, especially if you're writing honestly. I imagine businessmen feel smug at least twice a day. Writers? The moments are rare." - Kiran Desai.

This review first ran in the October 19, 2006 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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