Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

In this enchanting and hauntingly beautiful book, I have discovered in Kiran Desai what might be called the reincarnation of Salman Rushdie in female form, at least from the standpoint of prose. The magical language and drama in this wonderful book also calls to mind Arundati Roy's The God of Small Things. It should also be noted that Desai won the Man Booker Award for this novel, as did Roy for hers. At the highest level it is about what the British left behind in India and how Indians have been shortchanged - this loss has been their inheritance. It is a story about how the classes continue to struggle after colonialism. For many Indians, both at home and overseas, it seems hopeless. At the outset, the question is posited - "Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss ?" (p. 2). Perhaps this is so for only one character, revealed on the final page of the book. Dealing with issues of globalization, multiculturalism, terrorism and inequality, Pankaj Mishra wrote (2/12/06) for The New York Times "it seems the best kind of post-9/11 novel."
The story takes place in Kalimpong, in the northernmost area of West Bengal, high in the mountains under a "looming" (p. 197) Kanchenjunga, the world's 3rd tallest peak, "solid, extraordinary, a sight that for centuries had delivered men their freedom and thinned clogged human hearts to joy." (p. 277). The action is set in 1985 (p. 8) in a region with factions derived from the neighboring states of Nepal and Bhutan, and the Indian state Sikkim (formerly a sovereign country). Desai lays the political groundwork - the Indian-Nepalese "wanted their own country." (p. 9). It is important to understand the politics in order to appreciate the context of the novel. The Gorkha National Liberation Front ("GNLF") is a political party in northern West Bengal, India, formed in 1980. During the 1980s, the GNLF led an intensive and often violent campaign for the creation of a separate Gorkha state in the Nepali-speaking areas in northern West Bengal; the movement reached its peak around 1985-1986, the time frame of the book. In 1988, the GNLF signed the Darjeeling Hill Accord, which created the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in exchange for the GNLF giving up its demand for Gorkhaland for the time being.
Specifically, the book is about the lives of two adolescent Indians from very different backgrounds, Sai, the adopted granddaughter of Anglophile Judge Jemunhai Patel, a member of the Indian Civil Service ("ICS") who ultimately questions her own Anglicised lifestyle and Biju, the Judge's cook's son, who has gone to New York as an illegal immigrant, trying to make a buck in a city he never engages. Meanwhile, Sai falls in love with her Nepalese tutor, Gyan, despite being in different castes - his reciprocity is sorely tested by his obligations to the GNLF. Gyan grapples with this conundrum "how could you have any self-respect knowing that you didn't believe in anything exactly ?" (p. 260). In his black and white world, ultimately he chooses political belief over love.
As this budding romance evolves, Desai does a wondrous job exploring the adolescent girl's discovery of her own sexuality and there is a precious line describing her "plumpness jiggliness firmness softness, all coupled together in an unlikely manner, must surely give her a certain amount of bartering power ?" (p. 74).
The book is filled with oddball characters, the aristocratic Lola and her sister Noni who live at Mon Ami, a neighboring house, and the neighbors Uncle Potty (farmer and drunk) and his friend Father Booty. I commiserated with Uncle Potty's food preferences "No ghas phoos, no twigs and leaves ! said Uncle Potty firmly. He never ate anything green if he could help it." (p. 212). Along this line, Lola makes a funny comment (p. 214) attributable to her now-dead husband about "real" Chinese food. "Chinese food in China was quite another matter. A much worse matter, in fact. He described the hundred-day-old egg...buried and dug up as a delicacy, and everyone groaned with horrified delight." In my travels to China, I have learned that indigenous food is tough to swallow.
Ultimately, the GNLF wreak havoc on this small hill town, destroying everyone's lives in the process. Despite the tumult, Biju, makes the trip back home, is stripped of all his worldly possessions, but in the end reunites with his father. He is virtually the only character who remains faithful to his spiritual beliefs and avoids the emotional loss that all the other characters succumb to.
