Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss?– From The Inheritance of Loss, page 3 –
Kiran Desai has written a novel of depth and complexity, filled with multiple characters and beautiful, lyrical prose which explores such themes as colonialism, illegal immigration and political strife. I will admit to being somewhat overwhelmed at times due to my ignorance of Indian history, class systems and politics. In fact, this book forced me to do something I seldom do – research the history of the time and geography of the area. What I discovered is a country which is vast in its scope and complicated in its history. For those readers with extensive knowledge about this region, Desai’s book will resonate. For those like myself who do not have that knowledge base, this novel will lose some of its power, but is worth reading anyway.
Desai artfully weaves together the stories of several characters, moving from the present day (1980s) to their past histories without a glitch. She examines life in the town of Kalimpong, a hill town nestled in the lower Himalaya of West Bengal, where cultures collide. Kalimpong has a rich history and was the site of violent riots between the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) and the West Bengal government between 1986 and 1988. Desai’s novel drops its characters into the midst of this chaos and allows the reader to gain a better understanding of the vast cultural rifts between the people.
The novel centers around a retired Judge, his granddaughter Sai, the cook, the cook’s son Biju and Gyan who is Sai’s tutor. All these characters are flawed and seeking fulfillment, and all experience loss as the tale unravels. The Judge, a surly and unhappy man, has little love in his heart for anyone except his dog, Mutt. He is filled with hatred for other Indians, wishing instead he had been born English. Biju also experiences this ambivalence for his own people which seems spawned by his experience of rejection and racism as an illegal immigrant living in America.
The habit of hate had accompanied Biju and he found that he possessed an awe of white people, who arguably had done India great harm, and a lack of generosity regarding almost everyone else, who had never done a single harmful thing to India.– From The Inheritance of Loss, page 86 –
Biju’s father (the cook) has sent his only son to America to seek a better life. The cook hopes for contentment and dignity which he believes will come with Biju’s success.
He imagined sofa TV bank account. Eventually Biju would make enough and the cook would retire. He would receive a daughter-in-law to serve him food, crick-crack his toes, grandchildren to swat like flies. Time might have died in the house that sat on the mountain ledge, its lines grown indistinct with moss, its roof loaded with ferns, but with each letter, the cook trundled toward a future. – From The Inheritance of Loss, page 20 –
Sai, having come to live with her grandfather after her parents die, imagines a life of love.
Romantically she decided that love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love was the ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself. – From The Inheritance of Loss, page 3 –
Finally, Gyan who tutors Sai longs to be part of the political changes. A Nepali who feels torn between his attraction toward Sai and his cultural roots, Gyan is perhaps the saddest character in the book.
He wasn’t a bad person. He didn’t want to fight. The trouble was that he’d tried to be part of the larger questions, tried to become part of politics and history. Happiness had a smaller location, though this wasn’t something to flaunt, of course; very few would stand up and announce, “Actually I’m a coward,” but his timidity might be disguised, well, in a perfectly ordinary existence situated between meek contours. – From The Inheritance of Loss, page 299 –
As The Inheritance of Loss unfolded, I was struck by the depth of the prose. Desai reveals the rigid adherence to the class system in simple ways, such as when a maid tells her employer the story of falling in love with a Rai although she herself is a Sherpa.
Before one knew it one could slide into areas of the heart that should be referred to only between social equals. – From The Inheritance of Loss, page 75 –
Desai uncovers the pain of being an illegal immigrant by allowing the reader to see through Biju’s eyes as he struggles to find work, sleeps in a basement with rats nibbling on his hair, and longs to return to his homeland.
The issues of colonialism and globalization are constant themes in the novel. It speaks to Desai’s gift as a writer that she tackles these immense issues with ease using eloquent prose.
Tenzing was certainly the first, or else he was made to wait with the bags so Hilary could take the first step on behalf of that colonial enterprise of sticking your flag on what was not yours. – From The Inheritance of Loss, page 171 –
This Sai had learned. This underneath, and on top a flat creed: cake was better than laddoos, fork spoon knife better than hands, sipping the blood of Christ and consuming a wafer of his body was more civilized than garlanding a phallic symbol with marigolds. English was better than Hindi. – From The Inheritance of Loss, page 33 –
I found myself falling into the rhythm of this novel, absorbing the flavors and sights of a foreign land and striving to understand its people. There are so many facets to The Inheritance of Loss, it is hard to categorize it. I believe Desai has written a novel which fully encompasses the Indian experience. I was touched by how the characters sought out their dreams and futures by looking outside their culture, religion and country when perhaps the answers lay closer to home. Desai touches on this as well at the end of the book when Biju, who is now far less innocent, contemplates the steady stream of immigration from India to America.
This way of leaving your family for work had condemned them over several generations to have their hearts always in other places, their minds thinking about people elsewhere; they could never be in a single existence at one time. – From The Inheritance of Loss, page 342 –
Kiran Desai has written an exquisite novel which is deserving of the Booker Award and its place on the New York Times Most Notable Fiction list. This is a novel to be savored for its stunning prose, complex characters and finely captured sense of place.
To read more reviews or discussions on this book, please visit The NYT Most Notable Book Blog.