The inheritance of loss

Publié le 26 Juin 2008

It took me a long time to finish The Inheritance of Loss. Not only because there has been so many things to do in the past months, but also because somehow the novel didn’t correspond to what I am at ease with, a real storyline evolving around recognisable characters, or perhaps actual characters making the story move, something like that (you can also have a look at this (negative) review). Instead, the story is brought forward through a series of touches, short chapters one after the other, none having more importance than the preceding, and the more important ones almost indistinguishable among the less important. The book starts with the “attack” of the house where all the action takes place (apart from the New York location), and you would expect this event to be given its fair dramatic importance: it is because of this attack that so many things are triggered in the story. But in fact, no. Kiran Desai just describes “the boys” who upset the inhabitants’ lives with this appellation: “the boys”. True, they’re only youths, a bunch of mere 20 year olds. But that’s not the point; what happens is told as if it had to happen, as if, dramatic or not, spectacular or not, it was preordained and nothing could change it. It is this indifference that bothered me and caused me to feel a little depressed while reading. The author doesn’t take sides: she just describes, and what happens, happens, without her judgement or opinion being called into play, seemingly.

Now I wonder whether the story itself isn’t a consequence of this attitude. Up to a certain extent, the characters are static, well, a sufficient number of them at least. What interests Desai is this stillness, this entomologists’ study of characters under her control. I’m not saying they’re not alive, mind. They are very well defined, very recognisable and realistically portrayed. It’s just that they are prisoners, they’re so powerless!  Indeed, “what binds these seemingly disparate characters is a shared historical legacy and a common experience of impotence and humiliation”, says Pankaj Mishra (The New York Times Book review), and ultimately I wonder whether they aren’t as much prisoners of the author’s own vision as of their own life situations. (We will see it’s more subtle than that!)

Here’s the story, as told excellently by Mary Whipple (

Writing with wit and perception, Desai tells the story of Sai Mistry, a young girl whose education at a convent school in India comes to an end in the mid-1980s, when she is orphaned and sent to live with her crotchety grandfather, a judge who does not want her and who offers no solace. Living in a decaying house which he no longer repairs, the grandfather considers himself a member of the aristocratic hierarchy, more British than Indian, superior to hard-working but poverty-stricken people like his cook, Nandu, whose hopes for a better life for his son are the driving force in his life.

The story of Sai, at her grandfather's house in Kalimpong, a small town in northeastern India bordering Nepal, alternates with that of Biju, the son of the cook, who is an illegal immigrant trying to find work and a better life in America. As Desai explores their aspirations, the hopes and expectations of their families, and their disconnections with their roots, she also creates vivid pictures of the friends and relatives who surround them, creating a vibrant picture of a broad cross-section of society. Uncle Potty, Sai's nearest neighbor; Father Booty, a foreigner who thinks of himself as Indian; Noni, a single woman who was once Sai's tutor, and her sister Lola, whose daughter works for the BBC; and Gyan, a young Nepalese who becomes Sai's tutor when she is in her mid-teens, are the main influences on Sai's life, providing her with her only real companionship. As the lives of all these characters also unfold in flashbacks, the reader learns of their personal struggles, their connections to a colonial past, the injustices they have suffered, and the injustices they have, in some cases, inflicted upon others. The social and political history of India is revealed subtly through the experiences of these characters.

Biju, working in a series of deadend jobs at small US restaurants, epitomizes the plight of the illegal immigrant who has no future in his own country and who must endure deplorable conditions and semi-servitude if he is to work illegally in the US. Always on the run from Immigration and often cheated by employers, Biju suffers additionally because his father, Nandu, proud that Biju is "working" in America, writes to him constantly asking him to help the children of his equally poor friends to find work in the US. Biju's friend Saeed Saeed, from Zanzibar, faces similar pressures from his family, though in his case these young men arrive at his place of work and apartment by the dozens demanding help and a place to live. His avoidance of these people provides scenes of dark humor and wit.

Sai's romance, at sixteen, with Gyan provides her with an emotional escape from Kalimpong, but it soon becomes complicated by Gyan's involvement with the Gorkha National Liberation Federation, a Nepalese independence movement which creates havoc in the community and turns neighbor against neighbor. Gyan's commitment to the insurgency offers an ironic contrast with the commitment of his family to the colonial British army in India, just as the judge's hatreds, learned in England, are ironically contrasted with his affectations of British behavior in later life.

