An embittered judge who wants only to retire in peace lives in a crumbling, isolated house at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas, when his orphaned granddaughter, Sai, arrives on his doorstep. The judge's cook watches over Sai distractedly, for his thoughts are often on his son, Biju, who is hopscotching from one gritty New York restaurant to another.
I think that the reason I was so disappointed in it is that, often, on a human scale, there is both happiness and sadness, gain and loss - and plenty of surprises. Desai's novel (perhaps I should have been forewarned by the title?) sees only one half of the equation. Any good that is noticed in the book is destroyed or taken away by the end - relationships are all damaged or destroyed, security and safety are gone, savings stolen, wordly goods, pets, lovers - all these are torn apart and stomped to bits by the last page. Living during the Gurkha uprising would have been damaging on a huge scale - no denying this. Fear would be rampant, security nonexistent, and the worst of human behavior would come forth. And yet - life is rarely unmitigated bad acts and loss. Even in the worst of times, for some people, some good things happen. I'm no Pollyanna - and I've read other books about these topics (Gosh, Mukherjee, Mistry - even Naipaul, though he's not really part of this crowd) that show plenty of loss, strain and damage. But in these, there is also some good in life. I put this book down and could feel nothing other than depressed.
Still, it's very well wrought and easy to read. I'd be hard pressed to say, "don't read it." Just - read it when you have the wherewithal to deal with unmitigated cynicism.
[The Inheritance of Loss] by Kiran Desai
Kalimpong an Indian Hill station and it's surrounds form the backdrop to Desia's 2006 Man Booker prize winning novel, with the riots in the 1980's resulting from agitation by the Gorkha National Liberation Front forming a centre piece for the story. It's strength lies in its portrayal of life in a post colonial India town, which is home to a number of nationalities and conscious of its history as a crossroads for Tibetan refugees and Chinese incursions. It's weakness lies in a sort of cut and paste structure that does not serve well its central story line which does not come across as strongly as it might have done.
The inheritance of loss is a loss of identity and the themes running through this novel are of individuals struggling to come to terms with displacement of one sort or another. A retired Indian judge who has never recovered from his education in England and the resulting alienation he feels when returning to India is set against the story of his cook's son who is desperately trying to make his way as an illegal immigrant in the United States of America. The colourful elderly residents around Kalimpong; Noni and Lola, Uncle Potty and father Booty are foreigners in a country they have made their home and there is a sense of them clinging onto a life that threatens to be swept away by the Nationalists movement. These people are out of place and out of time, but their situation is in some respects similar to the younger generation; Sai the judges granddaughter and her boyfriend Gyan who being Nepalese is caught up in a struggle that he barely understands and of course Biju the cook's son trying to figure out just what he is doing in the USA.
Desai places the reader convincingly in the crumbling houses and crumbling lives of the community in Kalimpong. The hill station with it's beautiful flora and breath taking views of the Himalayas is contrasted with downtown scruffiness and abject poverty on its outskirts. Her characters are well drawn, but she laughs at them perhaps a little too cruelly at times, these are people that deserve our sympathy a little more than Desai allows us to have for them. I get the feeling she is looking down on her characters rather than looking through them and her superior attitude grates on me a little. Desai is not above having a swipe at other authors writing about India; V S Naipaul for instance and those English writers whose impressions "did not correspond with the truth."
Taking everything into consideration I think Desai's novel is a success, because of her characterisation and her insight into her themes of alienation in a post colonial world. She writes well enough sprinkling her text with Indian and Anglo-Indian expressions that lend it all some authenticity. However I am not entirely convinced with the novel's structure, the continual breaking up of the text into short sections within a chapter makes that cut and paste feeling all too apparent, there are bits pasted in that might have been better to leave out. In my opinion the novel lacks a heart and so I would rate it at 3.5 stars.
