The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai [A Review]

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai explores burdensome themes of cultural and national identity and the immigrant experience, but does so with an easy technique that makes for effortless reading. Winner of the 2006 Booker Prize, its relevance has only grown over the years.

Cover image of The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Three people live together in an old mansion in the far north of India near the border with Nepal. Overlooked by Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain, their home is falling apart; the store-room floor has collapsed, the walls have become swollen with moisture and there is no water in the tanks to flush the toilets.

The owner of the house is a retired Judge, Justice Jemubhai Patel. His father had run a successful business procuring false witnesses for court cases. When Jemu’s intelligence becomes apparent at school, his education is given priority. Both father and son dream of his entering the Civil Service, of gaming the judicial system from above and below. But unable to afford a university education in England, his father seeks a bride for his son with a dowry large enough to fund it. In 1939, aged twenty and just a month married to a fourteen-year-old wife, he made the long journey from India to Cambridge to study.

His time in England seems to have been transformative. Acutely aware of his foreignness, mocked for his accent, he stays isolated and retreats into himself, apparently feeling a profound shame at his difference. But with a friend’s help, he discovers England and Englishness. When he returns to India his new tone is proud and superior. As he rises through the ranks of the justice system, he enjoys the power he holds over the social classes that once kept his family down and the new opportunities left by the departing British. In his retirement, he remains cantankerous and oblivious to the decay around him.

Thus it was that the judge eventually took revenge on his early confusions, his embarrassment gloved in something called “keeping up standards,” his accent behind a mask of quiet. He found he began to be mistaken for something he wasn’t – a man of dignity. This accidental poise became more important than any other thing. He envied the English. He loathed Indians. He worked at being English with the passion of hatred and for what he would become, he would be despised by absolutely everyone, English and Indians, both.

Sai has been living in the house for nine years and it has probably become the only home she has known. Her father, a pilot, was recruited from the Indian Air Force for the Intercosmos Program during the period of friendship between the Indian and Soviet governments. Sai’s parents put her in a convent, aged six, when they moved to Russia where they died two years later in an accident, leaving Sai an orphan. On her parent’s death, the convent sent Sai to live with her grandfather, the Judge. Now seventeen-years old, Sai is slowly falling in love with her tutor, Gyan, an ethnic Nepali.

The cook is the only one of the Judge’s servants who has stood by him. As a young man lacking experience, his father had to cajole the Judge into hiring him. At the time, it was seen as a step down; previous generations of his family had served only white men. Now, many years since, the cook feels compelled to invent stories of the Judge’s former grandeur so as to not feel ashamed around the other servants in town. A widower for seventeen years now, he sells homebrew on the side to supplement his meagre income and to support his son, Biju, now living in New York.

Biju’s life in New York is not the romantic dream of opportunity his father imagines it to be. Selling hot dogs, Biju has to find a new job when his manager has to do a Green Card check. It will probably mean moving on to yet another low paid food service job. The restaurants of New York serve fine American and European food prepared by a largely immigrant kitchen crew, many of whom are South Asian and there illegally.

Biju’s life in New York is littered with moments that may cause him to pause, reflect and wonder just what he is doing there – his revulsion for the Dominican prostitutes, a fight with a Pakistani co-worker that costs both of them their jobs, the humiliation of delivering Chinese food to rich Indian girls in New York to study. But the diversity of the Asian immigrants he encounters, and the requirements of his work, also force him to re-examine the preconceptions he has around religion, nationality and identity.

But here there were Indians eating beef. Indian bankers. Chomp chomp. He fixed them with a concentrated look of meaning as he cleared the plates. They saw it. They knew. He knew. They knew he knew. They pretended they didn’t know he knew. They looked away. He took on a sneering look. But they could afford not to notice. […]

Holy cow unholy cow.

Job no job.

One should not give up one’s religion, the principle of one’s parents and their parents before them. No, no matter what.

You had to live according to something. You had to find your dignity. The meat charred on the grill, the blood beaded on the surface, and then the blood also began to bubble and boil.

Those who could see a difference between a holy cow and an unholy cow would win.

Those who couldn’t see it would lose.

Before long, he finds himself yearning for India. But it may not be an India he remembers. In the region where his father is also an underpaid, unrespected, food worker, there is a growing insurgency gathering arms. India’s Prime Minister was assassinated the year before and there is a feeling the country is being torn apart.   

With a cantankerous old judge, his loyal cook and his estranged granddaughter, hardly speaking to each other, their pasts unknown to the reader; living in a dilapidated mansion in the Himalayan foothills of Northern India, as the main setting; The Inheritance of Loss opens with the haunting feel of an Indian Wuthering Heights. The style of the writing in The Inheritance of Loss is difficult to describe and a little enigmatic. The writing is teeming with tiny details, observations and anecdotes that conjure an intimate knowledge and give it the ring of truth. Though it contains moments of humour, its best moments are the sad ones that readers, especially those who have their own experiences of its themes, will empathise with. And, though its themes are complex, without easy solution for those who appreciate them, Desai engages with them in short segments within short chapters that make for an easy-to-read book containing burdensome ideas.

It is as if, rather than plunging a knife and rapidly exposing the bloody insides in a shocking and graphic way, Desai has achieved the same exposure of unsettling themes with the rapid application of light scratches. You think it is only the surface until you see it has all come away.