It is forgivable, but Desai goofs a few times on period culture. She uses the term "PC" (politically correct) (p. 201), which did not come into current usage until 1990. Also there is mention of a laptop (p. 285) computer at an airport scene, oops ! On language a funny coincidence, she uses the word "rictus" (p. 232) just as did Martin Amis, reviewed below.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri is perhaps best known through her novel Namesake that was made into the 2006 feature film by the fabulous director Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding). In Namesake she explores the adjustments Indian immigrants make in coming to America. Unaccustomed Earth takes it a step further and examines relations across 3 generations, taking into consideration the nuances of Indians born in the U.S. Nee Nilanjana Sudeshna, her Kingston, Rhode island, kindergarten teacher insisted on calling her the easier pet name Jhumpa. Although born in London, she considers herself American, having moved to the U.S. at age 3. Cynical readers have dubbed her an ABCD or American-Born Confused Desi, usually reserved for Indians born in the U.S. The term "desi" comes from the word "des" (homeland) in Sanskrit and Hindi; "desi" is used to mean anyone from the Indian subcontinent.
The short stories in this collection are by no means complex. In fact, for the most part, very little happens. The pleasure of the text, to quote Barthes, is in the art of the story teller, the mastery of language. Of course, the theme is always related to gender roles and the Bengali immigrant experience and letting go of culture and homeland traditions in a new world. Most of the stories take place in Boston and Cambridge. Lahiri knows the turf, as anyone who has lived in Boston will recognize the "view of the Citgo sign, draining and filling with color" (p. 214), a local icon which in a bizarre timing coincidence received mention (7/25) in the Sunday New York Times Sports Section (p. 3), since over 9,000 feet of lights were receiving brand new LEDs, 1200 feet from Fenway Park home plate. Back to the text - however, on more than one occasion she calls the Harvard Bridge the Mass Avenue Bridge (p. 281). Just an aside, but I got a kick out of a reference to Jan van Eyck's famous painting The Arnolfini Marriage, in which there appears "a convex mirror that reflected everything in the painting" (p.145). This optics riddle is the subject of a well known textbook problem on geometrical optics by Hecht and Zajac, Optics (1974 edition, p. 163).
In the eponymously titled opening story, a young married woman has made the choice to abandon her legal career, much to the consternation of her visiting father, a recent widower. The story is more about the fragility of their relationship, about what they fail to say to each other over the years. In the final scene, she inadvertently discovers a misplaced postcard addressed to her father's new found female companion, totally unbeknownst to her. All the meaningful conversations that never happened about her strained relation with her Latino husband and her father's life changes never take place, the reader must decide - Is it Indian culture or more universal ?
The best story, Hema and Kaushik, is in 3 parts. The first two parts are related through the minds of the young girl Hema and subsequently, her childhood friend Kaushik. The first part describes foremost the difference in cultural traits between two Indian families living in the same house with each other in Boston for one month, as a result of a second Indian family, far less conservative and wealthy, getting settled. Hema (six) is taken by the older boy Kaushik (nine). The second part relates Kaushik is a college student returning home for the holidays and his reaction to and resentment of his father's new Bengali wife, and his anguish over the loss of his mother to cancer. In the final part, the two protagonists have a chance meeting in Rome years later. Lahiri is a master at tempo and the reader feels the rush as the two childhood friends are reunited. Alas, Hema is on her way to Calcutta to wed a less than satisfactory mate though an arranged marriage - her tempestuous relation with her childhood friend is quenched but has no hope for survival. This part is much less about Indian cultural values and more about the general human condition. Here the author really transcends the themes that make up the earlier stories.
Charlie Rose interviewed her about the book (5/27/08) (, complimenting her on her remarkable observational powers but floors her when he paraphrases Time critic Lev Grossman, by saying that there is no human or narration suspense in her stories. Specifically, Grossman states "Lahiri's stories are grave and quiet and slow, in the 19th century manner. They don't bribe you with humor or plot twists or flashy language; they extract a steep up-front investment of time from the reader before they return their hard, dense nuggets of truth. It's difficult to quote from her stories: they refuse to sum themselves up with a neat final epiphany, and Lahiri doesn't write one-liners" (5/8/08) (

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Second Plane by Martin Amis

Son of Sir Kingsley Amis (famous English novelist), Martin Amis is known as the enfant terrible of British fiction. He is a controversial essayist as well. He is author of some of Britain's best-known modern literature, influenced by Nabokov and Bellow, and has influenced new writers such as Zadie Smith and Will Self. He is a true littérateur. This controversial book of 14 essays about 9/11 and subsequent events is culled from articles first appearing in the Guardian, The Observer, The Times, The New Yorker, and The New York Times between 2001-2007. The book was published as a reaction to Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton (fellow U. Manchester professor) accusing Amis of racism based on an interview conducted by Ginny Dougary of The Times on Sept. 9, 2006 ( This collection of published essays is loaded with insight, some of it over the top. The reader should note that these essays transgress the suicide bombings in London in July 2005.