At its core, this is a political book—a novel that rails against contemporary worldwide issues of economic, racial, class, and social injustice. The central thematic focus concerns the immense personal pain and emotional debt that comes as a result of leaving one country and culture with dreams of making a better life in another country. The book makes it clear that these global migrations are achieved at enormous personal loss—this is the inheritance of loss of the book’s title. As you read this novel and its litany of stories and vignettes demonstrating widespread social injustice, keep asking yourself: Who pays the price? Ultimately, of course, we all do.
The stories take place predominantly in two locations: the Himalayan village of Kalimpong in India's northeastern corner, and New York City. Although the culture of these two worlds seem light years apart, the author makes is clear that the same issues of economic, racial, class, and social injustice are mirrored in each. The problems she highlights are inherently human, not cultural. To deal with them, we must all be better humans.
This is a book about immigrants (legal or illegal), class discrimination, prejudice, dislocation, isolation, globalization, human decency, and human equality. The novel is full of satire, irony, and contrast. In the end, the book leaves the reader with the impression that the author attempted more themes and stories than she could adequately fit into one novel. According to an interview with the author in The Hindu (Chennai, India, Oct 12, 2006, page 1), the originally manuscript for the book was more than 1,500 pages. Desai admits she had an extremely difficult time paring it down to its existing size. Obviously, much had to be eliminated.
Many reviewers have called this a wise novel, but I hesitate. I find the author’s worldview on these issues a bit too one-sidedly negative for my tastes. With the exception of one minor character, Saeed, the Zanzibar native living as an illegal immigrant in New York City, there are no other immigrant stories with a positive tone and outcome. Obviously, Saeed succeeds primarily because of his ebullient and optimistic personality. The truth is that most immigrants leave home never considering how much they will change and must change in order to adapt to their new environments. Yes, many are permanently scarred by the process and challenge. Yet there are others who, despite the loss of innocence, succeed admirably while at the same time learning to accept and embrace their new identities. Often these successful immigrants become a progressive blend of two cultures. Like Saeed, they approach life with cheer despite their trials.
Despite these small grips, I enjoyed the book immensely, and recommend it highly.
The Inheritance of Loss was the story of a judge living with his granddaughter, Sai, at the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. The judge was cold-hearted and demanding, and Sai found more fatherly comfort for their cook. The cook told her stories of grandeur from the judge’s past life (as well as his own). The cook dreamed of the day when his son, Biju, settles successfully into New York City so the cook could live with him. Interwoven with this story were commentaries on colonialism, Indian culture (particularly their caste system), immigration and nationalism.
Where The Inheritance of Loss excelled was in the illumination of Indian culture and the treatment of Indian immigrants in the U.S. I learned tremendously about both themes from this book. I often interact with Indians at work, and I discovered a newfound appreciation for their culture and how hard it is to acculturate into my country.
However, there were parts in this novel that just dragged for me. Perhaps the plot and character development were too subtle for my reading taste. In areas where the story didn’t seem to advance, I found myself skipping pages. I don’t think I missed much by doing so either.
I believe that The Inheritance of Loss is one of those books people either gush over or shrug at. I enjoyed Desai’s writing style, her humor and her subtle touches, and I would read another novel by her. I would recommend this novel to fans of Booker Prize winners with one piece of advice: bring your patience when you read this novel.
The three main characters are brilliantly painted. The judge without hope, with the saddest life in the history of literature. The cook and 17-year old Saj are characters we get attached to and who render some sense of hope for the reader and make us believe that loss does not have to be inherited.
The novel is highly recommended particularily if you want to learn more about fascinating India and of Indians, but also if you want to read a book to be put down in awe of the author's language and of her great storytelling skills.
