The Inheritance of Lossby Kiran Desai
“Briskly paced and sumptuously written, the novel ponders questions of nationhood, modernity, and class, in ways both moving and revelatory.” –The New Yorker
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Published to extraordinary acclaim, The Inheritance of Loss heralds Kiran Desai as one of our most insightful novelists. She illuminates the pain of exile and the ambiguities of postcolonialism with a tapestry of colorful characters: an embittered old judge; Sai, his sixteen-year-old orphaned granddaughter; a chatty cook; and the cook’s son, Biju, who is hopscotching from one miserable New York restaurant to another, trying to stay a step ahead of the INS.
When a Nepalese insurgency in the mountains threatens Sai’s new-sprung romance with her handsome tutor, their lives descend into chaos. The cook witnesses India’s hierarchy being overturned and discarded. The judge revisits his past and his role in Sai and Biju’s intertwining lives. A story of depth and emotion, hilarity and imagination, The Inheritance of Loss tells “of love, longing, futility, and loss that is Desai’s true territory” (O: The Oprah Magazine).
“Kiran Desai’s extraordinary new novel manages to explore, with intimacy and insight, just about every contemporary international issue: globalization, multiculturalism, economic inequality, fundamentalism and terrorist violence. . . . Desai’s novel seems lit by a moral intelligence at once fierce and tender. . . . Desai’s prose has uncanny flexibility and poise. . . . Marvel at Desai’s artistic power.” –Pankaj Mishra, New York Times Book Review (front page review)
“It’s a clash of civilizations, even empires . . . The idea of an old empire, the British one collides against the nouveaux riche American one. The story ricochets between the two worlds, held together by Desai’s sharp eyes and even sharper tongue. . . . This is a . . . substantial meal, taking on heavier issues of land and belonging, home and exile, poverty and privilege, and love and the longing for it.” –Sandip Roy, San Francisco Chronicle (front page review)
“Briskly paced and sumptuously written, the novel ponders questions of nationhood, modernity, and class, in ways both moving and revelatory.” –The New Yorker
“If book reviews just cut to the chase, this one would simply read: This is a terrific novel! Read it! Desai charcters are so alive, the places so vivid, that we are always inside their lives. Her insights into human nature, rare for so young a write, juggle timeless wisdom and Twenty-first century self-doubt.” –Ann Harleman, The Boston Globe
“Editor’s Choice … Kiran Desai writes beautifully about powerless people as they tangle with the modern world and in so doing she casts her own powerful spell.” –Elizabeth Taylor, Chicago Tribune
“An endearing view of globalisation . . . The Inheritance of Loss is a book about tradition and modernity, the past and the future-and about the surprising ways both amusing and sorrowful, in which they all connect. . . . A wide variety of readers should enjoy.” –Boyd Tonkin, The Independent (London)
“Impressive . . . a big novel that stretches from India to New York; an ambitious novel that reaches into the lives of the middle class and the very poor; an exuberantly written novel that mixes colloquial and more literary styles; and yet it communicates nothing so much as how impossible it is to live a big, ambitious, exuberant life. . . .Desai’s prose becomes marvelously flexible . . . always pulsing with energy.” –Natasha Walter, The Guardian
“A magnificent novel of humane breadth and wisdom, comic tenderness and powerful political acuteness.” –Hermione Lee, chair of the 2006 Man Booker Prize
“With her second novel, Kiran Desai has written a sprawling and delicate book, like an ancient landscape glittering in the rain. . . . Desai has a touch for alternating humor and impending tragedy that one associates with the greatest writers, and her prose is uncannily beautiful, a perfect balance of lyricism and plain speech.” –O: The Oprah Magazine
“An astute observer of human nature and a delectably sensuous satirist. . . . Perceptive and bewitching. . . . Desai is superbly insightful in her rendering of compelling characters, and in her wisdom regarding the perverse dynamics of society. . . . Incisively and imaginatively dramatizes the wonders and tragedies of Himalayan life and, by extension, the fragility of peace and elusiveness of justice, albeit with her own powerful blend of tenderness and wit.” –Booklist (starred review)
