From the first page the reader is struck by the extraordinary richness and brilliance of the author's imagery (though this is less consistent as the novel proceeds), and soon afterwards by the delineation the characters who are living in or near Kalimpong, under Kanchenjunga, the Himalayan peak on the border between India and Nepal. Living in an isolated house outside Kalimpong are Jemubhai Patel, a crusty, embittered and rage-filled retired judge who had withdrawn into this remote corner of India; his orphaned granddaughter Sai, for whom he needs has to provide a home and a tutor to teach her; and the judge's long-serving cook, who basks in the reflected glory of what the judge once was, and, above all, in the pride that he has a son, Biju, `working for the Americans', unaware of the menial jobs he is doing in New York as an illegal immigrant, along with the flotsam of other illegals from all over the Third World. With the exception of the cook, none of the book's main characters, especially the western-educated ones, really know where they belong when the clash of cultures becomes an issue.
For in that particular corner of India the Nepalese are the majority population, and the area is plagued by the rise and increasing activity of the Gorkha National Liberation Front with its demands for an independent Gorkhaland. Class is also an issue here. In the second half of the book, the activities of these people impinges on all the characters in the book: on the elderly middle-class and anglicised Indians in the area, but also on the unnamed poor caught between the violence of the rebels and the brutality of the police. The young are also affected: Gyan, Sai's tutor, is a poor but educated Nepali; and initially they are very much in love. One central part of the story is how Gyan becomes drawn into the liberation movement and what that does to the relationship between him and Sai.
All this could have made for a very strong story line; but around it are pages and pages which contribute nothing to the plot, but mainly paint people and places, mostly in India, but also in New York where the cook's son is working.
At the end, one strand of the story finds a moving resolution; but many other strands are left as loose ends: perhaps a symbol that for such conflicted lives as are pictured in these pages there is not likely to be a resolution.
Kiran Desai writes engagingly, and I did enjoy reading this book; but I found it rather self-indulgent, meandering, and too loosely constructed to be really satisfying. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2006, so the judges obviously did not feel the same.
Writing with wit and perception, Kiran Desai creates an elegant and thoughtful study of families, the losses each member must confront alone, and the lies each tells to make memories of the past more palatable. Sai Mistry is a young girl whose education at an Indian convent school comes to an end in the mid-1980s, when she is orphaned and sent to live with her grandfather, a judge who does not want her and who offers no solace. Living in a large, decaying house, her grandfather considers himself more British than Indian, far 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, living in Kalimpong, near India's northeast border with Nepal, alternates with that of Biju, Nandu's son, an illegal immigrant trying to find work and a better life in America. Biju, working in a series of deadend jobs, epitomizes the plight of the illegal immigrant who has no future in his own country and who endures deplorable conditions and semi-servitude working illegally in the US. As Desai explores the aspirations of Sai and Biju, 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 and revealing the social and political history of India.
Though Sai's romance, at sixteen, with Gyan, her tutor, provides her with an emotional escape from Kalimpong, it soon becomes complicated by Gyan's involvement with the Gorkha National Liberation Federation, a Nepalese independence movement which quickly becomes bloody. Gyan's commitment to the insurgency offers an ironic contrast with the commitment of his family to the colonial British army in earlier times, just as the judge's hatreds, learned in England, are ironically contrasted with his British affectations in later life.
A careful observer of behavior, with a fine eye for revealing details, Desai brings her narrative and characters to life, illustrating her themes without making moral judgments about her characters-creating neither saints nor villains, just ordinary people leading the best lives they can, using whatever resources are available. Her characters, like people from all cultures, make sacrifices for their children, behave cruelly toward people they love, reject traditional ways of life and old values, rediscover what is important to them, suffer at the hands of faceless government officials, and learn, and grow, and make decisions, sometimes ill-considered, about their lives. Dealing with all levels of society and many different cultures, Desai shows life's humor and brutality, its whimsy and harshness, and its delicate emotions and passionate commitments in a novel that is both beautiful and wise. Mary Whipple
It took a while, but I've finally finished The Inheritance of Loss. Overall, I really enjoyed it, although the first half was really hard work.
Kiran Desai starts out narrating a number of stories.
There is the life of Sai and her grandfather, the judge. Both are native Indians, living on the Nepali border, but have been of middle class stock. They have a fading grandeur: once they were influential but as chaos descends upon their part of India, they become increasingly irrelevant. Sai's maths tutor, and briefly a suitor, starts to become embarrassed by her as he becomes more involved in the Gorkha separatist movement.
