The Inheritance of Loss

20 September 2013
Written by Diana Kenny
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As Diana Kenny writes The Inheritance of Loss is a story of joy and despair where the characters face numerous choices illuminated by an ever changing world


The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Kiran Desai has a good writing pedigree - her mother is award winning novelist Anita Desai and Kiran managed to win the Man Brooker Prize in 2006, something her mother was shortlisted for three times.

This book The Inheritance of Loss is the prize winnng novel.  It is set in Kalimpong, a village at the foot of Mt Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas in the 1980’s and deals with a rebellion by the ethnic Nepalese who, in Desai’s words, resent "being treated like a minority in a place where they are the majority".

There are two main characters, one in Kalimpong, Sai, granddaughter of an English trained judge who is uncomfortable with those of his own race, and the cook’s son Biju who has escaped to New York.  The chapters wend between the trials and tribulations of both. 

Sai is trapped with her grandfather, the cook and an odd assortment of Angolphiles living out their own cloistered existence.  At sixteen she has outgrown her tutor’s knowledge in physics and a young Nepalese, Gyan, is employed to take over the task.  The inevitable happens and the ill suited pair fall in love. Gyan becomes involved in the Nepalese movement, caught up in the Nationalist unrest.  After a tiff Sai goes looking for Gyan and is horrified by his primitive living conditions, the gap between her way of life and his becomes more apparent to her.

Meanwhile in New York, Biju finds that life without the coveted Green Card is tricky to say the least.  Moving from restaurant to restaurant as immigration officers conduct raids, he finally finds work in the Gandhi Café which is at least vegetarian – no more beef.  Exploitation by your own must be the hardest to bear and one wonders how many workers live on the job, in this case in the kitchens on the floor, at the suggestion of their employer to save them money and him wages.

This novel looks at post colonial India and the effect of the English years, the break up of the country with arbitrary British drawn borders and the very dysfunctional confluence of East and West.  Although India has several hundred mother tongues, it has no official National language and English is the secondary official language.  

Kiran Desai has a great descriptive eye.  One can imagine the colours and the smells, the gradual disintegration of the houses though termites, neglect and the weather and one can see the landscape changing. The main characters are also sharply drawn, their foibles and eccentricities highlighted.

To quote the New York Times;

“Kiran Desai’s extraordinary novel manages to explore just about every contemporary international issue: globalization, multiculturalism, economic inequality, fundamentalism and terrorist violence. Despite being set in the mid-1980’s it seems the best kind of post 9/11 novel.”

In a few weeks time I am going to India for three weeks.  I am so looking forward to seeing and experiencing the India I have read about for decades, from Rudyard Kipling and E M Forster though to Rohinton Mistry and William Dalrymple.  I am aware that the romance and uniqueness are now probably a thing of the past, but I am sure I will still find the unexpected and the exotic.



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