“Stunning . . . In this alternately comical and contemplative novel, Desai deftly shuttles between first and third worlds, illuminating the pain of exile, the ambiguities of post-colonialism and the blinding desire for a “better life” when one person’s wealth means another’s poverty.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“[An] exceptionally talented writer . . .She doesn’t falter . . . penning a book that is wise, insightful and full of wonderfully compelling and conflicted characters. . . . The Inheritance of Loss distinguishes her as a writer of note. . . . A deft and often witty commentary on cultural issues. . . . Abundant with illuminating detail and potent characters . . . With its razor insights and emotional scope The Inheritance of Loss amplifies a developing and formidable voice.” –Jenifer Berman, Los Angeles Times
“Desai is wildly in love with the light and landscape and the characters who inhabit it. Summer comes alive with its sights, sounds and smells, and the rainy season pours down with more force than in any other novel. . . . [Desai has] a love of languages that few American writers her age seem able to rival. . . . One of the most impressive novels in English of the past year.” –Alan Cheuse, Chicago Tribune
“Desai’s Indian characters are exquisitely particular–funny but never quaint, full of foibles but never reduced by authorial condescension. Bittersweet, entertaining, and just shy of tragic, The Inheritance of Loss is surprisingly wise.” –Economist
“Desai is a gorgeous writer, capable of pulling us along on a raft of sensuous images that are often beautiful not because what they describe are inherently so, but because she has shown their naked truth”. It is her language that draws us in and pins us there”. Elegant and brave”” –Sue Halpern, The New York Review of Books
“In keeping with the confident touch displayed throughout this rich, beguiling tale, the final scene treats the heart to one last moment of wild, comic joy–even as it satisfies the head by refusing to relinquish the dark reality that is the life of the characters. . . . It is a work full of color and comedy, even as it challenges all to face the same heart-wrenching questions that haunt the immigrant. . . . Nothing sours the warm heart at the center of this novel. Desai is sometimes compared to Salman Rushdie, and the energy and fecundity of imagination in her works do make them somewhat akin to his. But the tenderness in her novels is all her own.” –Marjorie Kehe, Christian Science Monitor
“A rich, expansive work.” –Dintia Smith, The New York Times
“Desai employs a kaleidoscopic technique to illuminate fractured lives. . . . A rich stew of ironies and contradictions. Desai’s eye for the ridiculous is as keen as ever.” –Kirkus Reviews
“Desai’s descriptions and her humor make this ” novel of national and personal identity fascinating.” –Nola Theiss, Kliatt
“Sesai’s assurance and energy keep the plot on track and bring her ambitious tale to a fittingly strong conclusion. 3 stars –People
“A meditative look at the conflicting bonds of love and duty.” –Vogue
“Ambitious . . . The book’s magic lies in such rich images as an Indian judge wearing a ‘silly white wig atop a dark face in the burning heat of summer.” A-” –Missy Schwartz, Entertainment Weekly
“Desai shed light on the tribulations of all Indians abroad. . . . The passages about life in India are especially evocative, capturing the interplay between the country’s politics and people’s lives. . . . Desai’s nearly painterly attention to the small, yet utterly disturbing, human details . . . sticks with the reader. . . . Details its characters’ hardships head-on, and her elegant prose makes their experiences hard to forget.” –Reena Jana, Time Out
“Vast and vivid, full of tastes and smells, voices and accents, humor and fury. It is a captivating book.” –Stephanie Deutsch, The Washington Times
“A tender story of a crotchety Anglophile Indian judge; his orphaned sixteen-year-old grand daughter, Sai; his subservient cook; and the cook’s son, Biju, whose hellish passage through the dirty basements and prep kitchens of glittering New York City restaurants bleakly parallels the goings-on back home . . . [Desai’s] is an incredibly unromantic vision, and seldom has an author offered so fearless a glimpse into how ordinary lives are caught up in the collision of modernity and cultural tradition.” –Jenny Feldman, Elle
“Shimmering with honesty and humanity . . . This novel is finely accomplished.” –Bharti Kirchner, Seattle Times
“Lush, multi-textured . . . The lyrical prose invites rumination and re-reading.” –Jack Reardon, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Impeccably beautiful ” the story of a modernizing India, a nation looking forward and backward at once, with its people trying to find their place in a new world of new opportunities.” ––Geeta Sharma-Jensen, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
