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51 of 57 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Love was the ache, the anticipation, the retreat", 14 May 2006
This review is from: The Inheritance of Loss (Hardcover)
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.
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