Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss springs at you with the many-splendored colours of life in the North-Eastern part of India, Kalimpong to be exact. It is tragic, comic and a dark reminder of how insurgency, extremism is threatening to wreck this once-peaceful region of India. In fact, the threat of violence looms large throughout the novel, in the very words of characters that seem to have something lacking in them, just the feeling that their lives aren’t fulfilled.
Picturesque, but crumbling Chuo Oyu is the abode where young Sai is sent to after her parents’ death to live with her grandfather, the retired judge Bomanbhai Patel, who is living out the last phase of a life of a taciturn man who during his training in Civil Service in England didn’t speak to anyone for years and has painful memories of how he mistreated his wife to death, which he is trying to atone. He had sent his wife back home where his daughter was born. This daughter, a scientist, who never met her father lived all her life in hostels married Sai’s father, an orphan, who was also a scientist. The couple then go to work in Russia where Sai was born and both her parents die leaving her grandfather as the only caretaker and relation Sai has in the world.
Sai is being tutored by Gyan, in Chuo Oyu, who being a Ghurkha is sympathetic to the Ghurkha national Liberation Front (GNLF) which is violently demanding a separate homeland in this North-Eastern region. Gyan reports to his friends that the judge has two rifles in his house and one night they come and rob the house and humiliates him and his cook. The judge and the cook have a common bond that runs back to the days when the former was a district collector in a remote area where he went hunting for patridges and would write fake entries in his diary about the number of patridges he killed, whereas the truth was that he was a poor shot and killed none.
The situation in Kalimpong is shown to be getting worse as the militancy gains ground and the sisters Noni and Lola are coerced into harbouring terrorists in their house and they even come and poach on their property, building hutments over it. There are demonstrations where Khukri knives are brandished as the GNLF men demand a separate homeland. The irony of how they masquerade for what is according to them “a noble” cause, using insurgency and murder of innocents is brought out very well by the author.
Perhaps the most potent message that the novel conveys is of how a band of youth recruited by goons can threaten peace in a sleepy and peaceful haven and is only waking up to the new realities of life. These youth are inspired by re-runs of karate movies of Jackie Chan and the violent movies of Rambo. It’s a sad reflection of modern life. The novel’s principal comment, made lucidly clear, according to this writer, is how media can corrupt the youth and sow in them the ideals of violence and mayhem, manipulated by a few misguided individuals.
The cook’s son Biju is away in the US as an illegal immigrant, working in hotels run by shady Indian characters, being paid low, working all days of the month to chase his dream. But he finds that he hasn’t made any friends, and his relations are away in India. The idea of migration is well portrayed in these sections. Biju’s and Sai’s life become the leit motif of the novel with Sai being shielded from the childhood she hasn’t had neither in the convent nor in Chuo Oyu where she is a virtual prisoner and pines away for the love of the elusive Gyan, immersed in his poverty and ideals. There is a poignant section in the book when she goes in search of her absent lover and sees the depravity in which he lives.
Biju’s life is even more of that of a prisoner of his own conscience. Though he lives in New York he hasn’t the time to see the country, lives in poverty where he has to sleep in shifts, or on the floor of the hotel he works, and even has to serve beef which he detests. His friend the philandering Saeed Saeed is a colourful character from Zanzibar who is tormented by friends referred to him from his home country, as is Biju by his father the cook from India, who recommends to him stray wastrels who want to immigrate to the US from India. These “tribes” come to US for the first time and are desperate to make a living and like Biju is willing to undergo any torment to make ends meet. The novel truly depicts their sad lives.
The good father Booty who lives with Uncle Potty is found to be an illegal alien, though he has lived all his life in Kalimpong, trying to make it into the dairy capital of India. But he is thwarted by the ever present Amul brand of the original dairy capital of India – Anand. Father Booty is sent back to Switzerland for overstaying, and Kalimpong descends into mayhem with no food available, not even bread, and is overrun by terrorists and the military.
Much speculation has gone on in the media about the portrayal of Kalimpong, of how the denizen of the town hasn’t taken kindly to its portrayal by the author. But this writer feels that the novel has a valid point to make, of how an author can use artistic licence to make his/her point though it may be somewhat in the extreme. The author is primarily writing a work of fiction and not a factual account. It is a story of imaginary characters, though the settings may be real and the world he/she creates is unreal, and hints at his/her view of the truth.
She encapsulates the essence of Indian thought and thinking in this oeuvre of vivid colours of the literary spectrum. For example when the judge loses his dog and goes around asking if anyone has seen it, and the men whisper behind his back, “Sala, he is bothered about a dog, when people are dying here.” How typical.
A definite must read, even if only for Kiran Desai’s devastating wit, charming style, and the way she keeps the pace going. Desai is an author of the new breed who use multiple question marks “???” and multiple exclamation marks, “!!!” throughout the text. I think it jars and should have been avoided. The need is for subtlety and not overt exaggeration. What I also found jarring was the intimate description of the characters including some of the disconcertingly intimate habits of the judge and that of Gyan. Was the author following a stereotype here? Don’t now. However, given the Booker Award and all the salient points the novel makes, a not to be missed novel by a true artisan of the word.