Gurney's Inn
January 03, 2007

Between The Covers

The Inheritance of Loss, the 2006 winner of the prestigious Man Booker award for best novel written by an author in the English-speaking world, has been garnering great reviews, though some may say that its capturing the golden ring was due as much, or perhaps more, to its post-colonial subject matter as to its literary merits, thus continuing the controversy about political correctness and diversity that has surrounded the Booker in recent years.

Regardless, The Inheritance of Loss is a complex and unsettling novel about matters many Westerners, transplanted Indians and tourists photographing India's "picturesque poverty" prefer not to think about — the seemingly insurmountable divide of class in the third world and the inescapable legacy of alienation. Independent since 1947, India now implodes, as different ethnicities turn on one another — Bentali, Lepcha, Tibetan, Sikkimese, Bihari, Marwari, Nepali, Hindus, Christians, agnostics, "or whatever else [is] in the mess," as a character in Desai's novel remarks.

Set mainly in northern India in the mid '80s, a time of rising violence (including the assassination of Indira Ghandi and rioting by the Nepali Gorkha National Liberation Front), The Inheritance of Loss not only explores the psychological effects of political insurgency, it resonates as a timely depiction of U.S. immigration policies that generate horrors for both legal and illegal Indian exiles.

It also presents a love story between a sheltered 16-year-old and her mathematics tutor that moves from tenderness and joy to betrayal and violence. If the novel is not the most moving of contemporary fiction (plot and character yield too easily to setting and theme), it is for sure a memorable portrayal of the thwarted promises of upward mobility and a sobering picture of the inevitable ambiguities of assimilation.

The Indian-born author (35), now a resident of Brooklyn, readily admits to autobiographical prompts in the narrative and joyfully acknowledges the influence of her mother, Anita Desai, a well regarded novelist and a three-time Booker finalist. This, Kiran Desai's second book (the first, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard won much praise), took several years to finish and conveys her thoughts about how love and identity politics play out for Indians, regardless of their geographical origin, class or immigration status.

Her portrait of a young illegal who lives in rat-infested New York is particularly devastating. She is unsparing in her regard of Western (particularly American) influence. "In this country, Dad," yells a rebellious young woman, "nobody's going to wipe your ass for free." No one, however, is more fascinatingly complex in the novel than Jemu, the Cambridge-educated Indian judge who worked at being English in a "passion of hatred," with the result that "he would be despised by absolutely everyone, English and Indians, both."

Sent back to India to become an itinerant civil servant in the north, with his white curly wig and dark face covered with powder, the up-from-poverty new aristocrat brings down his gavel "always against the native, in a world that was still colonial." Although he understood that using English as opposed to Indian dialect "provided distance and kept the heart intact," he underestimated the extent of his own emerging hostility. He hardens, hates his chosen wife, and is able to love only a beloved dog.

Desai's four central characters are unforgettable. In addition to the judge, there is his orphaned granddaughter, Sai, who came to live with him when she was nine, his longtime cook, and the cook's son, Biju, who sneaks back and forth to America, ever in pursuit of the elusive green card. Unlike Bulgarians, Irish, Malagasys, Indians are consistently turned down, so they forge and steal.

Minor characters also signify confusion and denial, including two elderly Anglophile Indian sisters, a priest, and the 20-year-old impoverished Gyan who comes to tutor Sai in the judge's once-glorious, now run-down, house in Kalimpong, at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas. Desai's ear is perfect, as she recreates different speaking styles. Upper class Indians, for instance, use English with one another, Hindi or Urdu with their servants.

She also captures what to Western ears seems a stilted and strained metaphoric style, as in a young man's observation of a chicken running away from imitative clucking: it "flustered in the endearing way of a plain girl, shy and convinced of the attractions of virtue." Native words remain untranslated, augmenting the sense of authenticity, though Desai's occasional use of typographical graphics for emphasis is unnecessary.

It's a complicated interweaving of characters and their stories that Desai offers up, though there is no doubt that they contribute to Sai's last comment: "Never again could she think there was but one narrative and that narrative belonged only to herself, that she might create her own mean little happiness and live safely within it."

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. Grove Atlantic, 357 pp., $14.

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