Monday, November 20, 2006

The Inheritance of Loss By Kiran Desai

# Hardcover: 336 pages;

# Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press (January 9, 2006);

# Language: English

So strong is the link between loss and sadness that I went into Kiran Desai's book "The Inheritance of Loss' fully expecting it to be cloaked in melancholy, however, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn't. Sure, there was sadness, there was loss, but because she balances it with such humor and wisdom you don't come away with a sense of gloom.

Kiran Desai's story is set against the backdrop of the agitation for Gorkhaland (1986)in the north-eastern hills of Darjeeling (India) close to the border with Nepal and revolves around two main characters: 16-year old orphaned Sai and her grandfather, an emibittered, orge-like judge who seems to prefer living in the past . In flashbacks we learn that when he was a young man the judge was sent off to Cambridge by his doting family to study law , but it was a time when people of colour weren't particulary liked in Britain, he was ridiculed for his accent, young girls held their noses as he passed insisting he reeked of curry... this rejection fueled in his soul a shame and a dislike for his heritage, his culture and the colour of his skin.

"...he forgot how to laugh, could barely manage to lift his lips in a smile, and if he ever did, he held his hand over his mouth, because he couldn't bear anyone to see his gums, his teeth.They seemed too private. Infact, he could barely let any of himself peep out of his clothes for fear of giving offence. He began to wash obsessively, concerned he would be accused of smelling. To the end of his life, he would prefer shadow to light, faded days to sunny, for he was suspicious that sunlight might reveal him, in his hideousness, all too clearly." (pg 40)

Other characters in the book include, the wizened old cook and his precious son Biju whom he sent to the US to pursue the American dream; anglophile sisters Noni and Lola; Swiss national Father Booty; drunk uncle Potty and the fascinating Nepali tutor Gyan (also Sai's love interest). The book is set alternately in India and in North America and lovers of language will be fascinated to see how Desai's narration changes to reflect the part of the world her story is in.

Although the story unfolds against the background of the Gorkhaland movement, the book doesn't take political sides. The story is more about the affect this movement had on the people of Kalimpong, how they reacted to it and how it changed their lives. It's about the victims and the survivors. Many books and movies have been made on other Indian separatist movements, like the Sikh's call for a Khalistan or the Kashmir separatist movement, but to my knowledge this is the first book that talks about the call for a Gorkhaland and I am grateful for it shed some light on this cause

I happen to know a lot of blogger friends who are currently reading this book or who have plans to, so I won't reveal too much more, except to say, I really, really enjoyed the book! A big part of the enjoyment came from the fact that booklogged from A Reader's Journal, whose blog I admire so much, sent this to me as part of the BAFAB event and also, reading Kiran Desai at any time means to sit down to an ample literary feast (they don't compare her to Salman Rushdie for nothing). I found her style of writing with its compact paragraphs, lots of exclamation marks, the generous use of capital letters and some breathlessly long sentences to exude a spritliness I am not used to seeing in many books and I love it. I don't know quite how to describe the style except to say it is exhuberant! The narrative, her descriptions and the images they evoke are inspired, take this for instance (about a young boy getting dressed for school)

"...Fed he was, to surfeit. Each day, he was given a tumbler of fresh milk sequined with golden fat. His mother held the tumbler to his lips, lowering it only when empty, so he reemerged like a whale from the sea, heaving for breath. Stomach full of cream, mind full of study, camphor hung in a tiny bag about his neck to divert illness; the entire package was prayed over and thumb-printed red and yellow with tika marks. He was taken to school on the back of his father's bicycle." (pg 58)

In closing, this book has such a range of subjects to discuss - there's globalization, immigration, displacement, the aftermath of colonial rule, love across different cultures, exile, the American dream, just to name a few, but most of all, read it for its expert narration, descriptions and memorable characters . The Chicago Tribune critic predicts "you'll read it almost as Sai read her Bronte, with your heart in your chest, inside the narrative, and the narrative inside you." There is so much more I want to say about this book and hopefully I will get a chance to do so when some of us discuss this book later.

This is the first book from my "Stacks" challenge, four to go!

An Update (15 Dec) : Apparently Kiran Desai is not much loved in Kalimpong. Read about it here

Another update: My friend Sai from Sai Speak has a nice take on the novel. Read it here.


Dawn said...

The book sounds really compelling! What a lot of stuff to cover in one book! Will have to see if I can fit it in maybe, since you say it isn't depressing.

Beloved Dreamer said...

