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.

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