The first essay is eponymously titled The Second Plane and was written only a few days after 9/11. The opening sentence is poignant - "It was the advent of the second plane, sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty: that was the defining moment. Until then, America thought she was witnessing nothing more serious than the worst aviation disaster in history; now she had a sense of the fantastic vehemence ranged against her." I remember turning on the TV in my office at about 9am that day and seeing the second plane in real time. Amis nails it. "It was well understood that an edifice so demonstrably comprised of concrete and steel would also become an unforgettable metaphor. The moment was the apotheosis of the postmodern era - the era of images and perceptions." Amis is well known for commenting on the absurdity of the postmodern condition. He is keenly aware of Americans' isolationism - "Various national characteristics - self-reliance, a fiercer national patriotism than any in Western Europe, an assiduous geographical incuriosity - have created a deficit of empathy for the sufferings of people far away." Later in the book (p. 53) he sees the attacks as a paradigm shift. "Paradigm-shifts open a window; and, once opened, the window will close." September 11 was instantly unrepeatable, the tactic was obsolete by 10 a.m. the same morning, witness the start of the rebellion on United 93, once passengers heard on cell phones that the twin towers had been hit. It is curious to note that United 93 was delayed by 30 minutes - had it left on time, it may have met it's White House or Capital target !
Reviewers of the book have found Amis lacking in authoritative knowledge of key areas under consideration, ironically, he engages just this topic in the second essay The Voice of the Lonely Crowd. "An unusual number of novelists chose to write some journalism about September 11 - as many journalists more or less tolerantly noted. I can tell you what these novelists were doing: they were playing for time. The so-called work in progress had been reduced, overnight, to a blue streak of autistic babble." Amis reminds us that "novelists don't normally write about what's going on; they write about what's not going on." Good one. Unfortunately, many critics felt that in the case of this book, Amis should have heeded his own advice. I can tell you words like Marfanic, sordor, rictus, and antinomian are not typical journalistic words. He disparages all religion "To be clear: an ideology is a belief system with an inadequate basis in reality; a religion is a belief system with no basis in reality whatever.....if God existed, and if he cared for humankind, he would never have given us religion." On this I could not agree more.
In The Wrong War, Amis is thinking how Bush must have reasoned, that once we launch an attack, "Then at last we will have Saddam's full cooperation in our weapons inspection, because everything we know about him suggests that he will use them all." Of course, Saddam was no friend to Islamists, particularly Shiites (Iran axis), he is "in reality, a career-long secularist - indeed an "infidel" according to bin Laden." Amis opines that Bush was more religious than Saddam ! It is ironic when Tony Blair remarks in an interview conducted by Amis how politics and religion got so intermingled in America under Bush.
Amis creates a short story, In the Palace of the End, in which many body doubles, a spoof on Saddam's public body doubles, partake in the orgiastic excesses of Palace life as well as playing a role in the torture chambers. A reviewer has noted that considerable effort has been put into offering neologisms for torture techniques. Amis introduces the reader (p. 50) in Terror and Boredom : The Dependent Mind to the term "Islamism" wherein Islam is not only a religion but also a political system and that modern Muslims must return to the roots of their religion and unite politically. Much criticism has been leveled against Amis that he is not merely an "Islamismophobe" (p.71) but an "Islamophobe" as well. In his writings his targets shift from radicals to the Muslim world at large.
In The Last Days of Muhammad Atta, he creates a constipated character who has not moved his bowels since May. When deciding what day to attack, it was suggested "Two branches, an oblique stroke, and a lollipop" (p. 103). In Iran and the Lord of Time, Amis postulates "Rule number one: no theocracy can be allowed to wield a nuclear weapon. For the Iranians, as an Israeli official put it, Mutual Assured Destruction "is not a deterrent. It's an incentive.""
Amis is greatly concerned with Muslim demographics, western women in Europe produce an average of 1.4 children (2.1 is required for maintaining the status quo), Muslim women are producing 3.5 children. He's assuming all Muslims are radical.
Hard to tell on this blog, but book cover photo is view looking up, standing between twin towers, smoke coming from the South Tower. It is a spectacular shot !