Book Reviews

The Inheritance of Loss by
Kiran Desai

Grove Atlantic (USA) and Hamish Hamilton (UK)

In witty, vigorous language, Kiran Desai’s 2006 Booker Prize-winning novel explores the roots of terrorism and the inexorable process by which karmic chickens come home to roost. It’s 1986, a year after Indira Ghandi’s assassination, and in lushly flowering Kalimpong, in northeast India, Tibetans stream from the north, Bengalis live uneasily with Nepalis, and bordering Bhutan and Sikkim attract a thriving tourist trade.

Though prosperous compared to those of the desperately impoverished Nepalis also living there, the circumstances of the hill station’s anglicized, well-educated retirees are crumbling. Jemubhai, a former judge who lucked into a Cambridge education, spends his cramped, angry old age caring for his orphaned niece, Sai, 17, in hope of some redemption for his past, but in fact he loves only his red setter. His ingratiatingly loyal cook pins hopes on his son, Biju, who is slaving away illegally in dingy New York restaurant kitchens. And two elderly neighbors, sisters Lola and Noni, live vicariously through English novels and through Lola’s daughter, a London-based BBC correspondent.

Over the course of vividly rendered Himalayan seasons, muddy monsoons giving way to snow, then spring and summer, the mountainside community deteriorates. A gang of Nepalese boys invades the judge’s household, terrifies the dog, and steals rusting rifles and liquor. They’re still just kids, curiously exploring a seedy, spacious home that’s grand to them, barely aware of their intimidating power. Desai tells us they’ve borrowed their words and actions from robbers in romantic Calcutta movies. And while Biju barely hangs on in New York, and Sai’s first love affair falls victim to the unrest, the boy insurgents steadily gain ground: "living the movies … they would defeat their fictions and the new films would be based on them…"

Desai’s title reflects well both the intimacy and scope of her project. Image-rich prose highlights the particular and the profound. When insurgents pitch tents in the garden and Lola’s protests are ridiculed, the sisters realize that "amid extreme poverty, [they] were baldly richer … and they, Lola and Noni, were the unlucky ones who wouldn’t slip through, who would pay the debt that should be shared with others over many generations." Sai and her Nepali boyfriend inherit the loss, too, as do the cook and his son. The very mountains themselves suffer: Darjeeling is literally "going downhill," there are landslides everywhere. It’s not our tents, the rebels tell Lola, but your big house that endangers this hillside.

An Indian raised in the US, Desai shows us how modernity rips through precariously stable old cultures in "its meanest form, brand-new one day, in ruin the next." At one brutal interface, a Western tourist, horrified by the specter of a destitute woman on the road, calls in shock to her husband, who in turns snaps a picture, and reports, "Got it, babe…!" Yet Desai never loses her deft comic eye. "What a situation," one character observes midway through the book. "The army is vegetarian and the monks are gobbling down meat."

The Inheritance of Loss offers a heart-wrenching, astute analysis of how things, post 9/11, got so bad. "This was how history moved, the slow build, the quick burn, and in an incoherence, the layering both backward and forward, swallowing the young into old hate." Desai’s book is dedicated to her mother, Anita Desai, herself three times shortlisted for the Booker. "The debt I owe to my mother is so profound," she has said, "that I feel the book is hers as much as mine." It speaks, she says, "of little failures, passed down from generation to generation." But Desai has inherited gain from her mother. Her gratitude mitigates the transmission of loss her novel explores.

Reviewed by Charlotte Richardson