Share Your Thoughts

by Kiran Desai. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006. Hardcover, 336 pages. $24.00.

When Kiran Desai penned her first novel,Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, she could hardly have anticipated the words of Salman Rushdie, who proclaimed the effort “Lush and intensely imagined. Welcome proof that India’s encounter with the English language continues to give birth to new children, endowed with lavish gifts.” No minor praise there. And with her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss, Desai lives up to this high praise again.

The Inheritance of Loss, though serious in theme, is also richly imagined and written in lush and playful language. Desai has trained her eye on belonging, in all its forms, and how the world we live in, despite our best efforts, seems to conspire against achieving the cultural and physical warmth we all dream of being enveloped in. Once again, East versus West does its tentative dance, rife with all of the preconceived notions, prejudices, and wild expectations of each other. All of this takes place in a corner of the Himalayas, where the growing threat of an insurgency threatens the fabric of life. Desai says, “I wanted to highlight how suddenly, people who had lived amongst each other for generations could suddenly divide along such lines. While my book focuses on one area of the world, the same thing is going on in many places over the globe.”

She heartily agrees when I call the book a “sad” one: “Oh, yes, it is. In fact, when I finished I didn’t know how I managed to do it. In a lot of ways, it took a lot out of me.”

Interestingly, as the story swings cleverly between India and the United States, both countries come off as hazardous and cold, though Desai admits this was not conscious, but “simply the way the story unraveled.” Her own relationship to India, the country of her birth, and the United States, where she now resides, is seamless: “I’ve traveled so much between the two countries, I really feel as though I belong to both. In fact, by traveling between India and the U.S. I am doing the same thing that my grandparents had done. The journey changes you, though, in so many ways. I have experienced a lot of hope and joy and I have seen the darker side of the journey, too. I feel that there is a lot of hypocrisy and cruelty on both sides of the divide. With this book I have tried to look at the underbelly and try to understand.” And while the “journey” is important no matter who undertakes it, Desai is careful to note that “someone is always left behind.”

Upon the death of her parents, the teenaged Sai comes to live with her maternal grandfather, an imperious and sometimes ridiculous former judge with a bit of treachery in his past. More attached to his dog Mutt than any other living being, he barely notices his granddaughter. Instead, she is coddled and loved by the cook, a simple and devoted man who lives to read the next letter he might receive from his son, Biju, who has gone to America and who he believes is living the “American Dream.” Gyan, the Nepali young man Sai falls in love with, joins a rising insurgency to win the rights of his people who have been subsumed, without benefit, into the Indian culture. Desai’s preoccupation with who and what is “left behind” is everywhere in this novel. Loss becomes both inheritance and legacy, and is the core aspect of the lives of all the characters in the story.

The novel has a complex structure, with many characters on both sides of the divide. Switching between Biju’s life in America and Sai, and the judge and the cook’s difficulties with life in a small but politically changing town, are masterfully rendered. While evidence of Desai’s often outrageously comical play with words, a talent that made her first novel such a delight, can be found in this novel too, it is realized with a much lighter hand, couched between writing that is often poignant, philosophical, and mature. In fact, Desai said it didn’t start out that way: “Oh, in many ways, the first drafts of the novel were very different, the language was way out there. I love to play with language, but realized I could not indulge myself so far without the risk of alienating readers. It came to a point where what I was writing might only have been understood by myself! That wouldn’t do, of course, so the language is very toned down now.”

In fact, Desai confesses that the book was exhausting—it took her about seven years to complete and originally weighed in at about 1,500 pages. “I was very conscious of the subject matter, the seriousness of what I was trying to convey. In addition, I was very self-conscious about writing the American parts. I kept asking myself, ‘Am I getting it right?’”

She speaks softly but intently of the enormous poverty that is still growing in India, the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. “While I write about a very specific place, these issues are global, of course, not just local.” And what of those who leave India to come to the West, a culture often inscrutable to many? Biju, lonely in America, concludes:

He knew what his father thought: that immigration, so often presented as a heroic act, could just as easily be the opposite; that it was cowardice that led many to America; fear marked the journey not bravery; a cockroachy desire to scuttle to where you never saw poverty, not really, never had to suffer a tug to your conscience; where you never heard the demands of servants, beggars, bankrupt relatives, and where your generosity would never be openly claimed … experience the relief of being an unknown transplant to the locals and hide the perspective granted by journey.

Desai blends the political and the personal with style and grace. The Inheritance of Loss gets to the root of the heart’s many desires, and while loss seems to permeate everything, one thing remains clear: it transcends culture and nations and, paradoxically, as the novel suggests, may even unite us in the end.

Michelle Reale is an academic librarian and a fiction writer, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia.