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[616] The Inheritance of Loss – Kiran Desai

loss

” In this life, he remembered again, you must stop your thoughts if you wished to remain intact, or guilt and pity would take everything from you, even yourself from yourself . . . This was why he retired. India was too messy for justice; it ended in humiliation for the person in authority. He had done his duty as far as it was any citizen’s duty to report problems to the police. ” (Ch.40, p.289)

The Inheritance of Loss has an epic, globalized outlook. From the author’s native India, caught in the chasm of rift between Nepal and India, to Harlem in New York, the exposure to the world has confused and humiliated Desai’s characters.

An aged judge, Jemubhai Patel, lives in the highlands of north India. As political and ethnic tensions between the Bengalis and the Nepalis stretch through the mountain air, the English-mannered, Cambridge-educated judge reconsiders his humble origins, his education, his career, and most ruefully, his pre-arranged marriage to a country-bumpkin wife whose dignity, he comes to realize years later, has divested.

Sai had always been calm and cultural during these months, the only time when her life in Kalimpong was granted perfect sense and she could experience the peace of knowing that communication with anyone was near impossible . . . And in this wet diarrheal season floated the feeling, loose and light, of life being a moving, dissipating thing, chilly and solitary—not anything you could grasp. (Ch.18, p.117)

The arrival of Sai, orphaned after the parents perished in an accident in Russia, where her father was trained in the Indo-USSR space program, forces the judge to examine a past life. That in Sai he sees himself makes him acquiesce to something in the past that has survived and returned. As a young Cambridge student he strives to to assimilate to the English manner, the correct his pronunciation, to strip of his accent, and to master the English decorum. Now his granddaughter is a westernized Indian brought up by English nuns, as estranged Indian living in India. In her the judge realizes the painful truth: he envies the English but loathes the Indians. He has worked at being English with the passion of hatred and for what he would become. He embodies the lopsided policy and bias of colonialism.

Oh, this country, people exclaimed, glad to fall into the usual sentences, where human life was cheap, where standards were shoddy, where stoves were badly made and cheap saris caught fire . . . (Ch.49, p.338)

The cook in the judge’s rickety mansion has a son, Biju, who eventually forms the centerpiece of the book’s complex, rather rambling story. Biju has emigrated to New York, slaves away in the dungeon kitchens of fast food outlets and restaurants. He dreams of home and hopes to return with honor.

The Inheritance of Loss, like its mystical setting in the misty highland at the foot of Himalayas, reads like a fairy tale. What binds the seemingly disparate, eccentric characters is a shared historical legacy and a common experience of impotence and humiliation. They all grapple with a world that only ever seems to admit them partially and rarely on their own terms. Desai’s prose has an uncanny flexibility and poise, juxtaposing scenarios that are funny, threatening, and tender at the same time. But the scenarios flit in time and space too often to make a point. The overall story has the potential to take reader somewhere amidst the globalized confusion of identity, motive, unrealized dreams and desires, but eventually it falls flat and settles for a complacent sense of “that’s how it is.”

358 pp. Grove Press. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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