Review: The Inheritance Of Loss by Kiran Desai

I first read this Booker-winning novel when I was in high school. It was a shock to the system, this assault on what I thought writing could and should be.

Broadly the novel follows five characters in a crumbling house in the Himalayan foothills near Kalimpong, West Bengal in the 1980s. In the house there is 17-year-old Sai, who has just begun a romance with her tutor Gyan; Sai’s ageing grandfather, a retired civil-serviceman known as the Judge; the Judge’s dog Mutt, who despite her name is a pedigreed Red Setter; and the Cook, who has been the Judge’s servant since he was first employed age 14. Thousands of miles away in New York is the Cook’s 20-year-old son Biju, who works in a variety of kitchens without a visa, trying to make his fortune.

In the first chapter a group of boys emerge from the mist that seems to perpetually swirl the foothills, demanding tea and the Judge’s firearms. They are part of the Gorkha independence movement which is gathering steam. Contemplating the indignity of the robbery, the characters recall how they came together from different parts of India. Sai is an orphan bereft of nurture; the Judge is estranged from his people by working for the British, curdling into someone he hates; and the Cook puts all his hope onto the next generation. The Inheritance Of Loss is a vessel for sorrow; there is so much pain and loss it seems impossible that a single book can contain it, and it can’t. But Desai resists tragedy. It heaves, rages, seethes with life and its absurdities, and this is a book that is often proudly absurd, like the people in the Judge’s wife’s village who “prided themselves on being mostly nonsense”.

Consider the very first sentences:

All day, the colours had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths. Briefly visible above the vapour, Kachenjunga was 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.

The mountains, the mist: both appear again and again through this novel, a tension between the clarity of the unliveable, ice-blown peaks and the confounding muddle of humanity below. Kachenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain, sits stark above the hill towns with its “wizard phosphorescence” or “glowing a last brazen pornographic pink”. At one point the “coy triangle” of Mount Everest appears in the distance; a tourist in Darjeeling “generously began to scream as if she had caught sight of a pop star”. At these rarefied heights, maybe a little craziness is to be expected. By the end of that first chapter the mist will swirl in again, “charging down like a dragon, dissolving, undoing, making ridiculous the drawing of borders”. It’s a superlatively gorgeous setting, all mossy forests, bamboo thickets, freezing mountainous torrents and dazzling butterflies, but Desai also has a great time poking fun at the Westerners who would exoticise this “Shangri-la”.

You can see even from these short quotations that Desai doesn’t have time for rules or taste. The narrative unfolds at a dizzying pace, switching tone and perspective fast enough to give you whiplash. Adjectives accumulate like the layers of humus in the misty forest; imagery is visceral and over-the-top. When the monsoon thunderously arrives, Desai gleefully describes it as a “wet diarrhoeal season” in which the “feeling … of life being a moving, disappearing thing” “floated … loose and light”. The next chapter has the young Judge agonising over his constipation – emotional, literal – as a student in Cambridge. The exuberance is particularly apparent in the dialogue and punctuation, with exclamations, question marks and superfluous letters proliferating like mosquitoes breeding in old tyres. At one point Biju and his fellow kitchen workers hear a French person swearing:

‘***!!!!’ said the Frenchman. It sounded to their ears like and angry dandelion puff.

Desai’s animals are unapologetically anthropomorphic, from Mutt’s fear of the monsoon, her eyes “those of a soldier in war”, to a “mad-with-anxiety” chicken in a basket: “Nobody had ever told it, but it knew; it was in its soul, that anticipation of the hatchet”. The treatment of animals is key evidence for Desai in the trial against humanity. When men kill a goat in Kathmandu, they verbally abuse her. “You had to swear at a creature to be able to destroy it,” Desai notes abjectly, summing up in a short line the ruin that cruelty to other lifeforms brings. And why is the Judge so kind to Mutt, but cannot extend the same compassion to other humans?

There are so many themes going on – colonialism, post-colonianism, globalisation, capitalism, inequality, nationalism – and the novel often wears them didactically but only works because it does so. It is universal but it isn’t. It’s a story of globalisation with a hyper-local focus. It celebrates and condemns modernity; and celebrates and condemns the past. It pokes fun with the radicals who want to make a new world, and the conservatives who want to preserve it as it is, and treats both with deadly seriousness. It’s loving, hateful, disgusting, beautiful, melodramatic, satirical novel. Somewhere in all these contradictions the novel flies apart, becomes a whirlpool that threatens to engulf everything, but it also, just for a moment, finds a moment to pause as time rushes furiously onwards.

Gay rating: 2/5 for two queer characters, which I didn’t notice on first read, how innocent I was!

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