The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai was probably not a good book choice coming right after reading What is the What. This book won the 2006 Man Booker Prize and has gotten rave reviews, but I was slightly disappointed by the book. While the subject matter was interesting and it was beautifully written, I did not enjoy reading the book. All of the characters were downtrodden and unhappy and there was no sense that there was any chance for change in the future. Even though What is the What told a horrific story, I still found it to be uplifting while this book was just depressing.
The book is set in Northeastern India at the foot of the Himalayan mountains and is filled with quirky Indian/Anglo characters. The main characters of the book are Sai, an orphaned teenager, who lives with her miserable grandfather, an upper class former judge. Sai is in love with her math tutor, Gyan, who joins up with the Nepalese revolutionary forces fighting for independence from India. Other characters include Biju, who is the son of the judge’s cook. Biju is an illegal immigrant in NYC eking out an existence and then various other Anglophiles who live in the town.
The story tells the lives of each of these characters with the dominant theme being how economically, politically and socially repressed each character is in this 21st century world. Even though the book takes place in such a remote part of the world, the people of this region can’t live together peacefully. The Nepalese hate the Indians, the Indians hate the Pakistanis, the Hindus hate the Muslims, the Sikhs hate the Hindus, and they all hate the British. All of the characters are caught up in their own form of hatred of someone or something else, and it seems that this cycle can not be broken.
My favorite character was Jemubhai, the judge. He is so wretched and pathetic that I was somewhat sympathetic to him in the end. He began his life as the son of a lower middle class Indian family. He wins a scholarship to study in England and then become a British civil servant. While living in England, he feels like he is completely invisible and non-existent in British society. He goes weeks, even months without speaking to a single person.
He grew stranger to himself than he was to those around him, found his own skin off-colored, his own accent peculiar. He forgot how to laugh, could barely manage to lift his lips in a smile, and if he ever did, he held his hand over his mouth, because he couldn’t bear anyone to see his gums, his teeth. They seemed too private…..To the end of his life, he would never be seen without socks and shoes and would prefer shadow to light, faded days to sunny, for he was suspicious that sunlight might reveal him, in his hideousness, all too clearly.
Even thought British society rejects him, when he returns to India and gets married, he ends up being repulsed by his Indian wife and the rest of the Indian community. He hates his native country, but neither does he long for England.
This theme is interwoven throughout the book as many of the characters are expatriots but find that their adopted homeland does not offer the dream life they wished for. Biju leaves India to find a better life in America but ends up without a green card, living in the basement of an Indian restaurant, being paid less than minimum wage, and having a worse existence than if he had just stayed in India. All of the characters have one sad story after another.
Perhaps if the current daily news wasn’t so bleak, I might have appreciated Desai’s prose more and not been so hung up on her pessimistic outlook. I have always loved novels set in India, but this just didn’t put a smile on my face. One of my favorite books about India is Far Pavilions by M.M.Kaye. I was hoping that Inheritance of Loss might have been an updated, 21st century version of that story, but it just didn’t do it for me.