High in the Himalayas, a large, decrepit house is home to three people (and a dog) and their dreams. Thousands of miles away, a young illegal immigrant sleeps on the floor of his workplace kitchen in a Harlem café.
Different backgrounds and ideals separate them – yet they are at the centre of revolution and change as The Inheritance of Loss uses the Gorkhaland movement and the civil and ethnic unrest of the 1980s in the Darjeeling region as its background. The loss of identity, personal and collectively, in a post-colonial India is the central theme of this powerful (albeit, to my mind, rambling and patchy) winner of the 2006 Man Booker Prize.
The two central characters are Biju and Sai. He finds himself as an illegal in New York desperately attempting to escape the poverty of his life at home but, instead, finds that squalor of poverty is global. Sai, as a 16 year-old orphan, finds herself reliant on her maternal grandfather and his unkempt crumbling home high in the mountainous Kalimphong.
A retired Cambridge-educated judge, Jemubhai Patel is everything the civil insurgency is moving against – more English than the English (in spite of him never being accepted, as an Indian, by the very people he aspires), he abhors his own country’s customs, to the extent he eats chapatis with a knife and fork. He treats his ageing dog, Mutt, better than most of his neighbours (and certainly his now-deceased wife, whom he sent back to live with her family, so disgusted was he with her ‘India-ness’).
The Inheritance of Loss is littered with a snapshot of characters reflecting the various political and social thoughts of the day (with an overt bias towards ‘British Indians’): the young Nepalese, Gyan, tutor to Sai and drawn towards the revolutionary ideals but in need of the blossoming relationship with his student; the Jane Eyre reading, marmalade eating sisters Noni and Lola; the traditional cook, father of Biju and indentured employee to the judge. Their lives are threaded throughout as the narrative unfolds – but here’s the problem.
There are so many lives, backwards and forwards in time, that too much of The Inheritance of Loss remains unfocussed and unresolved. In attempting to be all encompassing and casting a wide net, Kiran Desai takes on too much. Political commentary and social family saga intertwined are not new. But somehow, there are times when she slips into polemic that, whilst interesting, the execution falls short.
And there’s just no joy!