July 02, 2007

Kiran Desai's "The Inheritance of Loss"- The Sisyphean Task in an Indian Context?

" Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss?...Slowly, painstakingly, like ants, men would make their paths and civilization and their wars once again, only to have it wash away again..." A bleak world view amid a beauteous but smoldering setting.

Kiran Desai at thirty five is perhaps the youngest recipient of the Booker Prize with only one other novel preceding "The Inheritance of Loss". This novel took her some seven years to research and write as its story straddles between three countries: Great Britain, United States of America, and India. Ms. Desai currently resides in Brooklyn, New York, and cites her FMA from Columbia as a formative experience in her writing career. Ms. Desai left India when she was eight, lived in Great Britain for a very short time, and then moved to Massachusetts, USA where she finished her high school and the rest of her formal education. All this time her father remained in India, and she would visit him frequently. Her mother, Anita Desai, a writer herself, provided Ms. Desai with an environment that lent itself to creativity; that could perhaps explain how the character of the tree climbing hermit was born in her first novel. Also this could be why Desai, in only her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss has displayed such an elan of objectivity wherein she holds up a mirror to our conflict ridden world and lets the reader choose the reflection he wants to see in it!

The Inheritance of Loss made for some engrossing reading with its rich and poetic language, its wide range of characters entwined neatly in a complex plot line, but narrated with the ease and dexterity of a master writer. Sai, the chief protagonist holds the center stage with an apparent misanthrope for a grandfather, also her only living relative. Sai's love interest is her young and frustrated Nepalese math tutor who is unable to guage his real feelings for Sai, and in the frenzy of nationalistic propaganda, accuses her of being "like slaves...running after the West, embarrassing yourself. It's because of people like you we never get anywhere." Despite its sombre tone, the novel does provide for some comic relief with characters such as Lola and Noni, the pathetic and delusional remnants of the British Raj. There is also the melodramatic cook without a name, perhaps to bring home his insignificance in the Indian caste ladder, who lightens the atmosphere at the most unexpected moments in the story: in the midst of a terrorist take over of their bungalow where he pleads with the terrorist and turns on his ever ready faucets since "he knew instinctively how to cry", and readily admits, "I am a fool' at the terrorists reckoning. The cook has a son, Biju, an illegal immigrant in the USA, who is extremely homesick while struggling to make a near decent life in the US, only to find his "heart always in another place." The Judge, another pivotal character to the plot, is an abusive husband, a tyrant of a master, and a reluctant and cold grandfather, who in 1986, still diplays behaviour disorders resulting from his humiliation during the British Raj . Finally, there is Sai, the central character in the novel who has recently finished high school where she received a typically British colonial education and who "could speak no other language but English...could not eat with her hands; could not squat down on the ground...had never been to a temple...left a Bollwood film so exhausted...used paper to clean her botom", and she becomes the readers guide into Desai's India in "The Inheritance of Loss".

Desai's colorful cast of characters takes the reader through a medley of themes: the after effects of colonialsm, the ills of capitalism, the downside of globalization, immigration - the family and morale breaker, the myth of multiculturalism... just to name a few. As the novel progresses, the author surreptiously has the reader share the chief protagonist's understanding of life: it " wasn't single in its purpose...Never again would 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 novel with a title like "The Inheritance of Loss", could well have sunk into despondency and pessimism but for its tantalizing plot and the colorful characterization. All the characters have suffered in some major way, and though survivors of sorts, carry bleeding wounds that need healing. It is to Ms. Desai's credit that the novel reads with zest despite its hurting cast. She leaves it to the reader to decide what mood he wants to walk away with; "The five peaks of Kanchenjunga turned golden with a luminous light that made you feel, if briefly, that truth was apparent." What 'truth' is made 'apparent' here, is again for each reader to figure out for himself.

A thought provoking saga of beings who 'hurt' horribly but don't give up 'living', and the reader walks away wondering why!

16 comments:

Manas Shaikh said...

You read a lot of books, don't you?

