The Inheritance of Loss is the winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize 2006. Being the second Indian author to have won this prize, Kiran Desai’s work has generated huge interest and curiosity. When I read the book though, it was not yet a winner, but one of the nominees.Though I was curious, I have to admit I wasn’t looking forward to much. I have not been very impressed with Indian authors. At the cost of sounding extremely selective, I’ve always felt that Indian authors of yore capitalized too much on historical events such as the Partition and Freedom Struggle, and the current authors write mostly about the petty domesticities of Indian life. Kiran Desai, in her work, has not addressed either of the above, and yet, produced a novel that is Indian to its very core.
The Inheritance of Loss is made up of very few central characters and that helps to keep the story simple and uses it to talk about bigger things. Sai is a sixteen-year-old orphan living in the eastern Himalayan mountains of Cho Oyu, in the vicinity of Kalimpong. Sai and her young Nepalese tutor, Gyan, are in love with each other. She lives with her eccentric grandfather, referred to as the Judge, who is a dominating and proud personality and keeps himself away from societal interaction. The Judge’s only muse in life is his dog Mutt. The third member in the house is the cook, servile and faithful, who dwells on the letters of his son, Biju. Biju is in New York working as a cook. There are some other characters sketched out to be neighbors of the Judge and Sai – the widow Lola and her unmarried sister Noni, the Swiss-origin Father Booty and the drunkard Uncle Potty.
The Inheritance of Loss uses the Gorkhaland movement as a catalyst. The Gorkhaland movement was kicked off by the Nepalese, Gorkha and Lepcha local people in the hills of eastern Himalayas to protest against decades of negligence, poverty and illiteracy. To my knowledge, no other novel of international fame has talked about the Gorkhaland movement. Indian media and cinema has been too busy glorifying the Kashmir and Punjab movements to talk about the decade-long revolution in the North-East. When this movement breaks out, the lives of all the characters change. Gyan is provoked by his friends to rise against the injustice done to their race by rich people from the planes. The Judge’s house is ransacked by terrorists. Father Booty is packed off from the region because he does not have proper documents to prove his Indian credentials. Lola and Noni’s beautiful property is taken over by the locals who build a slum right in front of their house. And Biju, worried for his father’s safety, returns back to India only to be robbed by the terrorists to his very underpants.
Kiran Desai’s stalwart creation is not about a story. It is a perspective, an inside look into post-independence India, with its roots dug in colonialism, its branches embracing Americanism, but its leaves brown and dusty with the age-old prejudices that govern people’s minds; an India where a class of people still speak only English and squirm at the mention of their mother tongues; where a mother is proud because her daughter has chosen to marry an Englishman; where a foreigner is treated suspiciously in spite of his honest efforts to lay foundations of indigenous industries; where thousands of Indians enter America as illegal immigrants – in the eyes of their families, they are the heroes, but in reality, they sleep with mice on the kitchen floors of restaurants or in squalid suburbs of big cities. Desai’s depiction is so soulful, so real, so accurate that, sometimes, you remembered you’ve said this, you’ve done that. The depiction of the educated Indian or the Indian businessman working in America, of how he buys a huge house with no money to furnish it, but draws satisfaction from sending a photograph to his relatives back in India; of how Indian bankers in New York smartly eating beef (as if they’d let their traditions and customs go to the winds), still apologetically look up at the Indian waiter; of how a Communist Indian father feels it is waste of space for his son to buy a 3-storey house.
Desai fleshes out these ambiguities in today’s India, where people are attempting to adopt western ways because that’s what gets them acceptance in the world, but are still in a dilemma as to how far they can let their country go from themselves. She brings out the racism inherent in Indian society, which is a huge conglomeration of all religions, several languages, castes and histories. She sketches the feelings of Hindus against Muslims, Muslims against Hindus, plains-people against hill-people, the bitter taste of Pakistan in an Indian’s mouth, legalizing unacceptable constructions in the name of religion and so on.
The Gorkhaland movement is not just used as a backdrop. Pages have been spent describing the different shades of this movement, and, on a more generic note, all such movements. The despicable conditions of the locals in the hills is empathized with. Desai gives a vivid description of Gyan’s and his fellow-people’s living conditions when Sai goes in search of him. However, in spite of the honest cause of the movement, Desai describes how it slowly degenerates into a series of rowdies looting, robbing, raping and forcing. Whereas they go out and preach against the rich people following western ways, they sneak into the kitchens of these very people for a bite of ham sandwich and mayonnaise brought from London.
The problem with most great works is its inadequate ending. There have been several examples of good books and good cinema where the author or director has failed the creative genius of the work itself by not knowing how to wrap it off. Kudos of Kiran Desai for brilliantly rounding off the novel. She does not seek a solution, because there cannot be any. It would be too unreal to expect a society, plagued with crises of its own identities, to cast away its history and emerge unshackled from the trappings of the past. But what Desai uses for her last few pages are some basic human emotions, which pierce through the gloom of the night like the first rays of the sun. Sai’s and Gyan’s sufferings in the absence of each other, the stone-hearted Judge’s wailing for his lost dog Mutt and, in the last sentence, the running of the cook and Biju into each other’s arms leave the reader with a smile on the face. Desai puts away her pen with an aura of hope, of love, of goodness and of humanity. She conveys to her reader that in spite of the bloodshed, the hypocrisies, the lies, the hatred, the helplessness; there still runs in the world a common thread of love, of bonding, of companionship – a softness, that no amount of human degradation can abolish.
In her perspective of India, Desai uses only Indians. All of her few characters are Indians whose behavior, dialogues and emotions help her portray an inside view of our society. The Inheritance of Loss is a must-read for book-lovers.