There is an engaging story of Biju - the son of the judge's cook. Buji is an overstayer in the USA, working illegally in a succession of fleapit cafes along with workers from all over the world. His father, the cook, dreams that Biju is having a better life.
There are various back stories, including a Swiss cheesemaker, a pair of retired ladies of leisure, a dog and a little cat.
For the first half of the novel, it is not clear exactly what direction things are going in. I found the Biju story quite captivating, but found events in India rather disjointed and, actually, rather dull. The frequent use of Indian words, in italics bit without a great deal of context, started to become irritating and there was a sense of drift.
In the second half, though, Biju is left forgotten as events focus on the disintegration of Gorkhaland into anarchy. The westernized Indians found themselves threatened by the insurgents and unable to trust the loyalties of the police, neighbours and closest confidantes. This descent was really quite horrifying and balanced the personal detail with the general destruction to perfection. The pace picked up and plot, characterisation and detail all seemed to sharpen into focus. One was left wondering, though, why we had invested so much emotion in Biju.
The ending, when it came, was sudden and not quite satisfactory. Too many threads were left hanging and I never really understood the significance of the final events.
I thought this was a dense book - half of it brilliant - but that it fell just short of being a classic. It made an interesting contrast to Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown, which also drew on Indian civil unrest; tension between western and eastern values; and the struggle of the personal values against the epic struggle of history. I think Rushdie hit the balance more successfully and reached a more satisfying conclusion. But this shouldn't detract from what Kiran Desai gets right in Inheritance. We should celebrate the half that is a classic rather than lament the half that is not.
on 7 October 2006
Whatever Kiran Desai may have intended by choosing an ambiguous title, her novel sure establishes her foot firmly on the literary front, whether or not it was inherited from her equally talented mother - Anita Desai, to whom this book is dedicated.
The story revolves around several Indian characters, one of whom, Biju, leads the appalling life of an illegal immigrant in the downtrodden areas of New York City. All of the other main characters live in Kalimpong, a hill station in the tail of West Bengal facing Nepal and Bhutan, overlooking the second highest peak of the Himalayas, the Kanchenjunga (or is it K2?).
Sai was brought up in a Western convent in Dehra Dun, and she is a westernized Indian, much like her maternal grandfather, a retired judge, Jemubhai. Both of them are outcasts in their own nation - Jemubhai due to his conversion after his visit to Cambridge during the colonial era, and the readiness with which he absorbed the Victorian hypocrisies and colonial imperialism; and Sai, having been orphaned when she was just fourteen, and left to the mercy of a cook (who is also Biju's father) and a non-caring self-absorbed disciplinarian snob that her grandfather was.
Amidst all this, Sai falls in love with a misguided, if quixotic Nepalese guy, Gyan, who is torn apart due to his own love of Sai, and his hatred of everything that Sai represented in Indian society. We understand each character for what he or she is - their triumphs and frailties, their emotions and convictions, their principles and prejudices, and their miserable past which made their present emptier than what it was... Time stayed still in Kalimpong, despite the political turmoil that is threatening to break north east India apart, and which could do little to perturb their complicated hearts.
Kiran Desai handles several themes in this book - the colonial legacy that still dominates India, India's own multiculturalism, being an outsider in one's own country, and some painful truths about immigration to and from India. This book, unlike Hisham Matar's, makes a compelling case for fiction, for while "In the country of men" would have better worked as a non-fiction book, it is difficult to imagine the complex political and social scenes in "The inheritance of loss", and the emotional repercussions contained therein, working as a non-fiction - in fact, I came out convinced that the very task is impossible.
The prose, though beautiful, is very reminiscent of those two other brilliant Indian writers - Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. Particularly, the shifting of time, and the extension of a meagre vocabulary for an excellent story, had too much of a resemblance to "The God of Small Things."
That said, everyone must read this book, if not for its prose, but for the exploration of immense complexities of what it truly means to live in a biased and unfair globalised world.
on 14 May 2006
Taking place in New York and in India, Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss is a chaotic, maddening and fully realized slice-of-Indian life as seen through four very different protagonists. Set against a background of recurring Nepalese civil unrest and beautifully illustrating the indissoluble bonds of love and family, The Inheritance of Loss is a cautionary tale of globalization and the effects it can have on individuals and on communities.
Retired Indian Civil Service Judge "Jemu" Jemubhai lives a quiet life in Kalimpong; a small picaresque rural town nestled at the base of the Himalayas. Jemu is an aging and bitter man who has secluded himself in his ramshackle and gated compound with only his dog Mutt and his cook for company. Plagued by the mistakes of his past, Jemu is surprised to hear that Sai, his orphaned sixteen-year-old granddaughter will be coming to stay with him.