She doesn’t tell the end of the novel, so you can still discover it for yourself: it’s a rather clever ending, in full coherence with everything else in it, and satisfies the reader well. But it’s interesting that Mary Whipple says the book is “the story of Sai Mistry”, because it isn’t. She’s only one of the characters, she’s only one of the group that interests Kiran Desai. Whole sections of the book revolve around another character, Biju, who has practically no connection with Sai at all. If the book were her story, these two would have to share a link. As readers, we have our expectations, and this is a typical expectation: we enjoy stories to be that of a central character, around which everything evolves. So much as to say, we love to identify ourselves, and we read novels with this projection of our selves in the story. I too was interested by young Sai, but sadly for me as well, she doesn’t get all the (authorial) attention one would like her to get, so to speak. For instance, we don’t know the end of her story with Gyan, who promises to get that dog for her. And anyway, as Desai writes (p.431): "Life isn't single in its purpose... or even in its direction... The simplicity of what she'd been taught wouldn't hold. Never again would she think there was but one narrative belonging only to herself, that she might create her mean little happiness and live safely within it."

The book isn’t any more the story of that old judge, nor of his cook, nor of Biju, the cook’s son, even though his story gets some sort of closure. So what is at the centre of the novel? Is it not the house? It would be a good candidate, because that’s where everything starts, where everything ends, around which everything revolves. It is the house that symbolises the colonial possessiveness which hampers progress towards an India that labours to be born. It is the house that represents the derelict state of India’s present, battling as it does between its glorious Independentist past and its future of dependence within a globalised market. “Cho Oyu”, as it is called, after the Himalayan peak (the 6th in the world, and from the house Mount Everest’s 5 peaks can be seen – the house is the sixth, so to speak) is indeed at the centre. But the problem is that precisely it is a ruin, and if the book tells its story, and along with it, that of the people that come and go in it, then it must mean that the centre is hollow, like an old tree-trunk eaten by time and ready to crumble to dust.

The book’s title, The inheritance of loss contains a clue: normally when you lose something, you don’t inherit, precisely. Inheriting is a sign of gaining. Here and there in the novel, Kiran Desai speaks directly about loss. The first instance is right at the beginning. The young heroine has just been reading an article about squids in the National Geographic, and passes in front of herself reflected in the hall mirror where mist blurs her “smothered” picture, which she kisses as she passes:

“She reached forward to imprint her lips upon the surface, a perfectly formed film star kiss. “Hello”, she said, half to herself, and half to someone else. No human had ever seen an adult giant squid alive, and though they had eyes as big as apples to scope the dark of the ocean, theirs was a solitude so profound they might never encounter another of their tribe. The melancholy of this situation washed over Sai.

Could fulfilment ever be felt as deeply as loss? Romantically she decided that love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfilment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love was the ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself.” (p. 3)

I don’t know anything about Kiran Desai’s life, but somehow this fine description strikes me as being drawn from an experience of listless solitude and waiting for a love that doesn’t come, in spite of a hope as tall as the Himalaya. Could the book be the exploration of that solitude, that broken hope? Could writing it have helped its author to pass from that thwarted expectation to a more serene, a more encompassing welcome of what life means? Focussing on others, recreating the lives and hopes of others (Jemubhai, Biju, Gyan, Lola and Noni, even Mutt the dog!), wouldn’t that represent a soul’s efforts to people its solitude and give love anyway? From that perspective, true, Sai is at the centre of the book, and the author’s efforts to shift the centre away from her would only be another sign of that centrality… Sai the giant squid, eyes open in the dark of her life, waiting for another of her tribe, and catching her tutor in one of her tentacles… I must say I like that! Because when that other one does come, in the shape of Gyan, Desai is as quick to undo the relationship, and leave the hole bare, where love becomes what she says: a lack, a loss, “everything around it but the emotion itself”.

Later in the book, while Sai is moping over her half-broken relationship, and she goes to see Uncle Potty, the drunkard neighbour who has perhaps a soft spot concerning her. This is what Desai writes when he sees that Sai is in love:

“He had anticipated this and had tried to indicate to her long before how she must look at love; it was tapestry and art, the sorrow of it, the loss of it, should be part of the intelligence, and even a sad romance would be worth more than a simple bovine happiness.” (p.334)

I suppose that for Desai, this expression “tapestry and art” means that the loss of love must be part of the greater picture of love, that love encompasses more than “the emotion itself”… But that’s a strange thought, isn’t it? For lovers, the emotion bowls over everything else, there is nothing outside it, love is the tapestry itself. But for somebody needing a love that hasn’t come, waiting for a fulfilment which grows with absence, we can understand that what is around, or behind, i.e. the tapestry, the weaving of meaning and stories, is perhaps more important than living the real thing. Art vs. life…

Let’s have a look now at this other narrative, the one dealing with Biju, the exiled cook’s son. Does it shed some light at what Kiran Desai is doing in this novel? Why is there such a separation between what happens to Sai and what happens to Biju? The fact that Desai has herself lived abroad (she’s anglo-Indian, I understand) could explain her interest for the expat’s ordeals, but to make a whole theme out of it: there’s something else. We said before that Desai’s characters are more or less all prisoners. Up to a certain extent, Biju’s one too, even if he manages to escape India and its colonialist frame of mind (but he insists that his father sent him, he doesn’t present it as what his freedom has achieved, unlike Saeed). In fact, they all try to escape, they’ve all had this dream to leave this trouble-laden India:

“When you go to America, take me along also”, said Tashi after he had sold the tourist trip to Sikkim.

