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A Luminous, but Melancholy Book
It’s hard for me to say whether Kiran Desai’s second novel, the 2006 Man Booker winner, "The Inheritance of Loss," is panoramic or intimate. On one hand, it stretches from northern India to New York City to England, yet on the other, it focuses so closely on the lives of its primary characters that it can sometimes seem almost claustrophobic. Focusing on the very poor and the middle class, this beautifully written and haunting novel lets its readers know how, even in the midst of change, there are people who long for the “old ways,” who desire not change, but stability and security. People who want to wake up in the morning and know that things are still the same.
This book is offending towards Indians.
Most of "The Inheritance of Loss" takes place in 1986 and is set in the northeastern Himalayas, “where India blurred into Bhutan and Sikkim,” where “it had always been a messy map.” The book focuses, in part, on Sai, a seventeen-year-old orphan, who now lives with her grandfather, a retired judge, a “leftover” of the Indian Civil Service, in a damp and crumbling house called Cho Oyu in the village of Kalimpong at the foot of the snowy massif of Mount Kangchenjunga. Sai is cared for by her grandfather’s talkative and (sometimes) optimistic cook, a man who focuses all his hopes and dreams on his own son, Biju, who he calls “the luckiest boy in the world” after he’s granted a US visa and goes to New York.
Conflict in this novel begins when Sai’s Nepali math tutor, Gyan, and the man with whom Sai has fallen in love, joins a Nepalese insurgent movement. In fact, the book opens with some of these insurgents breaking into Sai’s grandfather’s house to steal whatever they find useful, in this case, food, cold cream, Grand Marnier, and Sai’s grandfather’s old rifles. Although this is a painful inciting incident in an overall melancholy book, Desai does add a bit of humor to the escapade of the robbery in the form of the judge’s dog’s reaction:
“Mutt began to do what she always did when she met strangers: she turned a furiously wagging bottom to the intruders and looked around from behind, smiling, conveying both shyness and hope.”
The judge, however, is deeply humiliated and even has to serve tea to the intruders who stole his possessions. Both Sai and the cook are so embarrassed and afraid for him that they avert their gazes.
This humor in the midst of melancholy, found throughout, elevates this book beyond a merely “good” book to one that’s truly “great” as do many other elements, however, it’s melancholy that drives this book’s narrative, it’s melancholy that forms its soul, and it’s melancholy that readers will remember. Even the secondary characters, such as Sai’s neighbors, Swiss Father Booty and his alcoholic friend, Uncle Potty are melancholic, victims, of a sort, trapped in a world that no longer exists.
After setting up her story, Desai then drops back to quieter moments and shows us how the lives of Gyan and Sai and her grandfather, along with the cook and his son, Biju intertwine. The book roams from Kalimpong to New York City to England in the 1940s, where the judge’s experience of studying at Cambridge mirrors Biju’s experience in New York in that both approach their situations filled with idealism, and both are ground down by the experience of having to live life in a culture that perceives them – wrongly, of course – as only second class citizens.
Though many see the theme of "The Inheritance of Loss" as exile and displacement, I saw it as exile and displacement through the inability to communicate. After all, some of the characters that never leave Kalimpong end up alone and adrift. As this book shows clearly, one need not leave one’s home or place of birth in order to be exiled. The Inheritance of Loss is filled with failings, from the failing of a marriage to the failing of a “new life,” to the failing of a phone call.
I know people who felt this book contained too many story threads. I think it all depends on personal preference. Some people prefer to follow only one character through an entire book, no matter how long, while others prefer books that are more panoramic in scope. Desai does give us much backstory and many flashbacks. The structure of the novel is sophisticated; there are even flashbacks within flashbacks. Some readers will enjoy this, while others will find themselves impatient to get back to the story of Sai and Gyan and to the story of Biju. And it is true that Desai takes her time in letting her story unfold. For example, we learn about Gyan in Chapter One, but it’s twelve more chapters before Gyan actually enters the book. Eventually, though, Desai ties everything together and she does a wonderful job doing so.