Those insoluble themes, to put them too simply, are of cultural identity and the immigrant experience. The judge, for example, experiences intense shame for his identity in England which spurs him to become Westernised and returns to India rather superior about it. Yet, it is difficult to say why this transformation should have occurred. Rather than the result of experience of ill-treatment, the judge’s shame mostly seems to be an internal manifestation inspired by his own insecurities.

Thus Jemubhai’s mind had begun to warp; her grew stranger to himself than he was to those around him, found his own skin odd-coloured, his own accent peculiar. He forgot how to laugh, could barely manage to lift his lips in a smile, and if he ever did, he held his hand over his mouth, because he couldn’t bear anyone to see his gums, his teeth. They seemed too private. In fact, he could barely let any of himself peep out of his clothes for fear of giving offence. He began to wash obsessively, concerned he would be accused of smelling […] To the end of his life, he would never be seen without socks and shoes and would prefer shadow to light, faded days to sunny, for he was suspicious that sunlight might reveal him, in his hideousness, all too clearly.

Much has changed in the West by the time Biju experiences it. Although now much more of a melting pot, unlike the Judge’s immigrant experience, Biju does not seem to have any opportunity to assimilate and become Western, though it is unclear whether he would take such an opportunity. Nor does he seem to desire any affinity with the other Asian immigrants he knows and works with, some of whom do take the opportunities towards assimilation and citizenship. Instead, Biju’s experiences not only make him yearn for his homeland but also inspire a desire to refine and clarify the kind of Indian he sees himself as being.

Also searching for cultural ‘purity’ is Gyan. Though his family came to India from Nepal generations ago, Gyan begins to wonder if true equality is ever really on offer for him, or whether he and his family will always be treated as outsiders in India. Inspired by the recent insurgency, Gyan wants to turn around his family’s unrequited quest for acceptance and embrace his ancestral ethnicity. Through Gyan and other characters, The Inheritance of Loss draws connections between the experiences of Indian immigrants in the West and immigrants to India, over a century.

But these individual characters and the experiences that challenge and inform their sense of identity are small participants in a much larger question posed by the novel – who is an ‘Indian’? While many modern nations, especially European ones, can be said to represent terrestrial boundaries enclosing a people who largely share a common language, history, culture, religion or ethnicity, albeit determined only after centuries of nearly constant war and one that is continually evolving; the modern Indian state, it could be argued, lies at another extreme of a territory whose boundaries contain an enormous level of diversity impossible to reduce to a unifying definition. Repeated failures to decide on a national language, of an all-inclusive definition of Hinduism, as well as sporadic threats of regional secession; are but small indicators of a large and bewildering question.

What was a country but the idea of it? She thought of India as a concept, a hope, a desire. How often could you attack it before it crumbled? To undo something took practice; it was a dark art and they were perfecting it. With each argument the next would be easier, would become a compulsive act, and like wrecking a marriage, it would become impossible to keep away, to stop picking at wounds even if the wounds were your own.

While through much of The Inheritance of Loss, the reader learns the past stories of the characters and how they came to be together, it should not be forgotten where they are. The experience of leaving India forced both the judge and Biju to confront their sense of identity in a way they never questioned when in India, but did they really need to leave the country to have that experience? The Himalayan foothills where the judge now lives is a landscape, a climate and a culture not easily recognisable as what most people think of as ‘Indian’, nor are the ethnicities that populate it. There, the characters are also in the midst of an armed insurgency whose recruits are fighting with the aim of realising their own country. The Judge and Biju’s experiences outside of India made them consider their identity and what it meant to them for the first time but perhaps only in terms of non-Indians and a foreign environment. For the Judge and Biju, the question of who is an Indian is perhaps less confronting but more uncertain within India. But from Gyan’s perspective, there must be an answer to the question since it appears to exclude him. The elusiveness of the answer is moot.

The Inheritance of Loss won the Booker Prize in 2006. It received glowing reviews from a several publications and other authors, including being well regarded by other Booker Prize winners, namely Salman Rushdie and Marlon James. My impression though, is that regular readers were less enthusiastic about the novel and its win.

While I admire some of the technical aspects of the novel; its style and how it constructs its perspective of its themes, giving a pensive reader like me much to think about; overall I would have to agree with those who felt it was not the most entertaining read for all its other accomplishments. The Inheritance of Loss certainly has empathy and wisdom, but what else? The novel feels like a mural, pieced together to create an impressive whole, but I felt it did not contain enough story. It lacked a bit of intrigue, a mystery, a quest, to push the narrative forward. Without that, its enigmatic style can feel difficult, even a little pretentious. As you read, you sense a tragedy brewing, but I did not feel invested in the characters enough to feel anxious for them. It is not usual for me to feel this way. I will often favour the more literary for the more entertaining, but I think The Inheritance of Loss pushed me a little too far in that direction. And maybe that is unfair. Novels should not be restrained by familiar plot types, structures and styles even if certain ones keep emerging as reader’s favourites.

I am unsure what to make of its Booker win. The Inheritance of Loss was apparently not one of the favourites to win, which included The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, The Sacred Rived by Kate Grenville and Black Swan Green by David Mitchell amongst some other familiar writers. I have not read any others from that year for comparison and only Black Swan Green is currently in my future reading plans. The Inheritance of Loss won’t be among the Booker Winners I’ve enjoyed the most; it is about in the middle of that pack. I did like it better than most of the Short Listers and Long Listers I have read. And, the more I think about its themes and how it explored them, the fact that many of these themes are, if anything, gaining in relevance; the more I can’t help admiring it.

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