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An Analysis of Kiran Desai's "Inheritance of Loss"
This second novel by Kiran Desai drips with the theme of colonial mentality - of ignoring one's cultural roots and looking over the fence to seemingly greener pastures of other cultures. This is a story of exiles at home and abroad, of families broken and fixed, of love both bitter and bittersweet.
Desai's characters effectively depict varying kinds and levels of discontent at their own personhoods. It is a mix of pathetic illusions of being part of a culture that does not acknowledge them, hypocritical snubbing of one's own culture and journeying into knowing one's real self and true roots.
Jemubhai Patel is an embittered judge, wounded by his past, which holds both hurtful and glorious memories. It is ironic how much love he can shower on an animal, his pet dog, while he regards other people with distrust. He has shut himself off from all human contact.
Sai is the youthful granddaughter who somehow tames Patel's otherwise dark persona with her feistiness and curiosity. She reminds him of himself when he was a youth. Sai is one person who gives hope that her grandfather will ultimately come out of the tough shell he has built around himself.
Biju is the pathetic illegal worker disillusioned in America. He came there with great hopes and dreams but came home with a lot of frustrations and a renewed passion for his homeland.
Gyan, Sai's idealistic suitor is torn between his loyalty to his ethnic origins and his infatuation for his beautiful and intelligent tutee, Sai.
The cook, Biju's father is the traditional, superstitious and chatty helper awed by the allures of modernization and is bent on his son to realize the American dream. It is through this cook's voice that the reader learns a parallel story about love and loss.
Patel's neighbors, Lola and Noni are Anglophiles who might be savvy readers of V.S. Naipaul but who are, perhaps, less aware of how fragile their own social standing is--at least until a surge of unrest disturbs the region.
The title of the book is so intriguing. When one hears of an inheritance, it is usually something so precious, so cherished that the next generation anticipates it to be bequeathed with pride and honor. Desai's Inheritance of Loss truly reflects her adeptness for irony. True, the pathetic state of loss can be inherited and may be passed on to future generations, but how can anyone anticipate such a dreadful fate? The story is delivered in such a compelling way that the reader understands the process of loss of cultural identity being passed on from the elders to the young.
The book tells of different stories but anchors its base on Kalimpong in the at the foothills of Mount Kanchenjunga in the northern Himalayas, specifically in the decaying cottage named Cho Oyu, the household of Jemubhai Patel, who lives with his granddaughter, Sai and his beloved dog, Mutt. The once-magnificent home has vestiges of its splendor with its lacelike gates that hang from two stone pillars, high, gorgeous ceilings, windows that show a picturesque view of the mountains, Owing to neglect and apathy, its once beautiful wooden floors are rotted, mice run about freely, and extreme cold permeates everything. Termites are steadily chewing at the cottage's wooden frame, furniture, and floors. Patel is not blind to its pathetic disintegration, and somehow embraces it. It may be reflective of how he feels inside.
Patel is a retired judge from the prestigious Indian Civil Service, the British Empire's old "steel frame": a few hundred white civil servants who had administered the subcontinent with the help of a handful of Indians, recruited starting in 1879. Patel relishes his glory days and is embittered by a painful past and of being an Indian himself.
The narrative shifts from this native setting to the grubby kitchens of New York restaurants where illegal foreigners hide from the authorities out to deport them to their countries of origin.
Desai expertly presents ironies in vivid detail that at times, it seems hilarious. The strange and creative interplay of the image projected and the message delivered makes the readers ponder on the depth of the author's points. One example is the supposedly elitist upbringing of Sai, but in reality, she lives in poverty. She has never mastered her native tongue, as it is assumed by her grandfather, Patel to devalue her person. She projects the image of being a part of a rather genteel class, but at the end of the day, she literally sleeps under a table cloth! Such a pity for a young lady to be surrounded by such manly mess!
Another is the status of having a hired cook, but in truth, makes this employee live on meager wages and in a battered hut in the periphery of his master's house.
Patel has lived a wretched family life filled with broken relationships - inflicting cruelty to his wife, indirectly causing her death, and abandoning his daughter in a convent boarding school and then cutting her off when she marries a Parsi. He has likewise estranged himself from his parents, extended family and all the Patels when they gladly sent him off to Cambridge University, pinning their hopes on him for a better future.
In England, he realized how inferior he and his compatriots were to the whites, and wanted desperately to be identified as one. He would put powder on his "too brown" skin to somehow attain a fairer complexion. As his Indian classmates celebrated their cultural roots, and fought for independence, Patel remained in awe of the English and abandoned his "inferior" race.
Patel has chosen to live in Kalimpong not only because of its temperate climate but also to distance himself from the more tropical, mainstream India. He emulates the British who built cottages at the hill stations and give vent to their gardening skills. They also needed to be near bakeries that produced the cakes, breads and biscuits they need at tea time.
Two elderly Indian ladies, very much like Patel in terms of their obsession with the English culture, take Sai under their wings to groom her to be a proper English lady. Lola, a widow, and her sister, Noni, live in a cottage they call Mon Ami, set apart by its own unique broccoli patch. They live like Englishwomen, listening to BBC on the radio at night, drinking cherry brandy. They read British novels from the nineteenth century, and not those of a younger breed, because they would like to keep their perception of England static. They avoid books written by Indian writers.
Lola hoards English products every time she visits England every two years. She stocks up on Knorr packet soups, Oxo stock cubes and underwear from Marks and Spencer. She was ecstatic when her daughter, Pixie, officially became the wife of an Englishman.
The sisters are conscious of their class - perceive themselves as superior to their Anglophile neighbor Mrs. Sen, and affiliated with Father Booty of the Swiss dairy, which makes real cheese and not the processed ones eaten by most Indians.
Young Sai, who is orphaned when her parents were killed in an accident in the Soviet Union, came to live with her grandfather when she was nine. His grandfather never knew she existed, as he banished his mother from his home when she married a man he did not approve of. Sai is very westernized and her grandfather tolerates it. She speaks broken Hindi, as she has been exposed to a fabricated English culture, brainwashed by the people around her that it is a far better one than the Indian roots she has sprung forth from.
Sai is an avid reader. She immerses herself in literature that brings her to many worlds she has only journeyed in her rich imagination. She reads "To Kill a Mockingbird", "Cider with Rosie", "Life with Father", and "National Geographic". Desai says of her, "She was inside the narrative and the narrative inside her, the pages going by so fast, her heart in her chest, she couldn't stop. "
Sai falls in love with her Nepalese Math and Science tutor, Gyan, a college student who was mutually attracted to her. Globalization, fundamentalism and sectarian and terrorist violence unravel Sai's passion for Gyan. Her adolescent passion is intertwined with a sense of danger and tinged with both wonder and darkness. Unknown to both, their romance will greatly be affected by their differences in worldviews concerning their heritage.
Another important character in the book is Biju, Sai's friend and their cook's son. Biju, on the persistent machinations of his father, illegally entered the United States and does menial jobs in New York restaurants. Biju lives like a fugitive, fearing the INS to discover and deport him back to India. The book illustrates the sorry state of foreign immigrants who had flocked to the land of milk and honey seeking better lives than what they had in their own homelands. They accept the sufferings and abuse of their white superiors than facing the shame of going back home. All they need is to secure the elusive green card to ensure their prolonged stay in America.
One can just imagine the stressed lives of these foreigners, exiled from their own countries and treated as low-lives. They desperately hold on to their idealistic perception of America, however stripped of their dignity and pride. Back home, they would have been treated more humanely, despite their poverty and sense of hopelessness. Instead of conquering another world outside the sphere of the familiar, they are enslaved by the whims and discriminatory treatment of the natives. This book eventually gives an unflattering view of the First World in the eyes of the inhabitants of the Third World.
Biju encounters other Indians and gets surprised at how they totally adapt to the American culture. He is shocked to see Hindu Indians eating beef. "He took on a sneering look. But they could afford not to notice. " It is this numbing hypocrisy that disillusions the underdogs like Biju - those who completely turn away from their roots and fully embrace the culture of another, to the point of forsaking the long-held sanctity of their value systems.
Biju's unfortunate life in America brings him to work for co-Indians who take advantage the illegal aliens' desperation. These Indian restaurant owners "cut the pay to a quarter of the minimum wage, reclaim the tips, keep an eye on the workers and drive them to work fifteen-,sixteen-, seventeen-hour donkey days. " It is pitiful to realize that "illegals" are treated like dirt, devoid of rights, and made to suffer for their "sin" of being in a place they should not be for want of a better life. This irony resounds through and through in Desai's book.
Desai's vivid narratives bring to readers crisp images - the effective contrast between rustic, lush Kalimpong in its natural glory and the ultra-sophistication of fast-paced New York -along with it, the description of the lives of the inhabitants of both settings. When Biju calls home from New York City, the reader can smell the humid air over the telephone line, and can picture the green-black lushness, "the plumage of banana, the stark spear of the cactus, the delicate gestures of ferns; he could hear the croak trrrr whonk, wee wee butt ock butt ock of frogs in the spinach, the rising note welding imperceptibly with the evening. " One can feel the emotions running through the characters, and it is palpable how one pines for another's life. It also shows stark contrasts between two worlds that the readers have the luxury of shuttling to.
Back in Kalimpong, the budding romance of Sai and Gyan is disrupted by Nepalese insurgency of which Gyan was a part of. The Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) agitates for rights and justice for the majority Nepalese. Pushed by his loyalty to his culture, Gyan tips off GNLF guerillas about Sai's grandfather, and they raid Patel's estate, robbing him of his guns, properties and food supply. The rebels shake up the otherwise peaceful existence of the main characters. They feel as if they were living out action movies, being "unleashed Bruce Lee fans".
The intimidating strike lasted for days, with electricity and water cut off and roads blocked by the government to prevent food from coming into the area. Lola and Noni were left with no choice but to shelter the followers of the GNLF who in turn, take advantage of their kindness, as they ravage their carefully accumulated stock of cold meat and sausages, and squatting on their large, beautiful, bountiful garden. Pradhan, their leader, pirate-looking in his outfit, insults Lola when she complains to him about his people. His degratory remarks of implying Lola to be one of his many wives, as he distastefully run his malicious eyes on her adds insult to injury, as Lola is further spiraled downwards in her humiliation.
Such an attack on their person and status brings them down to reality that indeed, they are Indians, no matter how estranged and "foreign" they wish to be. The envy of the Nepalese rebels drastically shatter their illusions of grandeur and the pathetic circumstance evens them all out as mere people instead of demi-gods.
The story gets grimmer as Patel's beloved dog, Mutt gets stolen, pushing his owner into depths of despair. A bloody encounter in the insurgency situation kills some people. Sai and Gyan's love affair becomes reduced to recriminations, highlighted by Gyan's spiel, "What's fair? Do you have any idea of the world? Do you bother to look? Do you have any understanding of how justice operates or, rather, does NOT operate?" Such verbalization from the youth wakes one up to realize that the world is not to be seen with rose-colored lenses. Sai learns that class envy and jealousy always overpower love. It is a totally human reaction.
Upon hearing the unrest in his homeland, Biju comes home in the knowledge that his father needs him. Biju undergoes an illuminating transformation. His emotional connection to his father and the significant people in his life inspire him to appreciate his roots and enliven his loyalty to India. Enough is enough! He has suffered enough in a foreign land, enslaved by whites, and worse, compatriots, who treat him so very badly. His spirit and pride beaten up, he ironically comes home as a whole person. "He had shed the unbearable arrogance and shame of the immigrant. . . For the first time in God knows how long, his vision unblurred and he found he could see clearly. " He realizes that he can choose the kind of inheritance he can get in terms of keeping close to his roots, literally and figuratively.
The same realizations were stumbled upon by the other characters in the story, knowingly or not. The wealth and gentility prided by sisters Lola and Noni and retired judge, Patel were the very things that exposed them, making them targets of rebels. Having been humble, low-key, and basically, being just themselves instead of desperately putting on the identity of a foreigner could have spared them form the unfortunate circumstance they got themselves into. "All of a sudden, all that they had claimed innocent, fun, funny, not really to matter was proven wrong. It did matter, buying tinned ham roll in a rice and dal country; it did matter to live in a big house and sit beside a heater in the evening, even one that sparked and shocked; it did matter to fly to London and to return with chocolates filled with kirsch; it did matter that others could not. . . The wealth that seemed to protect them like a blanket was the very thing that left them exposed. They, amid extreme poverty, were baldly richer, and the statistics of difference were being broadcast . . .they would pay the debt that should be shared with others over many generations. "
The book is effective in evoking painfully shelved emotions to come to surface. Everyone, at one time or another feels the pain of loss. As mentioned earlier, title itself makes one ponder if it can be inherited and passed down from one generation to the next as what was attempted by Patel to his granddaughter, Sai. The feeling of losing out on something merely by being born "inferior" was expertly shown in the book to be all-consuming to the characters.
The inheritance of loss may have well been an inheritance of the mentality that colonizers of ages past were mightily superior. They, from the first world, are the first exposed to the boon of modernization, leaving the colonized to covet such sophistication. Attention is too focused on their adventures with the evolution of their culture, while native culture, with all its richness and beauty is ignored and concealed with shame. If only they can revisit it with fresh perspective, they would know that they possess wealth and class, not necessarily translated to monetary and material possessions, but more profoundly, a great contribution of culture, ideology and tradition.
The Indian concept of "Karma" could have caught up with the hypocrites as a more passionate ethnic class shakes them up from their illusions. They are pulled down to the reality that one's wealth and pride is another's poverty.
It is a reality that living decently is difficult amidst all the injustices that exist around us. However, the fulfillment of being empowered to be one's own true self gives a liberating feeling and confidence to exist authentically. The reader is tempted to coach the characters into doing so, just so they can foresee a happy ending to their pathetic existence.
It is no secret that one needs to hide behind some untruths to survive some delicate situations. However, being enmeshed with lies may have a debilitating effect on one's psyche. The illegal foreigners living like scurrying mice at the threat of being caught proves to be an example of such. How dreadful it is to continue living that way! It is as if it is difficult to exhale, as one might fall into the "trap" of revealing his truths. Again, Desai plays with the reader's mind when this happens - the paradox of the truth "not setting you free!" and in fact, imprisoning you in the safety of lies! However, this is a painful reality that needs to be accepted.
Acknowledging one's origins helps an individual gain full understanding of oneself. It gives him a choice of either opening his arms to receive his inheritance of loss/ fulfillment or of politely declining and moving on with his chosen path.
Kiran Desai may well be instrumental in poking at the consciences of inauthentic, hypocritical show-offs to shed their cloak of fabricated "class" and reveal their true selves. Painful though it may be, there is no substitute to honest living and upholding one's cultural values, which, in the first place, were customized in accordance with one's true roots.