Top positive review
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A Bit Difficult to Follow but Hang in There
on 5 September 2008
Kiran Desai's Inheritance of Loss had me by page 5. The novel is set in New York and in a picturesque Indian town near the India-Nepal border. The main characters are Sai, a 16-year old girl, who lives with her grumpy grandfather, a retired judge in India and Biju, the son of the Judge's cook, who is an illegal immigrant in New York.
The Judge, an impossibly difficult man, was once quite affluent but has fallen on hard times. The villa in which he resides is proof of his former affluence. His cook, on the other hand, has always been poor. His only hope to gain wealth is his son Biju, who has overstayed his tourist visa in the US. Biju, however, goes from bad luck to misfortune in his pursuit of the American dream. He cannot hold down a simple waiting job in New York and therefore has to sleep rough in New York to survive. However, as he navigates the dark underbelly of American urban life, his naive racial prejudices are challenged every step of the way. He meets and befriends a black man (also an illegal) from Tanzania, who seems to have gotten a "hang" of New York.
Meanwhile, back in India, Sai falls desperately in love with her Math teacher who happens to be Nepali. In class (and colour) conscious India, this relationship was doomed from the start. Furthermore, there is increasing social unrest from ethnic Nepalis clamouring for a homeland. Matters reach a head when the Judge is robbed at gun point by two Nepalese insurgents.
The novel concludes with Biju's homecoming. After spending 3 years in the US, the hapless Biju decides to return to India. Before reaching his village, he is robbed of all the money he has saved and has to walk home in a female night dress. Sad but very funny ending.
To be sure, The Inheritance of Loss has its flaws. The Judge, as educated as he is, is a cruel, cold and insecure man. He seems intent on meting out all his feelings of inferiority to everyone else. The Judge changed after 4 years at Cambridge. He seemed to have lost all connection to his native land after a brief spell in the UK. How plausible is this? Sai seems too clever by half for a 16 year old and the cook plays the stereotypical duplicitous and yet fawning `native' servant. Sai's Math teacher seemed to change overnight from a pliant student to a dyed-in-the-wool Nepali Nationalist. The change occurred so suddenly that it is difficult to believe.
However, the pace of the novel is fast and its examination of class in Indian society is poignant. I read the book while on vacation in Cuba and though the beach in Cuba was gorgeous, I could not wait to return to the novel after a dip in the sea. To my mind, the Inheritance of Loss lives up to the Booker Prize much like another favourite of mine, Arundhati Roy's God of Small Things. It deserves my 4 stars.