Monday, November 13, 2006

Thoughts on 'Inheritance of Loss'

I just finished ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ by Kiran Desai. It’s well-written…very, well-written. If it were written in long-hand, it would be in an elegant slant, on fine bond paper, with an ink-pen. A dried daisy in a netted case would serve as a bookmark and much of the story would get written by a window overlooking a stream in spring.

The ‘Inheritance of Loss’ probably is more reminiscent of a scatter of well-composed postcards instead of a strongly written letter. It’s a story, rather it’s three little, inter-woven stories, set against the backdrop of the Gorkha movement. The Kanchenjunga serves as a sort of a strong literary motif in the narrative and is prettily described but….

What’s new?

I don’t quite get why stories by Indian authors have to be set against backdrops of political struggles. This is, of course, a minor fly in the ointment because a writer will jolly well write about what he or she wants to write about…but do they really want to write about stories this way? Or maybe there is some underlying compulsion to give a big context to simple stories so as to give them more ‘substance’. For more international readership, perhaps? This is pure conjecture but I wonder how far off the mark I am.

Like, for example, I felt that the premise of this book did not go too well with the scale of the concept. The stories of Sai, the judge, his wife, the cook, the other Anglicized families in Kalimpong, Gyan, Mutt the dog….they are too individual to be mired in such a large landscape.

There are also undercurrents of disturbing truths – like how, the real tragedy regarding people is in their shaming, not their killing. But again, this feeling of being displaced and other related angst…it’s been done before. And masterfully so.

After finishing the novel, I was left wondering what’s different here? Different from, say, Khushwant Singh’s ‘Train to Pakistan’, Salman Rushdie’s ‘Shalimar the Clown’ (this is a fine example of the Kashmir issue serving as a backdrop to a vendetta. But then, Salman Rushdie is a fine example of all things literary), Taslima Nasreen’s ‘Lajja’, Gita Mehta’s ‘Raj’ (now, THAT is one book that should have won the Booker, if it didn’t. It really, really should have.)

If I would ever recommend this book as compulsory reading, then it would be solely for the character of Biju. He is the son of a cook who works for a judge in Kalimpong. The cook sends him off to America after lying and bribing and deceiving many officials. The idea is that Biju will earn a good living, have a good life, and someday take his father there.

The story of Biju is what resonates with authenticity. It’s like Kiran Desai went through Biju’s experience herself, instead of keenly observing someone else’s life. (the impression I got after reading about the other characters.)

Biju confronts his own shame of Indians after being in New York for a while. Initially, he is surprised why NRIs or other Indian migrants are so embarrassed by seeing someone from their own country. Later, he understands. Because Indians are gauche and desperate to be liked and assimilated. There, he gets exploited more by his own ilk than foreigners..and while it comes as a shock to him at first, he understands that he couldn’t possibly expect anything different.

His own hero in New York is a Pakistani guy. Saeed Saeed works out his moral dilemmas in the West pretty simply. He is okay with marrying a Westerner for the Green Card but is clear that he’ll only love the woman he’d marry in Pakistan.
Biju, following Saeed’s footsteps, takes a tough stance to not let his Indianness get eroded. He won’t work in a restaurant that serves beef. So, after hungry nights and some struggle, he finals lands up in a Gandhian restaurant. He’s made to work until his bones grind off, but he doesn’t serve beef.

Finally, one day, he decides to return home. And the description of his departure is what is brutally moving. He packs his belongings after brushing away rat poop, he buys gifts for his gamily and friends, looks into the mirror and gives a final salute. He lived and worked in New York for so many years. He’s finally leaving…without seeing the Statue of Liberty.

This…thing..that fragments so easily and makes your eyes moist…this is what I find to be the book’s fulcrum. A huge movement, powerful struggle, tales of loss and crumbling social order asides, to me, ‘The inheritance of loss’ will always be Biju’s story.


Sanjay said...

Because Indians are gauche and desperate to be liked and assimilated.

I think that is a bit of an unfair knock, esp the assimilation part.
It's a human desire to be assimilated. Now it's a diff story if you define "desperate".

Mukta said...

Hi Sanjay,

That was what I got from the story. I don't know enough about the Indians there to make a statement. :-)

Of course, I may have interpreted Desai's outlook in the book very differently from what she intended.

Sanjay said...

Possible that your interpretation is different. Maybe that's why *A* tells me that it times she is just tired of some Indian authors writing about the immigrant experience. Granted it is so integral to one's existence and al but surely there is more to it than that.
Just my thoughts not related to what you have to say though.

Mukta said...

hey sanjay!

This is uncanny! I remember this is EXACTLY what my brother said - after reading Jhumpa Lahiri's 'Interpreter of Maladies'.


Anand said...

Nice opening piece introducing your view of the book--imagery..

Because otherwise they run the risk of being seen as parochial and confined to a too-narrow view, and that could be disastrous. Because some of the Indian contexts imaginable are themselves so far removed from the rest of experiences of other Indians that it appears to be too big a risk to take.

Raj for the Booker ? Nope :)

Lotus Reads said...

What a beautifully-written review! I just finished Kiran Desai's "Inheritance" and am about to embark on Salman Rushdie's "Shalimar the Clown"...I'm very keen to know if her writing style is Rushdiesque as some reviewers have noted. What do you think?

May I place a link to your review on my blog? I love your impressions of the character Biju and would love others to read it, too.

MellowDrama said...

Have to read this..waiting for the paperback. Read Hullaboola or whatever ages ago which I thought was rather awful. Highly gratified that Desai thought likewise -in a recent interview she says she is ashamed of her first novel

MellowDrama said...

and Raj for the Booker -I don't think so either..also most authors write abt what they are familiar with which explains the diaspora angle in Interpreter etc. Meanwhile others write Water :)

King Julian said...

Nice review - though I did not like the book as much as you did, I agree that Biju was the most memorable character for me too! I felt that the book is not bad, but not in the league of Rushdie and Arundathi Roy. BTW, Saeed is from Zanzibar and not Pakistan :)