Strangers in strange lands

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

(Some spoilers)

Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss is my first foray into works by the Desai clan. The experience has been good enough to warrant many more. The Inheritance of Loss reminds you that there are confused desis in India, UK and the US. The novel straddles three generations, and three different sorts of lost and dissatisfied Indians.

First, the anglophile ICS generation, loyal to a way of life that they perpetually aspire to, but never achieve. They live in Indian cities and villages, and long after the departure of the Brits, continue to fill their worlds with symbols from their ideal society: eating scones and cucumber sandwiches for tea, reading Agatha Christie, meeting one another at crumbling Gymkhana clubs, conversing among themselves in English, and with the servants in pidgin Hindi, and for all intents and purposes remain completely oblivious to the people, the language, the food and the problems that actually surround them. Many of the characters in this book belong to this generation – a retired Gujarati judge, a couple of Bengali sisters, an Uncle Potty of unknown origin…

Then there is the Amreeka-is-great generation. They believe they’ll be richer in the US, fatter, and surely happier. Biju, the cook’s son, is an illegal immigrant, working for less than minimum wages in one New York restaurant after another. His experience is understandably worse than that of the average H1B software type, but how different are they? Aren’t they all trapped in a common nightmare, even as they dream their common green-card dreams?

The green card, green card, the machoot sala oloo ka patha char sau bees green card that was not even green.

Unlike the previous generation which is happy in its yearning, this one bends over backwards to get to the land of their dreams. When they get there, it’s too late to wonder why they wanted to go there in the first place. At one point, Biju wonders:

 

What was he doing and why?
It hadn’t even been a question before he left. Of course, if you could go, you went. And you went, of course, if you could, you stayed

 

Perhaps the Anglophiles are the smarter ones – yearning lasts longer than attainment, and therefore is better?

…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.

Dissatisfied as they are, the Anglophile and the Yankophile are a mild lot. The third bunch is so disillusioned that nothing short of political autonomy – a separate x-stan / y-land (replace x and y with your preferred minority community / region) – will do. A good part of this novel takes place in Kalimpong in the late 80s – at the height of the Gorkha unrest. How alien the very idea is to the first two classes is best expressed by Lola (the Anglophile widow):

And what is this with the GOrkha? It was always GUrkha.

My friends and I have frequently marveled at India’s uncanny knack for survival as a country. It is a matter we pride ourselves on, particularly when we see so many others falling apart with much less provocation. [1] But given the latest news from India, I can’t help remembering this passage:

What was a country but the idea of it? … How often could you attack it before it crumbled? To undo something took practice; it was a dark art and they were perfecting it. With each argument the next would be easier, would become a compulsive act, and like wrecking a marriage, it would be impossible to keep away, to stop picking at wounds even if the wounds were your own.

Desai’s novel is about class as much as it is about one’s sense of national identity. In any society, for a while these are maintained in hermetically sealed compartments, either out of ignorance or by force. But ultimately, people of different identities and classes do react to these differences. And when they do, some end up with illegal huts on their lawn, others get beaten to a pulp by the police. Yet others like Sai, the judge’s granddaughter who has a crush on her Indian-Nepali tutor, have their hearts broken.

The house didn’t match Gyan’s talk, his English, his looks, his clothes, or his schooling. It didn’t match his future. Every single thing his family had was going into him and it took ten of them to live like this to produce a boy, combed, educated, their best bet in the big world. Sisters’ marriages, younger brother’s studies, grandmother’s teeth-all on hold, silenced, until he left, strove, sent something back.

Sai felt shame, then, for him… The dilemmas and stresses that must exist within this house – how could he have let them out? And she felt distaste, then, for herself. How had she been linked to this enterprise, without her knowledge or consent?

I haven’t read Desai’s first novel (Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard), but I must say that The Inheritance of Loss still feels like an early work. Desai’s strengths lie in her ability to draw fresh insights out of characters and situations that appear clichéd at first glance. However, towards the end of the book, it feels as if the author is panicking – worried that she might not be able to tie all those lovely characters with their lovely stories together into one cohesive whole. And she doesn’t. There is no great so-what at the end of this great build-up. People just go back to their old ways, or grudgingly resign themselves to whatever lousy cards they’ve been dealt with. Perhaps this makes it more real. After all, even Spiderman or Superman don’t take on poverty and beat it to a pulp.

And the balance that Desai maintains so well through the first two thirds of the book, giving equal importance to the three main story threads, is somehow lost in the last one-third. Some stories and characters are ignored at the expense of others. I felt a little like waiting in the queue at Thirupathi – I’ve waited a long time to get to that spot, and just when I feel like I’ve earned my right to savor the moment, I am bustled along by some cop shouting, “Jaragandi! Jaragandi!”

Bottom line: The Inheritance of Loss is a very good read. Kiran Desai is definitely someone to watch out for. If you were born in India in the late 70s as I was, you’ll find many things to relate to, and therefore enjoy in this book.

[1] As Southies born in the late 70s, I realize that my friends and I have had no experiences that might be classified as being “provocative”, so it’s mostly idle posturing.
[2] Go here to read Falstaff’s equally positive review. And here to read Pankaj Mishra’s take on the novel.

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