Sai is a westernized Indian brought up by English nuns. Seen as a type of "estranged Indian living in India," the arrival of Sai is a godsend to Jemu, who considers himself severely and unadulteratingly anglophile. All his life, Jemu has worked at being English with a passion; as a young man from limited means, he even went England, joining the Indian Civil Service, and returned home to live a pampered existence, exorcising a kind of colonial judgment over his own country.
Jemu's position of power has long gone, frittered away in years of misanthropy and cynicism. Now he spends his days staring at his chessboard, burning the memory of his beginnings, experiencing the sweet relief of recalling his life. In the interim, his charming granddaughter has fallen in love with her math tutor, Gyan. Gyan, born of poverty - his family's house still made of mud with a thatch roof - feels out-of-place and intimidated by Jemu and Sai's aristocratic and very English ways.
Fed up with the fact that Indian-Nepalese are being treated like the minority in a place where they are the majority, Gyan ultimately turns his back on Sai's privileged life. Intent to scream victory over oppression, Gyan raises his fist to authority, eventually connecting with a crowd of angry ethnic Nepalese insurrectionists.
Meanwhile, young Biju, the son of Jemu's cook, ekes out an existence as an undocumented immigrant in New York. Stumbling from restaurant to restaurant and from one low-paid job to another, Biju imagines what life would be like with "a sofa, TV and a bank account," as he tries to desperately to buy into the American dream.
Instead the reality is far from dreamlike, it's "a whole world of basement kitchens," living so intensely with others, only to have them disappear overnight, one giant "shadow class" of men condemned to movement, who end up leaving for other jobs, towns, are deported and return home, or change their names.
Alternating between Biju's struggle to survive in New York, and the steadily gathering insurgency of men and guns in the hills of Kalimpong, Desai portrays a world constantly on the move and on the cusp of globalization. Her characters are desperately trying to cope with a rapidly modernizing world, refusing to cast off the strictures of colonialism, struggling with loss and poverty, and with the trappings of social class.
Biju and his father's once easy relationship has become complicated by distance, the cook mistakenly believing that only Biju can help other immigrant boys survive in the United States. Jemu's nature is to cling urgently to his memories, thinking of the time he and his best friend studied in England and faced the racial taunts of classmates.
Sai and Gyan have difficulty negotiating the complications of love, friendship and their polarizing political principles. Gyan ends up judging Sai for her connivance and her loyalty to the social class she's accidentally been born into.
Desai's themes are complex and universal. Her characters are mired in a type of self-hatred, yet are also trying to create a life of meaning and pride, forced to live in a country where the English have arguably done great harm, the result of "the colonial enterprise of sticking your flag on what was not yours." And her vision is often cynical of the Indians, whom she sees as slaves, running after the West in a world where "America is in the business of buying everything up."
The Inheritance of Loss is indeed a love story between a boy and a girl, between a father and his son, and a grandfather and his granddaughter; it's where empathy and compassion often defines the quality of family relationships. More importantly, the novel is about a certain group of people who are unmoored and somewhat at a loss in the modern world, where the onset of globalization doesn't necessarily guarantee prosperity for them. Mike Leonard May 06.
on 20 March 2007
Reading the Inheritance of Loss i had an immediate feeling of deja vu - John Banville's 'the sea', seemed to deal with similar issues of loss, grief, unfulfilment, and fitting in with a strange culture. Both novels share a similar narrative voice, but overall the sea was more affecting.
Kiran Desai creates some beautiful sentences and insightful reflections, such that i found myself reading the same paragraph several times over as i basked in its glory. However, each time she creates an interesting scene, usually regarding Biju's difficulties surviving in America, she concludes the scene early before any really drama can occur. In fact the book is broken into zillions of mini-chapters which for me breaks up the unfolding drama, decreasing its overall effect.
Generally the plot is fairly non-existant. Readers of 'the Sea' or some of ian mcewans work will be familiar with this concept i.e. that the book is an exploration of pop psychology and philosophy and doesn't possess an adrenaline pumping storyline.
Overall i found it very enjoyable mainly because of the prose and its comparison of Hindi and Western culture, albeit superficially.
on 20 April 2007
I've read all but two of the Booker winners over the years and generally the standard is terrific. But every now and again the judges seem to be beguiled by a novel that not only is unlikely to stand the test of time, but seems average even just a few months after the award.
