Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

1986. Kalimpong, West Bengal. In the foothills of the Himalayas, rich and poor, Nepali and Bengali, live side by side.

History is happening.

Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss is a book about politics.

It's not the he-said-she-said sort of small-scale politics where you're flailing at the other side, and things are deliberately misunderstood so as to create an emotion-driven argument that implies the world must be in much better shape than anyone thought, if we have the luxury of taking all our outrage and reducing it to the language and logic of a sports rivalry.

No, this is a book about BIG POLITICS. The aftermath of colonialism, to be exact. The novel is populated with upper-class Indians enjoying a rustic life in Kalimpong. There are sisters Lola and Noni, who are still eating English food and reading English books. There is an elderly judge, who back in pre-Independence days, went off to England for schooling and witnessed racial discrimination, but upon his return to India he tried to be as English as he possibly could and despised his wife for being traditionally Indian. There is his orphaned granddaughter who recently arrived at his estate from the convent where she was educated; she's only dimly aware that others would see her as living a life of privilege.

These characters start out blissfully unaware that historic happenings are about to flare up and surround them.

Kalimpong is not a fictional town like Kaikurussi or Malgudi. It's a real place, the novel's main narrative is set in the mid-1980s, and the real-life movement by ethnic Nepalis to create their own state is just getting underway.

Meanwhile, the judge employs a cook and the cook has a son, Biju, who found his way to New York where he is working his way illegally through a series of menial jobs. I'm tempted to say the portrayal of Americans and other Westerners in Desai's book is not too flattering. But that would be unfair. The truth is that nobody gets a flattering portrayal. Everybody comes across as at least faintly ridiculous. There's an admirable even-handedness here.

And the ending, while not really a happy one, isn't the soul-crushing Rohinton Mistry ending I was expecting, either.

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