The characters are real, and full, they exist with decided truth, but I found their portraits to be slim. We learned very little about them, and I for one did not have an urge to find out that much more. Apparently the book was trimmed down to its reasonable three hundred or so pages from something closer to fifteen hundred. It was also shopped around for quite sometime before finding a publisher, which is surprising considering the success of her first novel (“Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard”). This made sense to me when I heard it. It feels as if there is a big sweeping novel in there. I didn’t place this before I had heard of its extensive editing, but it feels as if it was pared down. There aren’t any scenes missing, it still flows coherently and smoothly, but there is more to these characters which needed to be explored. There are many characters in the book, and most of them are given equal weight. The book does not manage to create a central character and develop her; instead all of the background characters are known to us just as well. In a larger novel this would mean that we would know the secondary characters extremely well, in this book it means we don’t know much at all about our protagonist.
This is not to say that this is a bad book. It is a good solid read. The time and place (or times and places more accurately) are evoked nicely, the characters do feel real and their decisions natural (if difficult); we just don’t get enough of them. The writing is strong, and I can see that she has enormous potential as a writer. But to me in the end, this book did not deliver on all of its abundant promise. Perhaps one day we will see the full manuscript that she originally wrote, and we can enjoy a full picture of the characters, but for now all we have is a limited vision of an interesting world that she has conceived.
If you liked this you might like…./ If you liked… you might like this
“A Suitable Boy” by Vikram Seth
“The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy
“A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry
There are two settings for the book--America and Kalimpong. Sai lives with her grandfather, a former judge, at the foothills of the Himalayas. She falls in love with Gyan, her tutor, who is sympathetic to the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF). The clash of ideals between the Indians who want change and those who wish to retain aspects of British colonialism is one of the two main conflicts in the novel.
The other conflict is that of the Indians who emigrate to the United States and the conditions of their lives once they live there. Biju, who is the son of the Judge's cook, is one of the lucky few who get a visa to go to America. But once he is there, is he really better off? The novel asks the question -- how much does each person care about their individual culture, nationality, and family. What does our "inheritance" mean to us?
While I appreciate these themes and do think the writing was brilliant at times, I wouldn't recommend this book for most readers.
In many ways, it offers emotionally devastating events told with grace and beauty. Loss abounds: country, colonial ways, wealth, status, family, love, pride, dignity…and the list goes on. Even when something is potentially gained, the resultant loss is seemingly at least its equal.
"The present changes the past. Looking back you do not find what you left behind…"
The Inheritance of Loss is filled with rich descriptions of the landscape, both majestic and squalid. There are also rich descriptions of events that shape characters, as well as their all too real struggles to understand, cope, survive, and move forward.
There is sadness present throughout, but, just as in life, there are small rays of hope and redemption that manage to ultimately surface.
"The five peaks of Kanchenjunga turned golden with the kind of luminous light that made you feel, if briefly, that truth was apparent."
I recommend this book highly.
It seems to me that the author cannot sustain any length and line as most of the book is broken up into short fragments with very few lengthy descriptive passages. This leads to a disturbing, incoherent read.
My advice is: do not read this book unless there is absolutely nothing else to read. I found it most disappointing.
Pros: Not many novels use political struggles in India as a backdrop, and the history (something I didn't know) was fascinating. Characters were rich and varied and there were small, personal moments that brought each character into development.
Cons: Each page seemed filled with a tension that never came to a head. I found this uncomfortable to read because I kept expecting worse things to happen than ever did. Also, while each character's life was threaded with loss,and we got a few brief glimpses into how that drove each character, there was no growth or change from the book's beginning. .
Sai is bundled off to convent boarding school when her parents leave India to take part in the Soviet space programme, and is orphaned when they meet an untimely death under the wheels of a Moscow bus. The only relative she has left is her grandfather, Jemubhai. The former judge has totally withdrawn from life, investing all his emotional energy in his dog, Mutt. Sai’s presence in the house serves to break down the barriers the sour old man has built up against weight of deeply shaming memories.
The judge’s cook, a poor man grown old before his time, becomes the closest thing to family that Sai has. Yet he too nurses an anguish – his son Biju has left for America in the hope of a better life, and all that binds them is a fragile chain of letters.