“A finely textured story that mixes post-Raj dilemmas of modern India with the challenges of Indian immigrant life in New York.” ––Carlin Romano, Philadelphia Inquirer
“Desai’s strength lies in her ability to capture, with humor and grace, the nuanced complexities of the characters and their times. . . . [A novel] that brings both caring and understanding.” –Robin Vidimos, Denver Post
“Elegant . . . Desai’s meditation on colonialism and identity remind us of V.S. Naipaul. . . . What distinguishes Desai is her generosity, a deeply felt sympathy for her characters. . . . A poignant reminder of how the past haunts the present.” –Lester Pimentel, Newark Star-Ledger
“The young Desai proves her literary legacy (her mother is the inimitable Anita Desai) as she deftly unfurls piece by disparate piece the stories of each of the lost souls searching for connection.” –The Bloomsbury Review
“Very real and compelling main characters and a few wonderful minor ones as well. . . Desai is a confident and talented writer. Her novel is full of wisdom and subtle parallels; it is both funny and bitterly sad. . . . She is never preachy. . . or even predictable. . . . Desai has secured her place with the list of great contemporary Indian authors exploring life and society in India and elsewhere: think Salman Rushdie and Rohinton Mistry. The Inheritance of Loss is lovely and highly recommended. It is smart, witty and honest–a powerfully engrossing novel.” –Sarah Rachel Egelman, BookReporter.com
“Desai writes with assurance and lyricism about life in India, and her insights into how South Asia has been affected by America are fascinating and timely. This is an impressive, original novel from a welcome new voice in Indian fiction.” –Julie Hale, Bookpage
“Impressive… An exuberantly written novel that mixes colloquial and more literary styles.” – Guardian Weekly (UK)
“Stunning” –Suzanne Snider, Columbia Magazine
“This is a story of exiles at home and abroad, of families broken and fixed, of love both bitter and bittersweet. You can read it almost as Sai read her Bront”, with your heart in your chest, inside the narrative, and the narrative inside you.” –Alan Cheuse, World Literature Today
“Entertaining and enriching . . . The reader is lured into a Graham Greene kind of literary landscape. . . . [This is a] mesmerizing and emotionally moving novel.” –Arthur J. Pais, India Abroad
“An impressive familiarity with local customs and prejudices’Of particular note is Desai’s voluptuous use of sensory detail to craft a mountainous world of fog, mist, and lush vegetation.” –Joanne McCarthy, Magill Book Reviews
“Her achievement is considerable.” –Mandira Sen, Women’s Review of Books
“A nation’s tragedies, great and small, are revealed through the hopes and the dreams, the innocence and the arrogance, the love betrayed, and the all too human failings of a superbly realized cast of characters. Kiran Desai writes of postcolonial India, of its poor as well as its privileged, with a cold eye and a warm heart. The Inheritance of Loss is an exquisite novel; mature, significant, and a first-rate read.” –Binnie Kirshenbaum, author of An Almost Perfect Moment
Praise for Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard:
“Enchanting . . . A meticulously crafted piece of gently comic satire–a small, finely tuned fable that attests to the author’s pitch-perfect ear for character and mood, and her natural storytelling gifts.” –Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times on Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard
‘desai is a lavish, sharp-eyed fabulist whose send-up of small-town culture cuts to the heart of human perversity.” –The New Yorker
“This is a beguiling novel, fresh and funny and warmhearted.” –Roxana Robinson
‘desai’s novel exudes charisma, poetry and joy in language and life. A sparkling debut.” –Donna Rifkind, The Baltimore Sun
“With this radiant novel, Kiran Desai parts the waters.” –Junot D”az
“With remarkably complex characters, unpredictable plot twists and vivid descriptions . . . a spectacularly fresh vision.” –Reena Jana, San Francisco Chronicle
Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2006
Selected as one of Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year 2006
Selected as one of The New York Times Book Review 100 Notable Books of the Year
Selected as an ALA Notable Book of the Year 2006
Finalist for the NBCC Award for Fiction 2006
Short-listed for the Orange Prize 2007
Long-listed for the 2008 Dublin Impac Award
A Book Sense Selection
All day, the colors 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 vapor, Kanchenjunga 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.
