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Saturday, November 30, 2013

SOME COMMENTS ON THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS BY KIRAN DESAI (2006)


SOME COMMENTS ON THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS BY KIRAN DESAI (2006)

It is very good book and it not a very good book. One is torn between the two point of views. I should think that if I were an Indian reader, I might not like it that much because by and large it paints a kind of sorry picture of India and Indians in the USA. Just about all the characters in the book are of the unusual sort and somewhat clichéd. Take the judge as a central protagonist: poor village boy makes good only to become a quite insane character: goes off to England and becomes a weird Indian student: comes back to India to become an even stranger judge and husband, abusing his wife, alienated from all his family: ends up in a ramshackle grand villa on the slopes of the Himalayas, with his cook and a pathetic attachment to his dog: and finally his grand-daughter arrives as an orphan only to undergo an upbringing that is less than satisfactory, given all the bizarre circumstances that arise, like a local uprising of the local Nepalese. The cook’s son too fares not very well once shipped off to the USA: as an illegal immigrant he is shunted from menial to more menial jobs in Indian restaurant kitchens, contending with his hapless peers (apart from a funny one from Zanzibar) and with the Indians that have the green card. When the cook’s son returns to India to his father he is robbed of all his possessions he brought with him as some sort of trophy from the USA and he lands in his father’s arms in a woman’s nightgown. And that’s the end.

On the other hand it’s all so true: there are these unfortunate individuals – not just Indians, hence the appeal to an international audience – who with their lives manage to concoct a story of perpetual misery, be they poor or not so poor, with the former of course providing less drama and opportunity to shine with literary gems. Desai certainly does the latter a great service, evoking the life of the educated classes as permanent witty dialogue, what with all the foibles and contradictions one encounters when being an Indian educated in the West – England most likely, but latterly in the USA. Given that India combines all imaginable human conditions, one would have hoped that the occasional average character comes into play. The problem with introducing a wide range of idiosyncrasies, one cannot quite believe the author – as the Olympic narrator – to have access to all thoughts in the heads of the protagonists, thereby often giving lesser souls – like the cook – an appearance of being an intellectual in his own right. By ‘intellectual’ I mean the sort of language that educated middle/upper-class people use these days, Kiran Desai included. Sure, the cook could be a true intellectual, much more so than the mentally off-balance judge but that would have required a different style of writing, perhaps akin to some of the other masters of the Indian genre like Vikram Chandra, Aravind Adiga and Arundhati Roy. The scenario of the Gorkhaland up-rising is also a bit flawed: while seemingly sympathetic on some pages, the overall description favours the middle-class characters who are all inconvenienced by the goings-on, plus – as one of the main protagonists –Gyan seems to recant in the end just to get back to Sai. While we do learn of local police brutality there is also the perception that the GNLF is a bunch of terrorist hoodlums even less desirable than a bit of random terrorism by the police.

The whole idea of poor Nepali boy –Gyan – and well-to-do orphan Sai – as an essentially confused Indian girl who was brought up in a Catholic convent reading Wuthering Heights twice while waiting for Gyan to return – having a sweet love affair is essentially a Mills and Boons plot that lacks credibility. A similar scenario in Roy’s The God of small things where the Kerala-Syrian solo-mother falls in love with the Hindu gardener is on the other hand a real gem and totally believable.

The misery of illegal immigrants in the USA is of course well-drawn in the manner of the classic tragicomedy, perhaps with some exaggeration towards the laughable, especially with the Moslem-Zanzibar character who becomes Biju’s best friend at times, playing out the absurdities that arise when a Hindu boy like Biju, having been brought up with a hatred and loathing of Muslims, has to admit that a real Muslim boy from Zanzibar isn’t that bad after all. The idea that the flamboyant Zanzibar boy takes advantage of the ‘ethnic chic’ prevalent in some quarters of US society, and thus shags all the teenage college girls – is also a bit of a cliché. That the Indian restaurant owner makes money from selling fake vegetarian food to new-age customers who are attracted by the restaurant’s name – Gandhi – is also a bit of a low point, especially if you are an Indian reader, I would think.

I am struggling to understand the colonial hangover some Indians, like Desai, surely carry around with them: I work in an educational institute where many of the students are Indian and a few of the tutors are too (some migrated to NZ, some were born here). To be totally dismissive of one’s so-called home country is not all too common but for example, I as a German citizen (in name) living in NZ, have no compunction to rail against Germany. For the expatriate Indian to rubbish India is another matter: it is a sort of betrayal that is very difficult to explain. Many an Indian is simply an economic migrant seeking a ‘better life’ and ‘better education for their children’ – a dreadful cliché nevertheless. They would gladly return to India if they could get a well-paid job and a guarantee that their children receive a world-class education. The English – and other Europeans – are after all prime examples of large-scale economic migration. Of course they did it in such numbers as to create English colonies in their wake. No other group of peoples has achieved this dubious honour in modern times. Certainly not the Indians which must be to their credit. Still, there are Indians everywhere, a bit like the Chinese, having left their home countries in search of a often very elusive better life. Of course I may be blind to the real lives of the Indians I see on a daily basis but none strike me as characters of The Inheritance of Loss  scenarios, hence my earlier criticism that just about all the characters of the novel are a bit unusual to say the least. On the other hand what would a novel be without them? A boring tale of everyday life where nothing unusual ever happens?

Desai tried her best to make it as exciting as possible, and there is a lot in her novel that merits praise. She does very well to evoke the landscape of the Himalayan region around Darjeeling, a region of stunning beauty if not eccentricity – and it is perhaps not surprising that certain equally eccentric characters are drawn to it, living through the extreme seasonal changes, paying a high price for the occasional glimpses of Kanchenjunga.