Sai is hungry for tenderness and falls in love with her physics tutor Gyan, a young Nepalese boy, but when the two find themselves on opposite sides of a bitter racial conflict the reader is kept wondering whether they will be able to summon enough maturity to weather their differences. The situation is made more complicated when a rag-tag band of Gorka National Liberation Front guerillas come to the house to look for the judge’s old hunting rifles, and it is clear that Sai and her grandfather have been betrayed.
The Inheritance of Loss dips backwards and forwards in time, combines several different narrative threads and moves between three continents. It’s a very ambitious novel. Nevertheless, Desai manages to steer it away from being overly complex and bitty by providing a strong thematic link between the various subplots.
The novel explores the Indian obsession with the move overseas in the hope of a better life elsewhere, and the uneasy compromises it forces. Desai chronicles two journeys abroad which cleverly echo each other.
Jemubhai lies awake remembering how he was packed off to Cambridge just before the second world war and cast off his Indianess to become an English gentleman, finding himself caught between two worlds and fully accepted by neither.
Biju, the cook’s son becomes part of an ever shifting army of illegal workers moving from one underpaid restaurant job to another in kitchens which are a microcosm of the third world. He finds himself seeking “a clarity of principle” as he observes the uneasy relationship others have with their Indian roots and finding their place in a foreign country.
It is impossible not to feel deeply for the characters and there is a deep vein of melancholy running through the novel, although the book ends on a note of cautious optimism. Sadness too is counterbalanced by a wealth of comic detail and by some of the most delightfully exuberant and playful writing I’ve come across recently.
another thing that captivated me is that there are no 'good' or 'bad' characters in the book. it's a collection of psychological portraits. beautifully written.
Lastly, and I personally don't feel that this has anything to do with the merits of Desai's writing, but I found it somewhat strange that some current residents of Kalimpong resent the way that Desai represented the Nepalese population in the book. I didn't really get a sense that there were any negative aspects laid on Nepalese people as a whole anywhere in the story. If anything I thought the grandfather was the most despicable character and in a sense he represented mainly opposite themes than the Nepalese. Perhaps someday I will visit myself and gain some insight, and I will try not to do some of the degrading things the tourists do in Desai's novel.
Get this, I was in West Bengal--Darjeeling and surrounding areas--when that book won a big prize. I guess it was the Booker. The book is supposed to take place in Kalimpong, I think--but near enough. We're talking Nepali hill and mountain country.
So borrowed it when I got home. I think familiarity with that area, or even India in general, makes for a more tiresome reading experience. This area had a longtime separatist insurgency (but I repeat myself, this is northeast India) in the 1970's, but you can sense the lingering effects. Oh, also, this isn't an area that has felt much effect yet of take-off economy elsewhere in the country. So, physically, it wouldn't have changed much. Still a lot of poverty. Middle-class people still don't have refrigerators, etc.
So I kept hoping that it would get to the insurgency--how does it feel to know that people around you are secretly fighters? How do you live with this low-level fear all the time? The servant with the son in the U.S. seemed to ring true (except when does this take place? It isn't the 1990's yet?). Overall, the style seemed very old, very tired, too much in debt to the gentility of a much older, more timid generation.
Indians are very literary, so there was due diligence given to the award and Desai in the press, but I didn't see an actual review anywhere. The book was in the bookstore much frequented by (mostly) Indian tourists in Darjeeling but none of my acquaintances in Darjeeling seem charged to read it. For sure, the Bangladeshi guy winning the Nobel was a much bigger deal in West Bengal.
I've got to confess that I rarely read contemporary novels by any English or Scottish writers, unless the author is a product of the colonial backwash like Rushdie or Naipaul. I know this is also true of well-read Asians; they're more likely to read Latino authors in translations and of course estadounidenses.
