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The Inheritance of Loss.

THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS

By Kiran Desai

Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006

THE MAJESTIC HIMALAYAN PEAK called Kanchenjunga, the world's third-highest mountain, casts its shadow over most of the protagonists of Kiran Desai's new novel, The Inheritance of Loss. Other shadows, cast by sociopolitical forces near and far, abound as well, shaping the lives of even the most private of Desai's characters.

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As a work of literature, The Inheritance of Loss impresses with its sumptuous language, lush metaphors and inspired turns of phrase. Desai's writing is often bewitching, bringing to life in visceral detail the settings in which her characters struggle, endure and collide. ("And in this wet diarrheal season floated the feeling, loose and light, of life being a moving, dissipating thing, chilly and solitary--not anything you could grasp.") But this is much more than finely wrought prose: Desai clearly has strong social and political convictions, and her novel works as a vehicle to help us reconsider our own.

Desai and her characters wrestle with a variety of social myths and realities. In a small town in northeastern India, where we find a retired judge, his cook and his orphaned granddaughter, issues of class often arise. The granddaughter, Sai, enjoys chatting up the cook while he works, but upon visiting the cook's hut out back, she is shocked and embarrassed by his poverty. Sai's closeness with the cook draws the disapprobation of Sai's tutor, an anglophilic spinster, who opines, "It was important to draw the lines properly between classes or it harmed everyone on both sides of the great divide." The retired judge is likewise prone to class-based judgments. When he, who was born into the peasant caste, first joined the civil service, "how he relished his power over the classes that had kept his family pinned under their heels for centuries."

When I asked Kiran Desai in a recent interview about the influence of class and caste, she said, "There's so much money pouring in, there's a class of Indians that's so wealthy. a new class of middle-class Indians that's making so much money, you have to wonder, will it spread or will it not spread? Will the class and caste systems--such old, ancient systems--will they work to prevent this?"

In Desai's fictional world, no one escapes the consequences of social disparities. No one, not even the well-to-do and well-sequestered, has the option of being left alone. During a time of political turbulence, for example, two rich middle-aged sisters are confronted with the open contempt of the majority poor: "The wealth that seemed to protect them like a blanket was the very thing that left them exposed." Disparities in wealth and social status make people angry, and that anger seeps everywhere. It doesn't help that in India, as Desai writes, "old hatreds are endlessly retrievable."

Racial beliefs and inequities regularly bubble to the surface as well. Biju, the cook's son who scratches out a meager existence as part of the undocumented underclass in New York City, develops an awe of white people, "who arguably had done India great harm, and [he develops] a lack of generosity regarding almost everyone else, who had never done a single harmful thing to India." The judge, as a young student in Britain, fell victim to a similar kind of internalized oppression: he envied the English and loathed the Indians. His efforts to become "more English" had the tragic effect, upon his return to India, of making him despised by everyone, the English and Indian alike.

"This is the effect of racism," Kiran Desai told me. "In an awful way, you tend to become what you're called ... I can see it even today, but certainly at that time when India was British India, there was a whole generation of people I think who left for England and studied there and came back despising their own people and their own country to a certain degree. And even if they didn't despise their own people or their own nation, there was still a disconnect once they made this journey. Even great freedom fighters, even Gandhi and Nehru, came back and couldn't talk to their wives."

And what about the so-called American Dream of sending oneself or one's children to the United States to achieve financial success? Biju learns that the dream is unattainable, at least for him. Menial restaurant work is all he can get, and his supervisors--even and especially the ones from India--use his undocumented status to keep him silent and subservient. Beaten down and exhausted, Biju eventually finds attractive the idea of relinquishing "this overrated control over his own destiny." He considers more than once returning to India.

"This idea of the American Dream is being embraced so enthusiastically by a very privileged, educated class of Indians [in the United States]," said Desai. "And for them it seems to hold true--they are living the American Dream. Only, there is this parallel world, the poorest people of India are also here ... So I did want to [write] about this contrast and say we perhaps shouldn't really be talking in terms of country and nation. We really should be talking in terms of class."

I asked Desai about a related dream, that of becoming Westernized without relocating to the West. "I think in India, unfortunately, right now there's a lot of anticipation for a modern India, and there's a feeling that it's coming very fast, [that] India's going to become modern very quickly. But of course we're an old and poor country, and that seems to be the greatest truth of the matter. So I think a lot of times what you get is quite a shabby version of the promise that doesn't really hold true because it's imposed from outside; it doesn't seem to come from a broader and deeper location. Often I think the arguments are made on the basis of businessmen working and talking of money and of the middle class booming. The argument, I think, has to be made from the level of the poor; that should be the first argument. So becoming modern for them, what does it mean? You're talking of the most basic issues: water, electricity, problems of illiteracy ... So what does modernity mean in such a country and such a situation?"

People joining mass movements figure prominently in The Inheritance of Loss. Sai's tutor-turned-boyfriend Gyan joins a struggle waged by people of Nepali descent for an autonomous homeland in northeastern India. Comprising a majority of the population in many Indian communities, these Nepalis are (and have been in real life) treated like a dirty, undeserving minority. Gyan feeds off the energy and militancy of the "liberation army," finding within it a kind of purity that makes him rethink his attraction to Sai. Desai here delicately traces out the very personal, individual-level consequences of a focused, uncompromising mass movement.

And through it all, the mountain, the sturdy bulk of Kanchenjunga, looms, endures, reassures. Its constancy contrasts with the volatility and insecurity of Desai's characters.

"There's no simplicity of truth at all," Desai said. "People are forced because of circumstance to live lives of hypocrisy, of gaps, of fears--not whole lives; and yet we as humans tend to hope for simplicity of truth. And when you see the Himalayas in the morning, everything else falls away. And that kind of moment can literally save you."

Kiran Desai's latest novel is the kind of writing that just might save us--from easy assumptions, from our own unexamined prejudices, from facile beliefs propagated by the myths of modernity and progress.
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Author:Soong, C.S.
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:Nov 1, 2006
Words:1259
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