Sai, sitting on the veranda, was reading an article about giant squid in an old National Geographic. Every now and then she looked up at Kanchenjunga, observed its wizard phosphorescence with a shiver. The judge sat at the far corner with his chessboard, playing against himself. Stuffed under his chair where she felt safe was Mutt the dog, snoring gently in her sleep. A single bald lightbulb dangled on a wire above. It was cold, but inside the house, it was still colder, the dark, the freeze, contained by stone walls several feet deep.
Here, at the back, inside the cavernous kitchen, was the cook, trying to light the damp wood. He fingered the kindling gingerly for fear of the community of scorpions living, loving, reproducing in the pile.
Once he’d found a mother, plump with poison, fourteen babies on her back.
Eventually the fire caught and he placed his kettle on top, as battered, as encrusted as something dug up by an archeological team, and waited for it to boil. The walls were singed and sodden, garlic hung by muddy stems from the charred beams, thickets of soot clumped batlike upon the ceiling. The flame cast a mosaic of shiny orange across the cook’s face, and his top half grew hot, but a mean gust tortured his arthritic knees.
Up through the chimney and out, the smoke mingled with the mist that was gathering speed, sweeping in thicker and thicker, obscuring things in parts–half a hill, then the other half. The trees turned into silhouettes, loomed forth, were submerged again. Gradually the vapor replaced everything with itself, solid objects with shadow, and nothing remained that did not seem molded from or inspired by it. Sai’s breath flew from her nostrils in drifts, and the diagram of a giant squid constructed from scraps of information, scientists’ dreams, sank entirely into the murk.
She shut the magazine and walked out into the garden. The forest was old and thick at the edge of the lawn; the bamboo thickets rose thirty feet into the gloom; the trees were moss-slung giants, bunioned and misshapen, tentacled with the roots of orchids. The caress of the mist through her hair seemed human, and when she held her fingers out, the vapor took them gently into its mouth. She thought of Gyan, the mathematics tutor, who should have arrived an hour ago with his algebra book.
But it was 4:30 already and she excused him with the thickening mist.
When she looked back, the house was gone; when she climbed the steps back to the veranda, the garden vanished. The judge had fallen asleep and gravity acting upon the slack muscles, pulling on the line of his mouth, dragging on his cheeks, showed Sai exactly what he would look like if he were dead.
“Where is the tea?” he woke and demanded of her. “He’s late,” said the judge, meaning the cook with the tea, not Gyan.
“I’ll get it,” she offered.
The gray had permeated inside, as well, settling on the silverware, nosing the corners, turning the mirror in the passageway to cloud. Sai, walking to the kitchen, caught a glimpse of herself being smothered and reached forward to imprint her lips upon the surface, a perfectly formed film star kiss. “Hello,” she said, half to herself and half to someone else.
No human had ever seen an adult giant squid alive, and though they had eyes as big as apples to scope the dark of the ocean, theirs was a solitude so profound they might never encounter another of their tribe. The melancholy of this situation washed over Sai.
Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss? Romantically she decided that love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love was the ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself.
The water boiled and the cook lifted the kettle and emptied it into the teapot.
“Terrible,” he said. ‘my bones ache so badly, my joints hurt–I may as well be dead. If not for Biju. . . .” Biju was his son in America. He worked at Don Pollo–or was it The Hot Tomato? Or Ali Baba’s Fried Chicken? His father could not remember or understand or pronounce the names, and Biju changed jobs so often, like a fugitive on the run–no papers.
“Yes, it’s so foggy,” Sai said. “I don’t think the tutor will come.” She jigsawed the cups, saucers, teapot, milk, sugar, strainer, Marie and Delite biscuits all to fit upon the tray.
“I’ll take it,” she offered.
“Careful, careful,” he said scoldingly, following with an enamel basin of milk for Mutt. Seeing Sai swim forth, spoons making a jittery music upon the warped sheet of tin, Mutt raised her head. “Tea-time?” said her eyes as her tail came alive.
“Why is there nothing to eat?” the judge asked, irritated, lifting his nose from a muddle of pawns in the center of the chessboard.
