Saturday, 3 October 2009

Book of the Month: The Inheritence of Loss (Kiran Desai)

Kiran Desai published Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard a year after her fellow Indian author Arundhati Roy won the Booker for The God of the Small Things. While The God of Small Things, heavily influenced by Salman Rushdie’s novels, lived up to its pre-publicity hype—Roy, a noisy socialist, was said to have received what was then an unprecedented advance—and became a big success, Desai’s debut novel—on which, too, in the opulence and lushness of its narrative style and quirky use of Indian English, the influence of Rushdie was writ large,—enjoyed only modest success, despite critical approbation. Then Desai went into a long hibernation, and one wondered whether the author who had shown so much promise in her engaging, and at times hilarious, novel was going to turn out to be a one-book wonder. Eight years later she published The Inheritance of Loss, and, like Junot Diaz—who won several awards, the Pulitzer amongst them, for The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which was published fourteen years after his first literary offering, Drown, a superb collection of short stories that heralded the arrival of a major talent—, bagged a prestigious award (the Man Booker).

The canvas of The Inheritance of Loss is vast: the story takes place over two continents—India and America—, spans two—no, make it three—generations of a family, and has, as its backdrop, the political unrest in the North-East of India—the agitation of the Ghurkhas (who have a country of their own, Nepal, but also have a sizeable presence in the East and North-East of India) for a separate state in the Indian Federation—in the 1980s. The story has two threads, indeed, one might say the novel has two stories within it, which are only tenuously linked.

In the foreground of the novel is Sai, Desai’s 17 year old protagonist, who arrives at the doorstep of her curmudgeonly maternal grandfather, Jemubhai, a Cambridge educated retired judge, who is quietly festering in a crumbling mansion in Kalimpong, a misty hill-station in the North-East of India, from where one can see the majestic ‘Kanchanjunga’ (Kalimpong is not an imaginary place; it is a town nestling in the lower Himalayas, in the Indian state of West Bengal). Life is not exactly a bed of roses for the poor Sai, both her parents having perished in an accident in Russia. This means that she has to leave the convent where she has been incarcerated, as her parents were stationed out of India. If Sai heaved a sigh of relief as she is rescued from the clutches of the sadistic, mildly deranged nuns at the convent, and expected some TLC from her grandfather, whom she has never met before, it is too soon; disappointment is in store for the orphan. Jemubhai is a surly, embittered misanthrope, who has love—inasmuch as he is capable of experiencing love—only for his dog, Mutt, whom he treats with more affection than his loyal cook, who has worked for him for decades. Moreover, Sai should have known: Jemubhai had disinherited his daughter, Sai’s mother, years ago for marrying a non-Hindu, and had never set eyes on his only grandchild before. The life for Sai, in the decaying mansion where her grandfather barely acknowledges her existence, is as bleak and depressing, though perhaps not as regimental, as it was in the dreadful convent. It is not really a surprise, then, that she develops a crush on Gyan, her Nepalese tutor, who is only a couple of years older than her and whose family has lived in Kalimpong for several generations. However Gyan and Sai’s nascent romance is about to be rifted, as the region (and, with it, the town of Kalimpong) is buffeted by the violent protests of the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front (GNLF), which is demanding a separate state for the Nepalis. The judge’s home gets a taste of what is in store when a group of GNLF ‘bandits’, barely out of their teens, raid the house and take away the judge’s rifles. Gyan, tied to the history of his people, feels obliged to rally for the cause of the GNLF, even though he has doubts in his mind about their methods. The cook, meanwhile, has pinned all his hopes on his son Biju, who has been living in America for the past two years. Biju is an illegal immigrant, leading a shadowy existence along with other illegal immigrants from different nationalities in the loathsome basement kitchens of various restaurants and, inevitably, getting exploited—low wages, abysmal living conditions, very long working hours, no holiday, and no insurance if he becomes unwell. Biju’s struggle to better his life is ceaseless but futile, and, for that reason, heartbreaking. The story of Biju and his dismal, cheerless life in America is the other major thread of the story. The narrative flits between Kalimpong and America; however, the two threads never really meet, and the reader may wonder, as he glides on Desai’s sometime-languid-sometime quirky-prose, where it is leading. The denouement, however, comprising as it does betrayal, retribution, and (bizarrely) hope, is surprisingly creditable.

In an interview, Desai confessed that the novel was inspired, at least in part, by her own experience as an immigrant, someone who travelled between the East (India) and the West (America). As she began writing, she realised that she could not restrict the novel to her own experience, and the experiences of her parents as well as grandparents, all of whom had travelled between the East and the West, were included. However, The Inheritance of Loss is not a thinly veiled memoir. What Desai has also covered, and very effectively, in the story of Biju, is the journeys of the people who do not fit into the globalization, and end up leading shadow lives. Via the unassuming, meagrely gifted Biju, Desai shows that under the shiny patina of globalization things are as they have always been for decades; nothing has changed—the power imbalance, poverty, hate between nations still exist. The experience of being displaced, of being in exile, and how the unmoored, the unhinged, have the cri decoeur—it is not just Biju, in a foreign land and culture, who feels dislocated; Jemubhai, living the last years of his life in the country of his birth, and the Nepalese, Gyan, whose two generations have lived in India, feel alienated—of wanting to belong, to connect, is at the heart of the novel.

The Inheritance of Loss is also remarkable for its vividly evocative descriptions of nature and landscape. Barely a page passes without Desai waxing eloquent on the details of the quotidian, and attempting to make it enchanting. Overall, it works well, although at times such passages have an over-refined, contrived air about them. At other times, Desai’s writing becomes exuberantly convivial. The prose, thus, does not have a settled rhythm to it, alternate as it does between linguistic hijinks and languid, soft gentleness. That is not necessarily a drawback, though.

The Inheritance of Loss is a hugely ambitious novel. Moving across eras and continents, Desai tackles big themes. However, the novel is not just about abstract ideas; it is also strong on, and offers all the pleasures of, a riveting plot in a form that is very reassured. Kiran Desai dedicated The Inheritance of Loss to her mother, the celebrated author Anita Desai, who has the dubious distinction of being nominated for the Booker prize three times, only to be piped at the post on each occasion. The Inheritance of Loss is a worthy winner and Anita Desai can be justifiably proud of her daughter’s achievement. Kiran Desai has oodles of talent; one hopes that we do not have to wait for eight years for her next offering.