Keiran Desai’s novel The Inheritance of Loss was a controversial winner of the Booker Prize in 2006. The controversy had nothing to do with the fact she had been considered an outsider for the prize or that some critics were less than enamoured with her book. The issue was one of setting and in particular how she had represented the community of Kalimpong, a town in the Himalayas. The town’s residents were outraged at her depiction of a 1980s bloody and chaotic rebellion by the ethnic Nepalese inhabitants. Kiran Desai was accused of including “condescending statements” and portraying the Nepalese as little better than criminals, thieves and fools. Calls were made to burn or ban her book.
It’s true that Kiran Desai doesn’t paint her Nepal characters in a very positive light. But then she doesn’t seem to have sympathy for most of the people in her novel. We encounter over-privileged Indians who try to adopt a mantel of culture by using English terms and mannerisms, English settlers who are racist and desperately cling to the past and ignorant tourists who use the most desperate hovels to add authenticity to their holiday snaps while ignoring the poverty under their noses. Nearly every character becomes humiliated and in turn humiliates others. It’s an unflinching, unsentimental portrayal of what happens when people lose their way.
The focal point is a crumbling, isolated house at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga , the third highest mountain in the Himalayas. It’s occupied by a cranky retired judge and his orphaned granddaughter, Sai. They have few acquaintances other than a Swiss priest Father Potty and two anglophone sisters. Lacking the knowledge or ability to provide the love and warmth his granddaughter needs, the judge hands over her care to the cook and her education to Gyan, a young Nepali maths tutor. Their burgeoning romance is throttled almost at its birth when insurgency erupts in the mountains and Gyan is swept along in the demands for Ghorka independence.
Woven into this story is another thread about the cook’s son Biju who wants to make a new life outside of India. He joins a cruise ship which deposits him in New York. While his father imagines his son is on his way to a successful and lucrative career in catering, the reality is that Biju is an illegal worker, sweating a living in filthy rat-infested basement kitchens around New York. Coming into contact with other illegals his eyes are opened to what the world really thinks of his proud nation:
From other kitchens, he was learning what the world thought of Indians:
In Tanzania,if they could, they would throw them out like they did in Uganda.
In Madagascar, if they could, they would throw them out.
In Nigeria, if they could, they would throw them out.
In Fiji, if they could, they would throw them out.
In China, they hate them.
In Hong Kong.
They don’t like them.
In Guadeloupe — they love us there?
These stories of loss and guilt are told with varying success. Desai’s prose seems to work best when she is dealing with a setting, whether it’s the beauty of the Himalayas or the grime of New York’s lower class restaurants. At the beginning we get a vivid picture of the judge’s decaying mansion, used as a metaphor for the disintegration of the old social order. Built on a site chosen “for a view that could die the human heart to spiritual heights” it was once the epitome of high class workmanship and style. But now the roof leaks, fungus grows in many of the rooms and the plumbing is held together with bamboo splints and rubber bands. Even the robbers who come creeping over the grass in search of guns are shocked by its shabbiness.
Their noses wrinkled from the gamy mouse stench of a small place, although the ceiling had the rect of public monument and the rooms were spacious in the old manner of wealth, windows placed for snow views. They peered at a certificate issued by Cambridge University that had almost vanished into an overlay of brown stains blooming upon walls that had swelled with moisture and billowed forth like sails. The storeroom supplies and what seemed like an unreasonable number of emptied tuna fish cans had been piled on a broken Ping-Pong table in the kitchen, and only a corner of the kitchen was used since it was meant originally for the slaving minions not the one left over servant.
‘House needs a lot of repairs,’ the boys advised.
The Inheritance of Loss is less effective when it comes to characterisation. Desai doesn’t offer much hope for her individuals, little sense that they will grow or achieve resolution and redemption. But I found it hard to care overly much about any of them. The romance between Sai and Gyan began as an evocation of the sweetness of first love and then descends into bitterness but it still felt very flat. Biju’s predicament in the dankness of America’s underbelly felt authentic but Desai didn’t bring anything to this theme that we haven’t seen many times over.
The effect overall was of reading something admirable and enjoyable at times yet I couldn’t escape the sense that there was something missing.
Why I read this
The Inheritance of Loss is part of my Booker prize project in which I am reading all the winners of the Man Booker prize.