Oh Lotus, I am so excited what a great review and just in time. This book came in the mail yesterday and will be one of the books I'm reading for the "Stacks" challenge
I am not the greatest reviewer but I will give it a try this week. I can't wait to start this book.

ps-I am glad you like my new look.:-)


Lotus Reads said...

Dawn No, it's definitely not depressing, infact, I found it quite a joy to read!

Beloved So glad you got your copy, I am waiting with bated breath to hear what you think of it.

guinness girl said...

Hey - this book also sounds wonderful! I'll have to look into it, after I finish the books in my Stacks Challenge list (which I finally posted on my blog today, fyi). :)

ML said...

What a thoroughly excellent review of a book, Lotus! I want to read! But, I have all of my other books to read, so I'll have to put that on my list of books to read.

Lotus Reads said...

gg I'm coming over to take a look at your list!

ml Thanks so much, glad you enjoyed the review! It's a bit long-winded, but heck, there's so much to say about the book! :)

beenzzz said...

Hi Lotus, I found this part of your book review intriguing:
"he was ridiculed for his accent, young girls held their noses as he passed insisting he reeked of curry... this rejection fueled in his soul a shame and a dislike for his heritage, his culture and the colour of his skin."
It's so incredibly sad that people have to be put through that. The fact that they have to scorn who they are in order to thrive in a new environment. This is a story I know all too well and learned it as a small child. I would love to read this book. I'm going to put it on my Amazon wishlist!!!!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Beenzzz!

Yes, I think as humans what we crave most for in the world is acceptance and when we don't get that it makes us withdraw to a place no one wants to be.

I'm so glad you enjoyed the review, I hope you enjoy the book, too! Thanks very much for your comment.

Sai said...

Hi Lotus,
What a coincidence! I heard Kiran Desai's interview with Terri Gross on NPR's Fresh Air this afternoon. In the latter half of the show she also interviewed Anita Desai. I was thinking to myself about buying this book.

Anyway nice review. I will most certainly read this book.

gautami tripathy said...

It is one my list too. Yet to start it. Infact due to lack of time I have not even made any list yet!

hellomelissa said...

i'll read your review when i'm done with the book. maybe then i can come up with a cohesive comment!

Lotus Reads said...

sai Lovely to see you here! I'm so glad you caught the "Fresh Air" interview, Melissa told me about it, but I wasn't able to catch it live, I might have to dip into the archives later this morning.

Gautami Drop all you're doing and make your list pronto, I'm dying to see the books you pick!

Melissa I understand completely. Finish the book and come back here and we'll discuss it! Hope you're enjoying it so far?

Les said...

Lovely review, Lotus! I always enjoy reading quotes from the book reviewed, as it gives me a taste of the author's style. This is most definitely going on my TBR list! Thank you. :)

usg said...

nothing less than "superb".. cakerfare told me about you in mutiny.. should thank her for it.. awesome work really.. you go girl !

Lotus Reads said...

Thanks,Les! I'm so glad you liked the passages - I had a very hard time deciding on which two passages I wanted to include, there were many good ones!

Thank you, thank you usg! You have made my day with your generous praise, please visit again!

Hollydolly said...

Well, I am a little over half way through reading this book. I will write more when I have finished. From the last post I sent you, I must say I have started to enjoy this book more. I have had a bit of trouble with her style of writing, it is very new to me. I have tried to relax with the reading more, and just let the words swirl and tell the stories.
As I said I will write more later, I do have a couple of passages that I really love.

Lotus Reads said...

Thanks for the update, Sylvia. I'm so pleased to see you're starting to enjoy it again. I agree, there is a lot of jumping around initially, especially as it shifts from India to the US to London and back to India. I guess one has to center oneself after each reading and then go at it again. Also, the style does take a little getting used to...I don't think I have come across such buoyant writing ever.

When you're done with the book, maybe we can have a small discussion along with Melissa and Sasgirl. Hindu Mommy is offline for two weeks so I guess she won't be joining in.

More later.

sasgirl said...

Great review Lotus! Much better than mine as always. :)

And I'm so glad you enjoyed it, looks we're on the same page when it comes to books! *sorry, couldn't resist!* Looking forward to a discussion with you and Melissa!

Asha said...

Oh! sounds wonderful.I would love to read this.Amazon, here I come!
Those little snippet itself sounds great.
I always love to read abt little Indian town and their day to day lives.It's as if I am back in India living that life.
Thank you Lotus. Have a great weekend!:)

Lotus Reads said...

sasgirl Funny you should say that, I seem to prefer everyone else's reviews to mine...guess it's much like cooking, to my palate everyone else's cooking is so much tastier than my own! I look forward to discussing the book with you, sasgirl!

