This is a beautifully written and thoughtful book about important subjects. But I found it so depressing that it was hard to keep reading.
The story is set in the mid 1980s, mostly in Kalimpong, near the border of India and Nepal, at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains. It concerns the doings of Jemubhai Patel, a retired judge, Sai, his orphaned grand daughter, and their cook – who is never named. The experience in America of Biju, the cook’s son, forms a counterpoint to the main narrative. There are also flash backs to the judge’s marriage and the time he spent in England preparing to sit for the Indian Civil Service exams.
The judge has imbibed a respect for doing things the English way. He spends his time reading English newspapers and playing chess; he doesn’t even mix with the small Anglophile community in Kalimpong. He eats meat with a knife and fork in a country where most people eat rice and dahl with their fingers. Sai is a teenager who has been brought up at first in a convent and then in the judge’s house. She also speaks English and respects English customs. She is in love with Gyan, her maths tutor, a young man from the local college. The cook does his best to look after them in the proper English way. He is immensely proud of his son. Biju entered America on a tourist visa which he has overstayed, and is now working illegally – or rather, being exploited – in a succession of poorly paid jobs in dirty restaurants. Then one day a group of young men calling themselves the Gorkha National Liberation Front steal the judge’s old hunting guns, and nothing is the same thereafter.
Desai ties the small doings of the characters – going to the market, arguing over brands of cheese, reading the National Geographic, stealing guns – into the larger themes that concern her. These include poverty, ignorance and inequality in India, the legacy of colonialism and the alienation of Anglophile Indians from their society, the growth of globalisation and consumerism, the experience of emigration, and the attractions of insurgency. In all of these, nearly everyone in the story loses out, partly through their own choices, but more because of the shaping forces of these broader themes which they have inherited.
The judge is a horrible man, who covers his insecurity – so dramatically heightened by the hostility and prejudice he encountered in England – by shouting and abuse. In England, ‘He retreated into a solitude that grew in weight day by day. The solitude became a habit, the habit became the man, and it crushed him into a shadow’. ‘He envied the English. He loathed Indians. He worked at being English with the passion of hatred, and for what he would become, he would be despised by absolutely everyone, English and Indians, both’. Sai is a pleasant enough young woman, but she is drifting and purposeless. Biju is simply overwhelmed by the ‘unbearable arrogance and shame of the immigrant’ – the frustrations and miseries of his existence, inflicted, often enough, by his more successful fellow countrymen. The cook is kind, but his whole being is defined by his status as a servant. What happens to them, and to most of the other characters, amounts to misery piled on misery, humiliation on humiliation. As one character says, ‘There is nobody who won’t abandon you’. There is nobody who is redeemed. As for the Gorkha National Liberation Front, they ‘were living in the movies’. If they stirred up hatred, ‘extraordinary hatred was, after all, a commonplace event’.
Desai writes all this in a delicate and whimsical style. But that only makes the frustrations and misunderstandings, the betrayals and the losses seem even worse.
I know literature is supposed to tell us truths about ourselves, and this Desai does with a vengeance. Looking back at the end of the book, I couldn’t find one single untainted moment where happiness or hope wasn’t about to be disappointed. Things just are, and must be accepted. No wonder I felt depressed by the book.
The Inheritance of Loss won the Man Booker Prize in 2006. You can read an interview with Desai about herself and about writing the book here. For a different view of some of the same issues in India, see my post on The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2008.