Captivating from page one, The Inheritance of Loss is the exquisite sophomore effort from author Kiran Desai, who brought us Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard. Alternating between the small town of Kalimpong, set at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga of the Himalayas, and New York City, Desai’s characters confront hardship and despair in an unforgiving world. After being orphaned at a young age, Sai is a teenage girl living with her retired judge and anglophile grandfather, Jemubhai, and her grandfather’s cook. The mid-1980’s find Sai experiencing her first crush, her grandfather tormented by past injustices, and the cook swelling with pride for Biju, a son he misses dearly.
The Inheritance of Loss
by Kiran Desai
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006
Reviewed byKirsten Fournier
Kirsten Fournier is a graduate of the University of Delaware and received an M.S. in Psychology from RPI. Most recently, she completed graduate work in library and information science at Simmons College. In addition to freelance book reviewing, Kirsten conducts survey research for a large publishing, media, and events company. A native of upstate NY, she currently lives outside of Boston and some of her favorite authors include F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, T.C. Boyle, and Jeffrey Eugenides.
The struggle with cultural identity is a common theme in Desai’s novel. While attending university in Cambridge, Sai’s grandfather encounters racism and isolation. After repeated exposure to English societal constraints, Jemubhai begins to view his own skin as “odd-colored” and his accent “peculiar.” Driven to reject his Indian heritage as a means to fit in, the judge is disgusted by the backward ways of his young wife and Indian people when he returns to India upon completion of his studies. In essence, Jemubhai has become an anglophile, as evidenced by his affection for English biscuits and penchant for tea made the “English way.” His learned English behaviors at odds with his Indian nationality, Jemubhai mimics the treatment he received in England and looks down upon his fellow Indians, particularly those of the working class.
A burgeoning relationship between Sai and her mathematics tutor, Gyan, provides resplendence in otherwise dismal surroundings. However, political unrest in the region is festering and Sai’s contentment does not last long. Gyan is quickly swept up in a nationalist movement for an independent Nepalese state. Gone is the kind-hearted, soft-spoken young man Sai fell in love with; in his place is an embittered member of the Gorkha National Liberation Federation (GNLF), a rebel group devoted to freeing the Nepalis of India from perceived Indian and English oppression. Shameful of the tea parties and queen cakes he’s shared with Sai at the home of her anglophile grandfather, Gyan lashes out at Sai and immerses himself in the insurgency. Sai is left bewildered and heartbroken by Gyan’s sudden extremism.
Working as an illegal immigrant in New York City’s restaurant industry exposes the cook’s son, Biju, to harsh conditions, disappointments, and humiliations; a life very different from the one his father imagined for him. In leaving India for America, Biju has unknowingly left one hopeless situation for another. Feeling defeated and lonely, Biju finds himself longing for an India he remembers leaving behind, rather than the India that truly exists.
“Of course, he didn’t go over his memories of the village school, of the schoolmaster who failed the children unless paid off by the parents. He didn’t think of the roof that flew off each monsoon season or the fact that not only his mother, but now also his grandmother, were dead. He didn’t think of any of the things that made him leave in the first place.”
Biju returns to India, only to be humiliated once again by GNLF members he’s spent days traveling with through wilderness, landslides, and destroyed roadways. The GNLF members leave Biju in the woods, miles from Kalimpong, stripped of his luggage, money, and clothes.
Sai sets the stage for things to come in the first chapter when she asks herself if fulfillment can ever be felt as deeply as loss. Each of Desai’s characters have experienced loss in some way; Sai has lost her first love to a radical group, the judge lost his sense of self while studying abroad, the cook has lost his beloved dog, Mutt, after she is kidnapped by bandits, and Biju has lost his pride. Despite such despair, Desai artfully peppers the pages of her novel with humor, keeping the prose crisp and free of wearisome text. This extraordinary second work establishes Desai as a skilled novelist whose writing will endure. Winner of The Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2006, The Inheritance of Loss provides an intimate look at postcolonial India and the fragility of the human spirit.