Asha You're such a darling for stopping by - thank you!

sruthi said...

hey isn't this the book you won? you're right, the title seems to suggest that loss runs in the family or something but there's so much more to it. I'll read this once my annoying responsibilities are over!

Framed said...

Lotus, I doubt if I would ever have read this book based on the title. But your description of the exuberant writing style really captured my attention. So I'm adding one more to the TBR list. I'm glad, since this book seems quite different thatn anything else I have on the list. Great review.

Lotus Reads said...

sruthi Yes! This is it indeed!!! Sruthi, your new blog look has me itching to get a blog makeover for myself. I've already started the ball rolling by e-mailing off my specifications to a web designer but I haven't heard back from her yet. Good luck over the next few days - you're going to need it with making sure you have all your paperwork in order!

Framed Lovely to see you here. Yes, the title is a little melancholy and I think Kiran realized that because when she addressed the International Festival of Authors in Toronto late last month, she mentioned she would have changed the title if she could.

Hollydolly said...

Well, I finally finished reading “Inheritance”.Oh; I wish I could say that I really enjoyed this book. Somehow it just didn’t click for me. I don’t know what is was, but it just could not, for some reason, hold my interest. Yes, I agree the book was well written, and her prose is marvelous, but as I was reading my mind would drift off the story.
I am not, I admit, fond of stories that go back and forth, not necessarily in places, but in time. When a story has this drift from place to place, character to character, my interest wanes. Perhaps if it were not broken up into such small narratives. I would find myself just getting interested in a particular character, than off we would go to someone and somewhere else.

I have a feeling my mind was not ready for this book. I have read such glowing reviews I feel I should read it again at some point.

Lotus Reads said...


So glad you wrote in with your impressions! From what you say, it appears that while you enjoyed the prose, the storyline itself did not grab you.

Also, like you say, it's hard on some readers when the author tends to switch quickly from one time period into another - I guess that's more enjoyable for people with short attention spans, no?

Just curious...did you wish the author could have provided more background information on the Gorkhas and their standing in Indian society, or did she provide enough information for you to understand and relate to the fight for Gorkhaland?

Did you enjoy Biju's story? For me, he was probably the most interesting character in the book, followed by Gyan.

Sugarlips said...

I really enjoyed reading this book :)

Stay Beautiful...!!

Lotus Reads said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it sugarlips, it really is a nice read! I'm also excited that we share so many common favorites when it comes to books, yeay!!!

Wendy said...

I love reading your reviews, Lotus! Beautifully written, and you chose gorgeous passages to quote. This book is on my list to be read this year...I think I will need to bump it up in the list to sooner rather than later :) Thanks for your thoughts!

A Reader rom India said...

Hi Lotus,

I enjoyed reading your review, that seemed to echo many of my thoughts on this wonderful book.
I have linked to your review on my blog, hope it is ok.

Anonymous said...

great prose. no plot. terrible book. just a bunch of observations with no character development. throw in the usual third world spicy mix of hatred and randomness, and all borrowed elements from Rushdie, Seth, Rohinton Mistry etc, and you have kiran desai who manages to win the booker due to her mother. booker has fallen in standards and fallen hard at that...

Anonymous said...

I found this to be a terrible book! The author's style is sloppy, choppy, and she offers no redeeming qualities in her characters or the country dear to her. In her writing she is ultimately degrading and creates a pathetic means to foster empathy or understanding in the Western reader as to the political issues in Gorkhaland. I cannot believe that this received a Booker award!

rosieluru said...

I found this book to be disturbing and sad. I read it over the summer because it was on my reading list for A.P. English 12. I found Jemu's treatment of his wife and of himself to be very sad. Sai and her tutor fight like children do, so they will still mature. so there is hope for them. The judge chose to hate and reject his heritage. Biju chose to embrace and remain loyal to his. To Biju, family and religion are more important than money or a decent job. I really like that. I didn't have a problem at all with the style in which the book is written. I also liked the end, because although Mutt was stolen and Biju was robbed of everything including the clothes upon his back, Biju was reunited with the judge, Sai, and the cook and they were happy despite their loss. I don't know anything about the awards and I don't think you should let it bother you, whoever reads this, because awards like that are given out based on OPINION. Someone else must have found something in this book truly prizeworthy and noteworthy that you missed.

mohit said...

An enjoyable read The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. loved the way she wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal.