Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss

One of the perils of being an opinionated so-and-so is that every now and then reality comes along and delivers a swift kick in the pants. When Kiran Desai’s first novel came out, I didn’t bother reading it. Instead, I spent my time bemoaning the fall of this last bastion to the forces of parochialism. Wasn’t it bad enough that the Nehru-Gandhi family seemed to have a stranglehold on Congress leadership. Wasn’t it troubling enough that an entire generation of young ‘actors’ (and I use the term loosely) in Indian movies seemed to have the same last names as the actors who graced the screen 20 years ago? Hadn’t we been tortured enough by the likes of Anoushka Shankar and the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of Indian Classical Music – Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash? Did we now have to be subjected to the grotesque spectacle of Indian writing being taken over by the daughter of one of our foremost novelists?

If Kiran Desai’s second novel, The Inheritance of Loss, is anything to go by, I got this completely, absolutely WRONG. (Note to self: remember Martin Amis?). I have a very high regard for Anita Desai’s writing – I consider her one of India’s finest novelists, miles better than the upstart Arundhati Roy’s of the world, for instance – so it means a lot when I say that Kiran Desai may well be more than the equal of her mother [1]. Not that their writing styles, beyond certain surface similarities, are alike. Kiran’s writing is far less poetic than that of her mother’s, and she has nowhere near her mother’s Chekhovian elegance. But if her writing is busier and less intense, it is also, perhaps, more sharply observed, more thorougly grounded. Kiran delights with details, and The Inheritance of Loss has moments of sparkling humour, of naughty playfulness, that her mother often seems too serious for.

The story of The Inheritance of Loss is far from extraordinary. The novel juxtaposes two narratives – one focussing on the lives of the old world inhabitants of remote Kalimpong, their genteel existence threatened and partly destroyed by a local insurgency; the other tracing the trials of Biju, who having left his father (an impoverished cook) behind in Kalimpong is now trying to make a living as an illegal immigrant in New York City. Couple that with the story (told through flashback) of a young man joining the ICS back in the Raj Days, and an account of the doubts and frustrations of a young man drawn into the Gurkha ‘revolution’ and you have an intricate enough plot, one that gives Desai ample opportunity to explore a number of interesting themes around (to name but a few): identity, inequality, opportunity, justice, the generation gap, the schizophrenia of the immigrant, Anglophilia, culture, the difficulty of spanning differences between people across time and space simultaneously, etc. This is less a story than a buzzing hornet’s nest of metaphor and allegory, a spider-web of counterpoint and opposition plotted out with almost mathematical accuracy. There are many fine points made in the book, and many delicious ironies, but is all seems very obvious, almost predictable. If there is one failing of the book, it is in Desai’s determination to leave no issue untouched, no point of view unrepresented (even bringing in, in a hideously ham-handed last minute inclusion, the father of a passing traveller to represent the Indian who is Not Fascinated with the West). It almost feels, at times, as if Desai is concerned that someone might accuse of her misrepresenting / under-representing one side or the other, so that she goes on adding alternate points of view, like a tyro cook adding first too much salt and then too much water to what would otherwise have been perfectly good soup.

This is, in my view, unfortunate, but it’s a testament to Desai’s talent that it doesn’t keep the book from being spectacular. What saves the book, what, in fact, elevates it beyond all this dialectic, is the fact that Desai has a rare eye for detail. It’s the small, but finely observed minutiae that make The Inheritance of Loss a superb book: the pitch perfect tone, the acuteness of observation, the psychological accuracy. Page after page, paragraph after paragraph, Desai dazzles with the exactness of her descriptions, with the shock of recognition she is able to achieve so casually. Consider the following paragraph, a minor aside to the plot, where Biju, working as a delivery guy, ends up at the house of some desi women:

‘They had a self-righteousness common to many Indian women of the English-speaking upper-educated, went out to mimosa brunches, ate their Dadi’s roti with adept fingers, donned a sari or smacked on elastic shorts for aerobics, could say “Namaste, Kusum Auntie, aayiye, baethiye, khayiye!” as easily as “Shit!”. They took to short hair quickly, were eager for Western-style romance, and happy for a traditional ceremony with lots of jewelry: green set (meaning emerald), red set (meaning ruby), white set (meaning diamond). They considered themselves uniquely positioned to lecture on a variety of topics: accounting professors on accounting, Vermonters on the fall foliage, Indians on America, Americans on India, Indians on India, Americans on America. They were poised; they were impressive; in the United States, where luckily it was still assumed that Indian women were downtrodden, they were lauded as extraordinary – which the unfortunate result of making them even more of what they already were.’

There’s more insight, and more humour, in that one paragraph, than in all of (to take but an example) Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.

In the end, then The Inheritance of Loss is not so much a story as a description of a state of being. A description that is compelling for being both expansive and accurate in ways that English writing about India’s love-hate relationship with the West has rarely been. The last time I read something that felt this precise about India, this true, was reading Rushdie. Not that Desai writes anything like Rushdie, or has anywhere near his gift for allegory, or for magic – at heart, she is a far more prosaic and unsubtle writer – but the way the throwaway details seem to fit is the same. The Inheritance of Loss is a novel worth reading not because it says anything brilliantly new – there are parts of the plot that are almost unbearably cliched – but because it says the old things that we’ve alway known so incredibly well.

What Desai gets right, I think, is the fundamental nature of infatuation – whether it be the mutual attraction of a young schoolgirl and her twenty-year old tutor, or the fascination of nations and cultures for each other. How obsession can be both unhealthy and necessary. How we can despise it, despise ourselves and others for it, but not be able to do without. How it’s about identity and greed, about duty and desire. How the damage it does is often collateral, the cracks of its engagement swallowing up those who have no part in it. How we choose to cloak our suffering and our actions in grandoise principles, in the disguise of ideology, when what really drives us is something more instinctive, more contingent. And how, in the end, what matters is not these larger landscapes of right and wrong, old and new, own and other, what counts is the human cost of all this to and fro, the possibility of losing those that we care for, or, alternatively, the slim chance that our loves might endure.

Towards the end of the book, Desai writes: “All night it would rain. It would continue, off and on, on and off, with a savagery matched only the ferocity with which the earth responded to the onslaught. Uncivilised voluptuous gree would be unleased, the town would slide down the hill. Slowly, painstakingly, like ants, men would make their paths and civilization and their wars once again, only to have it wash away”

This, then, is the point. We survive the frustration and defeat and humiliation not by rising above it, or by giving in to it, but by carrying on inspite of it. Sentimentality is a defense mechanism – we are sustained, not by ideas or status or position, but by the connections we form, inspite of ourselves, by being human. The only way to keep the sense of loss from crushing us is to find someone to share it with, someone to pass it on to.

Bottomline: Read this novel. And while you’re doing that, I will go find Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard. And read it as apologetically as I possibly can.

[1] Okay, so that’s an exaggeration, but it’s not fair to compare; and anyway, if we are comparing, we should be comparing Anita Desai’s early novels – and I might well pick The Inheritance of Loss over, say, Cry, the Peacock.