Of course you do! :)

pRicky said...

conflict ridden world...
each time I have read these lines or heard them, I have womdered exactly what the intention behind the usage of these words may be...
Conflict makes for a good day at business... Economical overture of sorts...
So it helps someone gain and other to start to perish What I am trying to point out is that essentially its just survival of the fittest though it seems like the bully laughter...
Kiran Desai's mirrior potrays what or does it reflect?

D said...

Don't know but after reading Rushdie...all plots like this lose their novelt..still you've done a good job..will pick a copy as soon i get my salary.

EXSENO said...

So many good book reviews, I don't know where to start. You do such good reviews they make me want to buy each and every book and that's bad because I can't afford to do that.

net-net4 said...

I Me My !
I edited your comment :)
Always like your pertinent writings...
I tried to put more color but i didn't really succeed...
Promised for your next text...

samrina said...

Nice reviews, I must go for this novel "The Inheritance of Loss"...

Thanks for sharing.

Take care

lash said...

A really fascinating read. Leave apart the issues of globalisation and capitalism, at a lighter level, I loved it for the near accurate description of the north east topography. At the end of the read there is a genuine sympathy you feel for each of the characters. I had got mixed reviews before i laid my hands on this one. But considering this was her second major work, the book was beautifully written.

Dr. Deb said...

What a review you wrote. I have to order this book at once!!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Id!

I enjoyed this book so much, I found the language exquisite, the characters fascinating and best of all, it is a book that lends itself so well to discussion because the author explores so many different topics. A few friends I spoke to didn't quite share my gushy sentiments about the book because they couldn't relate to the characters nor did they fully understand what the Gorkhaland movement was all about.

I may be wrong, but I think a book like this has a fair amount of local relevance. An outsider to Indian society and history, especially North-East India, may not be able to completely recognize or appreciate many of the observations put forward in the book. I don't know I'm just thinking out loud.

nandi23 said...

you know, I started this book and stopped simply because I became annoyed with the overly descriptive language.
It is like being in a train trying to get somewhere and all of a sudden the conductor decides to turn the ride into a tour while at the same time I'm wondering if I am ever going to reach my destination.
I know that somewhere the plot will form and begin to take shape but so far all I've encountered is over description, I think that I've gotten the setting down for sure but not much else.
I've been meaning to finish this book but I've been putting it off simply because getting through the pages is tiresome, after reading this review though I'm convinced that there is a fantastic plot somewhere and I'll start back this novel soon.
Thank ID for posting

starry nights said...

Another book to place on my list.thanks for that wonderful review.

Id it is said...

nandi23,
I would agree with you about the language being excessively descriptive to the point of putting the reader off, especially one who isn't used to this kind of writing. In the USA we are taught to appreciate brevity and clarity of thought, and over the years we master it to perfection and get rewarded for doing so. Thus, we do need a little getting used to when we read the likes of Desai.hehe

Id it is said...

The following is from Raza
"Another good review- at the risk of repeating what others have said: you do have a knack of writing good book reviews..

I liked this book as the style is pretty good though a little over-worked (well well it took years to finish this 'project').

And the themes: "the after effects of colonialsm, the ills of capitalism, the downside of globalization, immigration - the family and morale breaker, the myth of multiculturalism" are just getting too familiar in this bandwagon of highly well connected English language South Asian writers. Often , I wonder if there would be a writer who would break him/herself free of this longing, political and personal masala mix!!"

Raza Rumi
7:33 AM

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Debra said...

The opening poem by Borges hooked me good, to the end, and well worth the wait. Yes, the writers uses lots of description that seems to put readers off. However, the generous detail may be an important literary tool that bolsters the theme and shows that life has many distractions to pick through in order to remain in balance and focused. Some of the distractions Kiran Desai blantantly points out are fear, love, self, position, and religion. I believe she uses a lot of description to indirectly point out the nearly infinite other distractions of life. Great read. If you liked this story and the themes and haven't read Leslia Marmon Silko's "Ceremony", do.

mohit said...

An enjoyable read The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. loved the way she wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal.