One of Edward Said’s contributions to the humanities has been to push scholars to analyse the politics of ‘representation’, as his own writings did in the case of the creation of the Orient as the ‘other’, in contrast to Europe. In his book Orientalism, Said exposed the veneer of romance that overlays this way of thinking, generating complacency and almost justifying prejudice. It was in large part Said’s writings that led to the creation of postcolonial studies, but analysis of the politics of representation is something far too important to remain confined to academia.
The story of Oriental romance continues in numerous forms, both overt and discreet. Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, which recently won this year’s Man Booker Prize, is a case in point. While representing an individual or group, fiction always contains the possibility of making them overly exotic or romantic. Because of its distance from the majority of the Indian public, this tendency is particularly strong in Indian fiction in English. It is easy for a writer like Desai, for instance, to view the entire community of Nepalis of Kalimpong and Darjeeling through tinted glasses, given that she is writing in English. Had the text been written in Nepali, it would in all likelihood have been rejected by the people it claims to represent.
The picture one gains of the Nepalis of the Darjeeling hills from Desai’s book is of a community that is poor and illiterate – perhaps even insignificant – in its entirety. Out of all the Nepalis we meet here, it is only the tuition teacher, Gyan, who is educated; but lest the reader sees him as a learned, ambitious young man, the author makes it a point to show the ‘reality’ of his existence – the poor, sordid environment of the Bong Busti to which he belongs. In the detailed description of the surroundings of Gyan’s shack-like home, the incongruity of his aspirations is meticulously drawn out. Even his involvement in the Gorkhaland movement is left unexplained, evidently not requiring as careful a treatment as the breakfast served to the character of the retired judge when he was a young student in London.
In an interview following the announcement of the Man Booker award, Desai claimed to have drawn a parallel in the book between the Nepali diaspora in India, and Asians, particularly Indians, living and scrounging for work in the US. The parallel can be justified in that a poor Indian’s desperation to go to America in order to escape the clutches of poverty of his homeland may be similar to the issues of instability and lack of opportunities that have through the centuries brought many immigrants to India from the Nepal hills and plains. But from this point onwards, critical differences emerge between the two situations. While the Indian immigrants vie for green cards and must constantly be on their toes with regards to paperwork to stay in America, circumstances are not the same for Nepali immigrants in India. The community that Desai has chosen to represent are not immigrants, let alone illegal ones, but Indian citizens with franchise and other rights. The Nepali language itself is recognised in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. The status of Nepalis in India, hence, cannot be relegated entirely to that of cheap labour.
The truth is that, for the people of Kalimpong, life is as real, as tough, as beautiful, as happy as for people elsewhere. It is neither a mysterious place, nor are the shoulders of every Nepali here sagging under the weight of poverty and hardship. Besides the Metalbox watchman and his family (who are paralysed by the intricacies of telecommunications technology), Gyan’s family (where his mother locks her son inside to keep him ‘safe’), and the boys clad with bandanas à la Rambo, forcing appalled people to buy cassettes and calendars to support the movement, other Nepalis live in Kalimpong too. There are students, teachers, professors, photographers, poets, critics, novelists, artists. For an outsider who reads the novel, it is not difficult to construe an image of the Nepalis of India as unsophisticated and hopelessly vulnerable.
The choice of Kalimpong as a setting for the novel is convenient for two reasons. First, because it is a ‘sleepy, obscure place in the hills’, so detailing comes easy and unquestioned. Second, it provides a historical backdrop that seems to make the novel impressive – a well-researched, careful, perfect combination of history and fiction, treating diaspora, multiculturalism and what have you. Perhaps most importantly, it has that something that makes contemporary Indian novels so intriguing to the West. Indians can speak about these issues with honesty, apparently, because of their firsthand experience. The West likes to read these works because it satisfies their scruples about genuine concern for spaces beyond their maps.
Desai is fortunate in two ways. First, because she is an Indian woman, and this enables a claim to authenticity for which every writer of fiction clamours. Second, she has chosen to write about a marginalised community that has not spoken much for itself through Indian English-language fiction. But combining these two things, however, she has managed to marginalise that community within its own area. The marginalised ‘subaltern’ in this case neither speaks for itself, nor does the writer choose to speak for it.
The historical backdrop Desai has chosen is that of the Gorkhaland movement of 1980s West Bengal. Throughout the novel, the movement’s only contribution is in making the hills a site of violence and torture. Desai attempts to recreate the atmosphere of the uprising, and gives a smattering mention of various leaders and treaties, but fails to move beyond the mere ‘concept’ of the movement. The 28-month-long uprising appears merely as an extension of the inner landscape of the judge’s mind, and therefore as a series of unfortunate, unavoidable, disturbing events.
Pankaj Mishra, in his review of the novel, wrote: “Sai is romantically involved with her math tutor, Gyan, the descendant of a Nepali Gurkha mercenary, but he eventually recoils from her obvious privilege and falls in with a group of ethnic Nepalese insurgents.” The revolutionaries here are indeed mere “insurgents”, forming a thrilling backdrop to a love affair. History does not emerge from the text as a reality, but is reduced to a function in the plot. Mishra goes on: “Not surprisingly, half-educated, uprooted men like Gyan gravitate to the first available political cause in their search for a better way. He joins what sounds like an ethnic nationalist movement largely as an opportunity to vent his rage and frustration” (emphasis added).
For youngsters in The Inheritance of Loss, participating in the movement seems to be an opportunity to make themselves useful, an opportunity they evidently rarely find. The fact of demagoguery is brought out well, but at the cost of trivialising the uprising itself. It is easy for the reader to feel sorry for Father Booty, the Swiss dairy man who is forced to leave Kalimpong, or for Sai, whose first romance is shattered, or for the two Anglophile sisters whose beautiful house is ransacked. But the poor father and daughter-in-law, who come to the judge on their knees, are seen through the eyes of Sai, who is returning after a bitter quarrel with her lover. The poor pair, squatting in a corner, appears as an object of pity and irritating persistence, a result of their helplessness and vulnerability. People presented as the majority are thus constantly marginalised.
There is a distortion of details in the novel that would not have been overlooked if the ‘object’ being represented had been mainstream to more of its readers. The real Apollo tailors have been renamed Apollo Deaf Tailors, not missing a jibe at the inefficiency of their work. Such distortion is not to be confused with the misplacement of details and facts due to nostalgia, a process that Salman Rushdie hails as a creative power at the hands of the expatriate writer. Desai repeatedly emphasises the seven years she spent researching her book, the guarantor of her precision.
This kind of smugness in an Indian diasporic writer is threatening. In the nature of her representation of her object, Desai justifies Orientalist notions of cultural superiority, notions that postcolonial criticism has been trying to question for decades. If the recognition accorded by the Man Booker Prize serves to justify positions of apathy adopted by a novel, then this recognition is not only damaging to the culture and people represented, but also renders attempts at generating cultural sensitivity meaningless, as it paves the way for further stereotyping of this and other cultures. With the increased readership that the Man Booker is sure to bring to The Inheritance of Loss, one can only hope for a sensitivity on the part of readers that is missing in the writer, to consider with due interest and respect the community the novel claims to represent.