The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai Viking/Penguin
Kiran Desai’s second novel is set in the Darjeeling hills. It opens in Cho Oyu, a beautiful, crumbling house in Kalimpong, from where a retired judge, his grand-daughter and his beloved dog can see Kanchenjunga, “a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.” As the girl reads an old National Geographic, the old man plays chess against himself; and, in the old kitchen, an ancient cook boils water in the kettle, pours milk into an enamel basin for the dog, warms the leftover chocolate pudding for the judge’s teatime — all the while dreaming of his own son, Biju, who is now an illegal immigrant in distant New York, scurrying from job to job. Outside, around them all, the mist twists and turns.
What a sweet opening for a novel. The scene is almost cinematic, like Kulu-Manali, as the novel says, or Kashmir in ‘pre-terrorist’ days, “before gunmen came bounding out and a new kind of film had to be made”.
Yet it is the mid-1980s here in the mountains, and the region is filled with the unease of the impending insurgency. And so, here come the boys creeping along the grass, clad, guerrilla-fashion, in leather jackets and bandanas. They are here for the judge’s guns, left over from his ICS days.
The guns are not the only baggage that the judge has left over from his youth. He also has troubled memories, of many humiliations endured, and some passed on to others. Memories of “undignified love, Indian love, stinking, unaesthetic love” that have tried to follow him across the oceans – and which he flung back into the very ocean that “traveled around a globe”.
Everyone has their memories of loss that excavate other memories, other losses. The girl, Sai, has indistinct recollections of her parents: she is, after all, the “orphan child of India’s failing romance with the Soviets”. In America, Biju has memories not only of the “old songs, best songs”, but also of the “old war, best war” – “desis against Pakis” that made him feel as if he was “entering a warm, amniotic bath” until it grew cold; because of course it wasn’t a real war, but an itch that was “never scratched”. And the great, crumbling house itself, Cho Oyu, has its memories, not only of happier days, but of the bandy-legged and bent-faced porters upon whose struggling labour its boulders were fitted, one on the other.
And Gyan, Sai’s young lover, has his memories not only of Gorkhaland dreams, but of an overnight bus to Calcutta and a job interview conducted in darkness, when he had heard the insincere promise of the interviewer and had known that he would never be hired.
Desai’s prose is delicate and nuanced as it tells of the sweetest of emotions. The onset of love between the young girl and boy, their terms of endearment: momo, kishmish, kaju. The dance of the beautiful dog as she chases her tail, running happily about the garden. The light-hearted comment of the girl to the dog: “Silly girl.” The judge’s affectionate follow up to this: “Little pearl,” he said to the dog when Sai had left, in case Mutt’s feelings had been bruised.
All life is portrayed here in careful detail: the old and thick forests, the bamboo thickets, the stone walls of the house, the dog who eats sitting at the table. Even a tick-removal scene is brought vividly to life: “The cook and Sai were sitting with Mutt on the steps leading to the garden, picking the ticks off her, and this was always an hour of contentment for them. The large khaki-bag ones were easy to dispatch, but the tiny brown ticks were hard to kill; they flattened against the depressions in the rock, so when you hit them with a stone, they didn’t die but in a flash were up and running. Sai chased them up and down…”
It is difficult to dislike any of the characters, even the hard-hearted judge whose grumpy exterior the deepest of wounds, and who is befuddled by the complexities of the newly-independent nation: “India was too messy for justice.” It is hard not to love dear, bright, young Sai, enveloped in her hopes and the Himalayan mists; it is hard not to feel the ache of Biju’s loneliness as he bicycles along bravely in the North American cold.
All the characters in the narrative have suffered various kinds of loss – of pride, roots, identity and more. Their wounds remain, turning ceaselessly in their minds; creating new lacerations, each demanding to be assuaged but finding no comfort. Hardly anything happens, and yet everything happens. Love formed and broken, relationships tested and betrayed. In this novel of so many kinds of absences, there is yet another tragic loss at the end. Other things are found in its place – including the possibility of a kind of redemption.
As for Sai, she reflects early in the novel on the meaning of love: “Could fulfilment ever be felt as deeply as loss? Romantically she decided that love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfilment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love was the ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself.” By the end of the novel, however, she has come to a new understanding of truth.
Pankaj Mishra, in a review in the New York Times, called this “the best kind of post-9/11 novel”. Although set in the 1980s in a remote corner of the Himalaya, the novel urges us to examine our deepest assumptions about today’s world and its borders; about inequality, injustice and violence; and about the need for compassion.