Published in 2006, The Inheritance of Loss is Desai’s second novel; her first, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, was published in 1998. Desai’s first novel was warmly received by the literary world, but it was her second attempt, years later, that quickly elevated her fame. Winning the Man Booker Prize tends to have that effect. (I will readily admit to being a sucker for Man Booker Prize recipients – show me a book with that seal stamped on the cover, and I cannot say no – have the author of Absurdistan write a blurb for the novel and it earns a higher priority it my stack of “must reads.”)
When I first picked the novel up, I was a little wary; the first several pages are filled with praise from various publications. While I understand the importance of such starred reviews, it always makes me think the novel is trying too hard and that I will end up being disappointed. (Need I remind you of The Accidental?) A few lines from a few publications are acceptable as far as marketing goes, but thirty-one? Followed by twelve for her first novel? Too much. And entirely unnecessary. Come on, Grove Press, don’t sell her so hard.
Set in India and New York, The Inheritance of Loss is a neo-colonial novel of blended worlds and cultures, reminding me of Dreaming in Cuban. In Dreaming in Cuban, obviously it was Cuban and American cultures knocking heads. In Desai’s novel, it’s India and England (a little writing back to the empire) and India and America. While there are chapters set in America, England remains a very present character; though India gained independence from Britain in 1947, the role of the mother country is still a prominent one during the 1980s, which is when Desai has set her tale.
The novel focuses on Sai, a young girl who is sent to live with her grandfather when her parents are killed. Sai grew up in English schools and has had a very western experience in India. Her grandfather, the judge, is a formerly affluent man who also had a very western education. The two are torn between worlds – very much representative of what Tsitsi Dangarembga would refer to as the “nervous condition.” (Google it – you’ll love it.) The judge goes to great extremes to act and live as a westerner in India, and there is an excellent flashback scene where he abuses his wife (a young Indian girl) when he returns from England and finds her standing on the toilets to use them. *I can appreciate this scene having lived in a country where squats are more commonly used – while Thammasat had western toilets on campus, you’d often find foot prints on the seats where the girls squatted on them to do their business. This is what infuriates the judge as he finds his wife uncivilized and unwestern.* Sai has similar arguments, though not nearly as violent, with Gyan, her tutor/love interest. Gyan gets caught up in the Nepali fight for equality and he takes a lot of his frustration out on Sai, whom he doesn’t see as knowing what it is to be Indian in India. (They have a huge blow out over her love of Christmas.) At one point, the two are having a rather heated discussion:
“You hate me,” said Sai, as if she’d read his thoughts, “for big reasons, that have nothing to do with me. You aren’t being fair.” (285)
This simple sentence is indicative of the majority of struggles between individuals in such divided countries, as well as with the struggles with self and identity.
Along with the story of Sai, is the story of Biju, the judge’s cook’s son who has gone to New York to make his fortune. (The political climate and disjointed nature of a neo-colonial society is evident when Biju returns home and is robbed of all his belongings and his clothing by his countrymen. He is forced to return to his father penniless and in a dress.)
Prior to returning to India, Biju meets some pretty lively characters in his travels through Harlem as he works at various restaurants cooking food of varying ethnicities. At times, it seems as if Desai is doing too much with the two interlocking stories, but she does a fairly decent job of keeping the story and plots coherent without forcing their parallels. I’ve read some interviews with her and she is actually working on fleshing out some of the more dynamic characters that Biju encounters, and I think it’s worth some development but hope she doesn’t limit herself to the characters in The Inheritance of Loss for the remainder of her literary career.
I was extremely impressed with this novel and my faith in the Man Booker Prize remains intact. This novel has earned a pretty respected spot on my bookshelf; she’s right beside Gordimer. This is the type of novel that makes me wish I was still a student; the scholarship I could on this text is limitless. Read it. Mock me for lauding it so heavily and comparing it to food, but I am a bookslut and this book is a damn fine read.
Paperback: 357 pages
Publisher: Grove Press (2006)