McEwan's Amsterdam is probably the worst of the lapses, but Desai's novel also disappoints. In isolation the problems are small, but their cumulative effect is to undermine the book substantially: a weak main character, Sai; a highly improbable 'radicalisation' of her boyfriend (especially disappointing as this was an opportunity to give the book an obvious contemporary relevance); a rather unlikely 'Hollywood' ending (did Desai have an eye on film rights?) that makes you wonder what happened subsequently when the father's disappointment hit home; and worst of all an author's voice which doesn't have the confidence to allow the characters and the story to make its political points, without intervening to labour them irritatingly to the reader.
To me the book read like an early and immature work from a highly promising author - which in effect it is. Desai's 'technical' skills are exemplary and I read many paragraphs over and over to enjoy her wonderful phrasing. She also conjures atmosphere of place brilliantly. But the Booker judges were really half-asleep to let these positives outweight the significant flaws in the book. A good read, maybe. A great read, absolutely not.
This is a very disappointing novel. Desai tries hard to make her writing have a political and domestic punch, to create a cast of characters both comic and tragic, to essentially use the template of the English Victorian novel to entertain and educate. Unfortunately, some of the main characters, most notably co-protagonist Sai, fail to engage the reader whilst others like her bitter grandfather and his neighbours are clichéd portrayals. Inheritance is certainly not in the league of Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy or any of Rohinton Mistry's extraordinary work such as A Fine Balance or Family Matters. The theme Desai tackles in the novel, the inability to integrate/assimilate into an alien Western world, is tremendously interesting, but only rarely does she produce a scene that addresses this with any depth or originality. The novel is at its best with the story of Biju, living and working illegally in the US; but even though what he goes through as he is preyed upon by avaricious restaurant owners looking for cheap labour is horrific, there's no psychological depth in the narrative voice to emphasis the horror of alienation and express its results. Desai just touches the surface of despair in the stories of Biju in the US and the Sai's grandfather as a university student in England. Although Inheritance is not a short book, it fails to leave the reader with anything other than a superficial brush against the important issues of racism, dislocation, assimilation and post colonialism.
on 18 January 2009
Recovering from flu, I was given this book and wondered whether I had any energy to read.. I began it, and without interruption, read it right through in two days. I emerged into a wintery British landscape with my mind swirling with pictures of Kanchenjunga, the jungles of bamboo and sunlight, and the lives of people I had not met, yet who seemed to be more real than anyone else for several succeeding days.
The language is often quite extraordinarily beautiful; phrases and concepts which cling in the memory.. and a larger world than other reviews have highlighted. Kiran Desai writes with such perception, and such a quality of observation, it is a constant delight.
It is a story which deliciously glances into the life-journeys of disparate people, but especially at the hopes surrounding Biju whose father has contrived to pay his passage to USA, in the belief he will earn his fortune, and along the way somehow find amazing jobs for any friends who manage to make the journey after him. The father is cook to the tiny household of the retired Judge and his grand-daughter Sai: born to be blamed, but illuminated by his devotion to his son. Biju, existing among rats, in a sub-world of unceasing labour, saving to afford the good life, and somehow acquire his Green Card, is totally real. There are profound observations ..'some people travel the world to become servants, others travel the world to be treated like kings'... Biju, whose subterranean life cooking in a succession of restaurants, and being short-changed by all, has no chance to learn even the name of the river running through the city he exists in! His travels have earned him something which he no longer wants, and discovers he does not value, and we accompany him through the eyes and hopes of his father, as well as through his own buoyant hopefulness, to the discovery that in the end, like Little Gidding, we end up where we started... yet never the same again.
The scenery is fabulously beautiful, breathtaking... bamboo jungles, sunlight, and the extraordinary closeness of the mountains. But the book is so well-paced that these snapshots accompany, rather than dominate, the story. As it gathers speed, there is a vivid sense of society unravelling, and the start of an almost casual destruction by over-excited young men which effortlessly becomes a murderous regime, is drawn with a light touch.
I can recommend this book wholeheartedly: in every way. And it lifted me out of the flu, onto another plateau..
on 27 March 2007
I was disappointed in this novel, which describes an isolated household living in the Himalayas, suffused with loneliness. Desai is better on landscape than character; she captures both the Himalayas and New York well. However, she does not manage to sketch the political landscape with the same lightness and surety of touch; the points Desai wants to make drive the story rather than letting the characters drive it for themselves.
That said, the sense of fear and oppression is caught reasonably well, although not a particularly enjoyable read. The New York section is by far the most successful part of the book.