“Yes, yes, I will take us all. Why not? That country has lots of room. It’s this country that is so crowded”.

“Do not worry, I am saving my money to buy a ticket, and how are you, how is your health?”Biju had written. One day his son would accomplish all that Sai’s parents had failed to do, all that the judge had failed to do.” (p. 114)

Biju goes to America to flee India - they all flee it somehow - and when they come back, India’s problems are still there, worse perhaps for them having not stayed. So they cling to memories of grandeur (the Raj), of freedom (America), of luxury (Europe), etc. and the tasks to undertake are burdened by these memories. The tasks to undertake are undertaken by the young and violent “boys” whom they do not understand. Something new and original is perhaps erupting there, but they do not see it. Kiran Desai has the rare gift of penetrating the complex of emotionality, identity, moral and historical reasoning that lies at the heart of this phenomenon of departure and return. This is how she expresses it:

"Immigration, so often presented as a heroic act, could just as easily be the opposite; that it was cowardice that led many to America; fear marked the journey, not bravery; a cockroachy desire to scuttle to where you never saw poverty, not really, never had to suffer a tug to your conscience; where you never heard the demands of servants, beggars, bankrupt relatives, and where your generosity would never be openly claimed; where by merely looking after your own wife-child-dog-yard you could feel virtuous. Experience the relief of being an unknown transplant to the locals and hide the perspective granted by journey."(p.400)

What does Biju find in New York? Another prison, another foiled dream. And what does he bring back when he returns? Less than what he had taken away with him! Loss, here again. He’s left with what loss gives, that tapestry, a certain sense of beauty, perhaps. Well, it’s a beauty that we choose to see more than he does, presumably. But the allusion to Kanchenjunga, Mount Everest, now and then in the novel, and most prominently at the end, is revealing of this elevation towards beauty:

“The five peaks of Kanchenjunga turned golden with the kind of luminous light that made you feel, if briefly, that truth was apparent. All you needed to do was to reach out and pluck it.” (p. 433)

So much for the reader: go back and read! And take your time, Kiran Desai seems to say. Even if it seems close, the mountaineer knows that what looks close might take time, a lot of time. Mount Everest was not conquered in one day.

Would The inheritance of Loss be a good choice for a movie? Sure. Even if the director would probably be tempted to romanticise it. I would love to see Konkona Sen Sharma as Sai, and perhaps Shreyas Talpade for Biju (or Rahul Bose?). I don't know if Anupam Kher would accept to play the cantankerous Jemubhai, but I'd like him to. And Gyan? Well he could be Ankur Khanna, who was not bad at all with KSS in Amu. What do you say?


PS: there's an interesting interview with Kitran Desai here on Jabberwock's site.

Rédigé par yves

Publié dans #Book reviews

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Hi Yves,Interesting blog - and very in depth analysis of your readings. I can see that you are indeed a fan of Indian culture and litterature. I was a bit disappointed by this book - although I did not go that much in detail in mt review - too time consuming I guess, but I admire people who do that!I can see that you have also read A Fine Balance - it has been on my shelves for maybe 10 years - embarassing (but what often happens with my book shopping - too ambitious compared to my time available!)I read 'Two Lives' by Vikram Seth - a very impressive book although not entirely Indian. I am still waiting to attack his masterpiece 'A Suitable Boy' but it is so huge... not that I mind the amount of pages. But not very userfriendly in the Brussels tramway!PS! Nice to have new comments - and sorry for my French!! I am a Danish native!
<br /> Hi Nille,<br /> Thanks for visiting! I'm very interested to know what you thought about Vikram Seth's book (is it somewhere on your blog? I'll have to look). Because, like you, I have also bought "A suitable boy",<br /> and had scheduled it for this summer too!! So why don't we encourage each other? I've still to finish a smaller one by Anita Desai, and then I think I start (more than 1400 pages!!)... But if you<br /> tell me that you are also starting...!<br /> <br /> BTW, I cannot recommend too warmly the reading of "A fine balance". If you have read my appreciation of it, you must have felt that it was really a monument of literature. Do you know it still<br /> haunts me, more than a year after?<br /> Cheers<br /> <br /> PS: Don't worry about the French, we'll get along well with English!<br /> <br /> <br />