One of the things I loved most about this book was the assured, confident, and beautiful writing. Desai is a keen observer of life and all its details, and she expresses her observations beautifully. This is but one example: “The gale took his words and whipped them away; they reached Biju's ears strangely clipped, on their way to somewhere else.” And this: “The flame cast a mosaic of shiny orange across the cook's face, and his top half grew hot, but a mean gust tortured his arthritic knees.”
I’ve never lived in a small village in northern India, but I certainly felt like I had after reading this beautiful book. I thought Desai no doubt captured the time period perfectly. Some of the characters – like Father Booty and Uncle Potty – seemed to want to live in a colonial time warp, where nothing changes, while others, such as Gyan, were dreaming of the changes a political upheaval could bring. All in all, I thought the characters, both those who resisted change and those who were fighting for it, were brilliantly realized.
Desai’s first novel, "Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard" was endorsed by Salman Rushdie and her writing, at the time, was compared to his. In truth, that book, which centers around a misfit named Sampath Chawla, who crawls up into the branches of a guava tree and won’t come down and in doing so achieves celebrity as a hermit, does contain many “Rushdie like” influences, though the writing is no where near as “furious” as Rushdie’s tends to be. "The Inheritance of Loss" is a totally different book altogether. Personally, I didn’t see a lot of “Rushdie like” influences in this second novel, which, in my opinion, is far superior to Desai’s first, though there are a few – strings of adjectives with no commas to separate them, occasional playfulness, and great energy – being the most prominent. "The Inheritance of Loss" is a quieter and more melancholy book that Rushdie usually writes ("The Moor’s Last Sigh" might be the exception), and the prose, while still gorgeous, is more spare than Rushdie’s. In this book, I think Desai shares more with V.S. Naipaul than she does with Rushdie, though most of the time, I try to avoid comparisons as they always seems unfair. Though writers sometimes do resemble other writers, each writer is unique.
You may not love "The Inheritance of Loss" due to its excessive melancholy (this is definitely not a “feel good” book), but, even though some may not like the story or agree with it, I don’t think any serious reader is going to deny the book is wonderfully written. In the end, "The Inheritance of Loss" is a luminous book, and, while not, perhaps, heartwarming, it is profoundly human in its promise and in its generosity.
Note: I am not East Indian. Perhaps if I were, I would see this book in a different light. As it is, I can only evaluate it from the perspective of a Westerner.
I am proud to be Indian and proud to be an American. The Inheritance of loss book hurt my feelings as an Indian.
natural aspects in kirarn desai
The author is comparing the poor class of India to the advanced countries like England and America.The author clearly lacks insight about Indian lifestyle - Poor people recycle and there is nothing wrong if the restaurant owners wife ties her hair with the ribbon which came from the dry fruit box - In America we call it recycling!
If the author had been to Japan, there still are squat toilets - just visit the airport.
Amul butter - has the author even tasted it - without any reason she keeps calling it waterproof!
This very same Amul butter is sold as organic butter in USA.
Also every other page mentions how desperate Biju is to get a greencard - who is not?? Illegal or not - all want to live in an advanced country and enjoy a good life. - At least he is hardworking and not selling drugs and harming US citizens. He is earning money so that his poor dad can have a better life.
Ms. Desai has probably not seen the poor people suffering in India - pregnant women dont eat for days as they have to feed their husband and little ones, kids have to work at the age of 6, as the government does nothing for them.
The poor in America at least get to eat peanut butter sandwich.
Also, in each race- White,African, Indian,European - who does not have flaws - all do thats why we are human - but how does it feel to be humiliated by your own race??
The purpose of this review is just my opinion about the book and not to offend anyone.
It is real enjoyable and at the same time it an inspiration for the literary students. The thing is that she frankly pointed out so many issues in a brief manner; how the beauty of nature gives an immensely powerful feelings with intensity.
An interesting read, but the storylines did not flow smoothly together, making it difficult for the reader to invest in the characters.
Kalimpong: An Inheritance of Loss!
As a fellow local of Kalimpong, I was compelled to get hold of Kiran Desai’s ‘Inheritance of Loss’ that came into limelight after it clinched through the Booker Prize, 2006. Several reviews in national dailies, reputed magazines and internet, floating of late, many praising the literary merit of the novel while others criticising her mocking attitude towards Nepali speakers and Kalimpong, supplied added impetus to me to lay my hands on the award winning work. The novel, although not directly based, has a foundation in Kalimpong Town located in the western part of Darjeeling Hills in Eastern Himalayas.
