Kiran Desai's Booker Prize winner, The Inheritance of Loss is an elliptical tale looping backward and forward through the twentieth century, India, New York, Cambridge, the legacy of British imperialism, class tensions, and the age-old distrust of other.
The story takes place in Kalimpong, a peninsular extrusion of India into the surrounds of Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan (I don't know the boundary history of the area, but it sure looks suspicious on the map). A retired judge, his granddaughter, her tutor, the cook, his son, and myriad supporting characters all struggle for stability and dignity in a time and place short of both. Shifting sands of political conflicts leave everyone struggling for footing, amplifying mistrust and prejudice. Loss is the currency common to all. Early on, we find Sai, the orphaned granddaughter and harbinger of love and hope, in the company of the embittered judge and his cook, contemplating coming of age alone:
Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss? ...love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack, not the contentment.
So is the tone of the narrative established. Even as Sai awakens to possibility, the countryside of disenfranchised awake to political discontent. Timid belligerence erupting and met with authoritarian brutishness that, of course, spreads with the virtue of vengeance in every ethnic direction. Gyan, Sai's Nepalese tutor, is swept into the maw of this malice, and his and Sai's chaste and budding love is set in opposition to betrayal and reluctant militancy.
The hapless cook has only his indenture to the judge, and his son in the limbo of illegals in New York on which to hang his life's expectations (well, that and his still). The judge's stern cruelty is facade to alienation that fills the interstices of contempt for his homeland, the condescension of imperial culture, and his isolation that is their product.
Desai's language is vivid and incisive. In a passage on the mindless escalation of violence:
This was how history moved, the slow build, the quick burn, and in an incoherence, the leaping both backward and forward, swallowing the young into old hate. The space between life and death, in the end, too small to measure.
Sounds terribly familiar. In a description of the cook, fleeing a riot:
Clawing at his heart as if it were a door was his panic--a scrabbling rodent creature.
And unsurprising testament to the human capacity for acceptance of anything:
While residents were shocked by the violence, they were also often surprised by the mundaneness of it all. Discovered the extent of perversity that the heart is capable of as they sat at home with nothing to do, and found that it was possible, faced with unimaginable evil, for a human being to grow bored, yawn, be absorbed by the problem of a missing sock....
Desai displays a convincing understanding of the 'old hates' that make marionettes of her characters, and have them twitching at the flames of flashing insurrections. Yet, it was hard to find my way into the lives of these characters. Desai is a clinical expositor of culture and human nature rather more than a narrator of lives that draw us in (as for example, does Hosseni in The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns). There is little to be hopeful about in her descriptions, but one is left with some confidence in the whys and wherefores.
I could find solace of hope in only two acts of free will in this book. One, an acceptance of heart and determination of mind, and the other so daring and futile as to buttress our belief in the commonplace of courage. Perhaps she is an optimist after all.
public conveyance in Jaipur, 2004