So I take it that the judges of prizes like this (I think the Booker only goes to "Commonwealth" countries, which leaves out the U.S. and some other former colonies) are really striving to go after the former colonials, to be more inclusive, to pick up a modern, cosmopolitan buzz: "We're more universal than you think! This is kinda sorta one of our own." Of course that's why the great Amitav Ghosh turned down ...if not this award, some other "Commonwealth" thing. Makes me wonder if there are a lot of other similar authors that say, "Please, count me out. Don't nominate me."
Initially tangibly beautiful - "The caress of the mist through her hair seemed human, and when she held her fingers out, the vapour took them gently into its mouth" - feelgood novel this isn't, but an intriguing and, at times, captivating read all the same. I think what I liked best were the characterisations - each character rang true to me, from Sai with her naive, tenative first-love irrationalities; to Biju, with the claustrophobic pressure of family and nation able to leap across continents and grab him by the throat even as he lies, trying to snatch some sleep lying on the tables of the restaurants in which he works; to the Judge, with his cantankerous old and scabbery memories. I was a little less convinced by Gyan's sudden transitions, in love as well as in war, and some of the writing - cumulation appearing to be a favourite technique - but Desai's evocation of the voices, the liminal dangers and the mundane realities of life under political instability was a suitably poignant compensation.
It is, in many ways, a bitter, acerbic novel and I found the narrative flow flagged a bit at the beginning, but through it, Desai explores the realities of globalization, multiculturalism, economic inequality, fundamentalism, and terrorist violence.
Desai begins her novel with a quote from a poem by Borges in which he says, “I observe the ambitious and would like to understand them./Their day is greedy as a lariat in the air.” A lariat thrown in the air aims to ensare something, to restrain it, to turn it to the thrower’s control. So do many of the characters in this novel have greedy days through which they try to change themselves or their circumstances or push their children to do so; indeed for many this is the continuous circumstance of their lives but in this story happy endings are rare.
Borges: “Time is living me./More silent than my shadow, I pass through the lofty covetous multitude./They are indispensable, singular, worthy of tomorrow. My name is someone and anyone./I walk slowly, like one who comes from so far away he doesn’t expect to arrive.” Despite the multitude and often, from the perspective of the “other” an inability to distinguish among them, and despite the commonality of experience and desires, everyone is an individual and has an individual story and life. In Desai’s novel, many “walk” slowly not because they will not just not arrive; but because social, economic, political forces and influences and powers will ensure no arrival as in any real changes in lives or circumstances and if there is change, it will likely be, more often than not, negative.
This is a novel about physical, social and emotional displacements and migrations: Biju emigrates to the USA to seek fame and fortune along with countless others but finds that he can’t deny his patrimony, his home; Sai is an Indian woman raised by nuns who fits in neither culture but is moving towards maturity and a better understanding of herself; the judge is migrating backwards, living with the bitterness of his professional and personal lives against the gleaming promise they once held; Father Booty is forced to migrate from his home because, as a privileged foreigner, he took too much for granted; Uncle Potty is left, but his world is disappearing around him and he will not survive the change; Noni and Lola live in a comfortable, artificial cocoon of Englishness but with the smallest tear the fabric unravels and no one in authority will protect them…all authority is corrupt and will not protect Indians unless substantially bribed, so why lift a finger for two anachronisms; Gyan has no idea where he is going emotionally, socially, or politically, but he does discover the age-old truth of pushing against the “other” to define oneself: “Yes, he owed much to his rejection of Sai. The chink she had provided into another world gave him just enough room to kick; he could work against her, define the conflict in his life that he felt all along but in a cotton-wooly way. In pushing her way, an energy was born, a purpose whittled. He wouldn’t sweetly reconcile”.
