Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Inheritance of loss - a review

There is an undeniable vein of cruelty and regret that is peppered all over Kiran Desai’s Man Booker Prize winning novel ‘Inheritance of loss’. It not only showcases human vulnerability in those moments but also highlights a wide range of issues that seem so relevant in today’s apocalyptically poised world of a million worries. Everything from shifting globalization, economic divides, displacement, post colonial effects on a nation, terrorism and that oh-so-familiar thread of jingoistic ownership is brightly highlighted in the story. A theme, I thought, most recognizable given the black and white we witness in each tabloid spill.

The tale opens with Sai, an orphaned teenage girl, moving to her UK educated grandfather Jemubhai Popatlal Patel (a retired judge) in Kalimpong at the foothills of the Kanchengunga. She is in love with her Nepalese tutor Gyan. Staying with the judge and Sai is the cook whose son Biju is in New York, working and existing as an illegal immigrant in various desi and American outfits.

The core of the story runs in two parallel segments. One, that of the judge and Sai and their life in Kalimpong which is on the verge of a Gorkhali insurgency in demand for a separate state for themselves – Gorkhaland. The second strand is that of Biju and his encounters with the ever illusive ‘American dream’ far away in the chaotic and detached Big Apple. While Biju is busy moving from one menial job to another, the cook is proud of his ‘Amreeki’ son and continues to write to him requesting him to find similar glory for his friends and acquaintances. A habit Biju has a very hard time making his father realize as being a counter-productive exercise for someone as volatile as him.

Sai’s entry into his life forces Patel, the judge, to reflect upon certain dirty facts about his own past. As a young chap who had set sail to Cambridge University, Patel has his personal collection of bitter memories from that stint. Racial abuse, humiliation and blatant disregard to and the intense damage to his self esteem continues to haunt the judge. This, despite his achievements as a government official in Independent India. This throbbing vein of cruelty that was meted against him erupts in an endless barrage of rape, abuse and disrespect for his young wife – Nimi – who ends up becoming the victim of Patel’s immense hate for the West and everything related to it. A hate that is the result of consistent neglect and nonchalant shame.

"...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 prefer shadow to light, faded days to sunny, for he was suspicious that sunlight might reveal him, in his hideousness, all too clearly.

There are also a string of second level characters in the book – the Anglophile sisters Lola and Noni; Father Booty, a Swiss national residing, as is later known, illegally in India and Uncle Potty – an incorrigible drunk who finds his solutions at the bottom of the bottle – who contribute to the goings on in their very well defined personalities.

The book discusses a wide range of issues that we, as Indians, should be able to identify with. The disintegration of the moral compass, the obviously visible corruption of our governing systems, and the infinite seeming struggle of the common man to achieve that one ounce of common peace – all of this mushrooms around the characters and their journeys.

Having read a lot of Rushdie, I could not help but find similarities in the way Desai stitches her narratives. I remember mentioning in my reviews of Rushdie’s work, how he enjoys running sentences. This is more evident in Desai’s work than any other I have read so far. Something as simple as a boy getting ready for a challenging day of learning and knowledge at school is described in one lengthy paragraph!

"..Fed he was, to surfeit. Each day, he was given a tumbler of fresh milk sequined with golden fat. His mother held the tumbler to his lips, lowering it only when empty, so he reemerged like a whale from the sea, heaving for breath. Stomach full of cream, mind full of study, camphor hung in a tiny bag about his neck to divert illness; the entire package was prayed over and thumb-printed red and yellow with tika marks. He was taken to school on the back of his father's bicycle."

But despite this attempt to appear as a clear devotee of Rushdie’s style, there also exist some masterpiece of lines that hold your attention to the narrative with the sheer brilliance of their execution.

"He retreated into a solitude that grew in weight day by day. The solitude became a habit, the habit became the man, and it crushed him into a shadow. But shadows, after all, create their own unease, and despite his attempts to hide, he merely emphasised something that unsettled others. For entire days nobody spoke to him at all, his throat jammed with words unuttered, his heart and mind turned into blunt aching things."

"…; a banana that in the course of the journey had been slain by heat. No fruit dies so vile and offensive a death as the banana, but it had been packed just in case."

"Romantically she decided that love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love was the ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself."

Despite the very obvious political backdrop such as this, I never thought the novel was political at all in the way it showcased its characters. It came off more as an image of the effects commoners have to go through caught in the middle of such strife. What did become clear was Desai’s view of how everything Western isn’t actually the way to progress. Her skepticism of the West is clear in many extracts that discuss the anglophile sisters Lola and Noni and their ‘sanitized elegance’.

Desai’s point is driven home by her conclusive attempt at examining how post-colonial rule has done more harm than good in the developing nations. Her lines like “in its meanest form, brand-new one day, in ruin the next." seems like the perfect way to describe the disastrous mess that India can be considered sometimes. It could be because of this conclusion that Biju is subjected to a direct wave of rage and fury, an emotion he was quite remotely located from in New York, his first day back home. Desai suggests, that for folks like him and others caught in the same puddle of uncertainty, escape is not an option. And as Sai concludes…

"Never again could she think there was but one narrative and that this narrative belonged only to herself, that she might create her own mean little happiness and live safely within it."

Desai’s artistic expression cannot be denied in ‘The inheritance of loss’ despite the oddities that she highlights. The underlying effect of western influence of civilizations such as India is a painful truth we are made to acknowledge. And for this, I would definitely recommend a read.

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1 reflections:

rohit 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.