Reading through the pages, I immediately had an impression that there was an ample scope for any educated locals to be annoyed given the manner in which author has handled Kalimpong, its diverse ethnic groups, and the on-going Gorkhaland Agitation of the 1980s. The narratives clearly highlight her lack of correct understanding of the socio-cultural and economic dynamics operating in the area. Among many of the qualms that have perturbed the educated locals in Kalimpong forcing them to launch protests across spaces of the town, few of them may briefly be summarised.
First, Kalimpong is not as bad during monsoons as highlighted by Kiran Desai. Although it rains heavily and at times spontaneously during the period, the dreadfulness of reptiles, lizards, moths, rats and such other insects are the only imaginations far from reality. The town is located at an altitude of over 1,250 metres and has a moderate climate ranging from between 15°C to 25°C in summer and 7°C to 15°C in winter, offering year round comfort. Hence, there are no questions of sub-tropical organisms bothering human except during exceptional circumstances.
Second, the author has been unable to differentiate between the Nepali speakers who have been bonafide Indian citizens and those with Nepal citizen but working in Kalimpong on a seasonal basis. Moreover, her parallel treatment of the immigration issue in United States conveys a bad impression to the global readers about Indian Nepalis living in Kalimpong and elsewhere in Darjeeling Hills. American immigrants and Indian Nepali speakers in Darjeeling hills cannot be compared. Kalimpong along with other parts of Darjeeling was once a unit of Sikkim. While Kalimpong was snatched away by Bhutan for a brief period, other parts of Darjeeling Hills were taken over by Nepal and subsequently Darjeeling Hills including Kalimpong was taken over by British India. Hence, it is historically obvious, the region was bound to evolve as a melting pot of ethnic diversity- Lepchas, Bhutias, Nepalis, and Bengalis. Further, the development of market, introduction of tea and trade with Tibet from Kalimpong gradually encouraged other social groups- Biharis, Marwaris, Tibetans and others- to find spaces for themselves in the region. Therefore, signaling time and again that Indian Nepalis are immigrants from Nepal will not hold good.
Third, the novel clarifies us that Indian Nepali speakers of Kalimpong were brought generations ago to work on British tea plantations from Nepal. This is simply not true. Out of the total functioning tea gardens in Darjeeling Hills Kalimpong sub-division accommodates only four of them. They were introduced in Kalimpong much after the British left India. Kalimpong is largely an agrarian economy. Paddy, maize, millet, buckwheat, ginger, cardamom, orange, and more recently horticulture and floriculture are the backbones of regional economy of Kalimpong. Hence, Nepali speakers in Kalimpong did not immigrated as plantation labours but as subsistent agriculturists. Further, migration had been taking place in and across the area much before the British set their foot in the region.
Fourth, Inheritance of Loss talks of Gorkhaland Agitation but fails to understand many facets of the movement’s dynamics. It traces its root to the annexation of Sikkim into the Indian Territory and also the rising insurgencies in the north-east India. Such error on the part of author only reflects the fact she did not do her history homework properly. Ethnic discontentment in Darjeeling started long before the country saw its independence – around 1907 if not earlier. Moreover, mention of communal divide during the agitation is totally uncalled for. There were no instances of any kind of political harassment-s on communal line. It was largely a united struggle against the age old state regression. At rare cases, however, resident Bengalis were suspected as agents of state and the ruling comrades, whom Gorkhas hated the most then. She, however, declares in one of her recent interviews “The political information is accurate to my knowledge and based on my memories and the stories of everyone I know there”.
Further, it is clear from her writing that Desai could not familarise herself with Nepali language as she never uses Nepali proverbs and jargons to substantiate the local characters of Kalimpong, although she uses Hindi slang here and there. She, however, boasts of living and studying in Kalimpong before they left the place. One of the recent reviews further tells us that the author lived in Kalimpong for six weeks in 2002 for the purpose of research while she was in the process of writing her novel.
Council for Social Development
New Delhi, India