This novel is also about how a crisis illuminates the gulf in friendship between races and social classes even when there is a patina of understanding and acceptance. Lola and Noni quickly learn how unwelcome they are when times get tough and food is hard to buy; any willing to take the risk will only do so surreptitiously to protect themselves; when he tries to avoid deportation, Father Booty discovers that any friends with influence look the other way or plead impotence. The judge had lived together with Nandu, the cook (whose name we only discover at the end of the novel), “for more years than they had with anyone else, practically in the same room, closer to each other than to any other human being and—nothing, zero, no understanding.”
Desai depicts a society of violence and corruption with no accountability: nothing happens to the police officers who beat and blind a man who manifestly has nothing to do with a theft that he is accused of. Nor does she hold out much hope for real change in society:
“The men sat unbedding their rage, learning, as everyone does in this country, at one time or another, that old hatreds are endlessly retrievable. And they had disinterred it, they found the hate pure, purer than it could ever have been before, because the grief of the past was gone. Just the fury remained, distilled, liberating. It was theirs by birthright, it could take them so high, it was a drug. They sat feeling elevated, there on the narrow wood benches, stamping their cold feet on the earth floor.”
But nothing will, or can change: “There was no system to soothe the unfairness of things; justice was without scope; it might snag the stealer of chickens, but great evasive crimes would have to be dismissed because, if identified and netted, they would bring down the entire structure of so-called civilization. For crimes that took place in those intimate spaces between two people without a witness, for these crimes the guilty would never pay. There was no religion and no government hat would relieve the hell.”
The sense of injustice is real, but even a change in government or power relations will not change anything: “The patriotism was false, he suddenly felt as he marched; it was surely just frustration—the leaders harnessing the natural irritations and disdain of adolescence for cynical ends; for their own hope in attaining the same power as government officials held now, the same ability to award local businessmen deals in exchange for bribes, for the ability to give jobs to their relatives, places to their children in schools, cooking gas connections…”
Is Desai suggesting that Indians in particular are doomed not to succeed as immigrants in a new land because they cannot divest themselves of this patrimony of caste and corruption and a sense of inferiority abroad? Biju is increasingly unhappy in America and all the Indians he meets are similarly living on the edge illegally or, the more successful ones, exploiting other Indians and cheating customers His friend Saeed Saeed from Zanzibar is similarly poor and without connections, but he lives in himself and seizes his opportunities. As he says to Biju: “Now, you are here, you are not back home. Anything you want, you try and you can do.” While Saeed was collecting shoes, “Biju had been cultivating self-pity”.
The only characters who achieve some degree of happiness in the end are Nandu and Biju when the latter returns home, having been robbed of everything he tried to bring back from America, stumbling in the dark and into his father’s embrace in a woman’s nightdress because all his clothes were also stolen. But this is the point: the material and spiritual rewards that all seek in the nirvana that is supposedly the west and especially the USA are false gods: “Biju stood there in that dusty tepid soft sari night. Sweet drabness of home—he felt everything shifting and clicking into place around him, felt himself slowly shrink back to size, the enormous anxiety of being a foreigner ebbing—that unbearable arrogance and shame of the immigrant. Nobody paid attention to him here and if they said anything at all, their words were easy, unconcerned. He looked about and for the first time in God knows how long, his vision unblurred and he found that he could see clearly.”
This is a complex novel. In the closing embrace of father and son, Desai seems to say that in the end, aside from cast and corruption and society and classes and races and history, it is relationships among people and family that count. Because everything , in the final analysis, affects individuals on their individual trajectories of life. Interestingly, I read an interview with Desai where she said of Salman Rushdie, “We owe him…his insistence that history is always someone’s story.” I think Desai does the same in examining the lives of her characters as they are buffeted by life and events.
Some lessons are learned: Sai finally realizes: “Life wasn’t single in its purpose….or even in its direction…The simplicity of what she’d been taught wouldn’t hold. Never again could she think there was but one narrative and that his narrative belonged only to herself, that she might create her own tiny happiness and live safely within it.” This is not life and this is one of the things that Desai explores and illustrates in this novel.