Tuesday 29 June 2010
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (Review)
If I could give an alternative name to Kiran Desai's second novel, I would call it 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Immigrant'. Because it centres on the solitude faced by many of its characters. Not only geographical isolation, mind, but also a mental one. However, 'The Inheritance of Loss' is just an apt a title because it deals with themes like dislocation and dispossession.
Biju is a young, recent émigré to the US where he can barely sustain himself through a mix of meagre, low-paid jobs. Back in India, though, his father delights in telling stories about how well his son is doing. Sai is barely out of her teens when she arrives at her grandfather's house after both her parents are killed in an accident in Russia. Her grandad is a retired judge, who worked in the Indian Civil Service and former student at Cambridge. Gyan, Sai's tutor and later her lover, is a Nepalese young man who gradually reveals a fervent patriotism towards his native land causing frictions between Sai and him. The peripheral roles fall to Biju's father, the cook, Lola and Noni, two elderly ladies who befriend Sai and love all things English, Uncle Potty and Father Booty.
'The Inheritance...' is a novel with a very distinctive trait: the richness of its language. And that's both from a literary and linguistic point of view. The former is represented by frequent page-breaks which convey a sense of intimacy and hearsay. We're often allowed to roam freely in a character's mind and be almost an active participant of his or her inner world. Moreover, this device is redolent of the ancient art of story-telling, where the narrators would usually have the opportunity to take a detour from the initial tale and end up recounting a whole different, though still amusing, story. Not that Kiran deviates from the plot too much. But it's still a pleasure to find a writer who likes telling stories as well as paying attention to mood, setting and period. The linguistic factor is provided by the mix of English, Hindi and Nepali in the novel. Desai's characters are constantly moving between languages, in the same way that they are also moving between countries, even if the latter happens only in the mind occasionally (for instance the judge lying on his bed at night, reminiscing about his time in Britain). The Hindi and Nepali words and phrases are italicised and highlight the sense of belonging and dislocation of Sai, her grandfather, Biju et al.
Another aspect of the book I enjoyed thoroughly was the humour. Satirical, witty and sometimes politically incorrect. The author is very careful when she addresses the ethnic divisions in India and you can't help thinking that she must have eavesdropped on many a conversation during her time there in order to come up with such an accurate portrayal of how the various ethnic and religious groups talk about each other. What could have been contemptuous recklessness in a different context, it's transformed into very well-written passages in the novel.
However, I was not prepared for the impact 'The Inheritance...' had on me personally, beyond its literary merit. There were two scenes that will stick in mind forever. The first one was during Biju's second attempt to go to the US. The description of the queue outside the American embassy and the reigning atmosphere reminded me of my own situation when I applied for a permit to the Cuban Immigration Service to visit the UK, minus the air-con:
'Outside, a crowd of shabby people had been camping, it appeared, for days on end. Whole families that had travelled from distant villages, eating food packed and brought with them; some individuals with no shoes, some with cracked plastic ones; all smelling already of the ancient sweat of a never-ending journey. Once you got inside, it was air-conditioned and you could wait in rows of orange bucket chairs that shook if anyone along the length began to bop their knees up and down.'
The description is so vivid that I could smell the sweat to which Desai refers in the scene. The despair and hopelessness are there, if not overtly shown, at least hinted at.
The second passage brought back memories galore of me sitting in a room at a neighbour's or a friend's, waiting for an incoming call from my then girlfriend, now wife. The same feelings of angst and forlornness that overcome Biju and his father are ones I recognise myself as I spent many an hour expecting the phone to ring any minute:
'The phone sat squat in the drawing room of the guesthouse encircled by a lock and chain so the thieving servants might only receive phone calls and not make them. When it rang again, the watchman leapt at the it, saying, "Phone, la! Phone! La mai!" and his whole family came running from their hut outside. Every time the phone rang, they ran with committed loyalty. Upkeepers of modern novelties, they would not, would not, let it fall to ordinariness.'
'The Inheritance...' is above all a book about the migrant experience. And unlike other novels where there's a happy ending or a predictable one, in Desai's book, the dénouement caught me by surprise, even if she prepares the reader for it several pages before. This might be the reason why some readers have felt cheated - besides alleged inaccuracies in Kiran's descriptions of places, people and some of the idioms she uses, especially the Nepali ones. In my opinion, the ending more than justifies the plot, which is about disorientation, lack of sympathy and empathy and displacement. Combined with running themes such as food, language, nationalism and attitudes to colonialism and supported by a beautiful poetic prose, Kiran Desai's 'The Inheritance of Loss' is a novel I will be re-reading in the near future.
Next Post: 'Living in a Bilingual World', to be published on Thursday 1st July at 11:59pm (GMT)