He looked, then, at the sugar in the pot: dirty, micalike glinting granules. The biscuits looked like cardboard and there were dark finger marks on the white of the saucers. Never ever was the tea served the way it should be, but he demanded at least a cake or scones, macaroons or cheese straws. Something sweet and something salty. This was a travesty and it undid the very concept of teatime.
“Only biscuits,” said Sai to his expression. “The baker left for his daughter’s wedding.”
“I don’t want biscuits.”
“How dare he go for a wedding? Is that the way to run a business? The fool. Why can’t the cook make something?”
“There’s no more gas, no kerosene.”
“Why the hell can’t he make it over wood? All these old cooks can make cakes perfectly fine by building coals around a tin box. You think they used to have gas stoves, kerosene stoves, before? Just too lazy now.”
The cook came hurrying out with the leftover chocolate pudding warmed on the fire in a frying pan, and the judge ate the lovely brown puddle and gradually his face took on an expression of grudging pudding contentment.
They sipped and ate, all of existence passed over by nonexistence, the gate leading nowhere, and they watched the tea spill copious ribbony curls of vapor, watched their breath join the mist slowly twisting and turning, twisting and turning.
Nobody noticed the boys creeping across the grass, not even Mutt, until they were practically up the steps. Not that it mattered, for there were no latches to keep them out and nobody within calling distance except Uncle Potty on the other side of the jhora ravine, who would be drunk on the floor by this hour, lying still but feeling himself pitch about–’don’t mind me, love,” he always told Sai after a drinking bout, opening one eye like an owl, “I’ll just lie down right here and take a little rest–”
They had come through the forest on foot, in leather jackets from the Kathmandu black market, khaki pants, bandanas–universal guerilla fashion. One of the boys carried a gun.
Later reports accused China, Pakistan, and Nepal, but in this part of the world, as in any other, there were enough weapons floating around for an impoverished movement with a ragtag army. They were looking for anything they could find–kukri sickles, axes, kitchen knives, spades, any kind of firearm.
They had come for the judge’s hunting rifles.
Despite their mission and their clothes, they were unconvincing. The oldest of them looked under twenty, and at one yelp from Mutt, they screamed like a bunch of schoolgirls, retreated down the steps to cower behind the bushes blurred by mist. ‘does she bite, Uncle? My God!” –shivering there in their camouflage.
Mutt began to do what she always did when she met strangers: she turned a furiously wagging bottom to the intruders and looked around from behind, smiling, conveying both shyness and hope.
Hating to see her degrade herself thus, the judge reached for her, whereupon she buried her nose in his arms.
The boys came back up the steps, embarrassed, and the judge became conscious of the fact that this embarrassment was dangerous for had the boys projected unwavering confidence, they might have been less inclined to flex their muscles.
The one with the rifle said something the judge could not understand.
“No Nepali?” he spat, his lips sneering to show what he thought of that, but he continued in Hindi. “Guns?”
“We have no guns here.”
“You must be misinformed.”
“Never mind with all this nakhra. Get them.”
“I order you,” said the judge, “to leave my property at once.”
“Bring the weapons.”
“I will call the police.”
This was a ridiculous threat as there was no telephone.
They laughed a movie laugh, and then, also as if in a movie, the boy with the rifle pointed his gun at Mutt. “Go on, get them, or we will kill the dog first and you second, cook third, ladies last,” he said, smiling at Sai.
“I’ll get them,” she said in terror and overturned the tea tray as she went.
The judge sat with Mutt in his lap. The guns dated from his days in the Indian Civil Service. A BSA five-shot barrel pump gun, a .30 Springfield rifle, and a double-barreled rifle, Holland & Holland. They weren’t even locked away: they were mounted at the end of the hall above a dusty row of painted green and brown duck decoys.
“Chtch, all rusted. Why don’t you take care of them?” But they were pleased and their bravado bloomed. “We will join you for tea.”
“Tea?” asked Sai in numb terror.
“Tea and snacks. Is this how you treat guests? Sending us back out into the cold with nothing to warm us up.” They looked at one another, at her, looked up, down, and winked.
She felt intensely, fearfully female.
Of course, all the boys were familiar with movie scenes where hero and heroine, befeathered in cosy winterwear, drank tea served in silver tea sets by polished servants. Then the mist would roll in, just as it did in reality, and they sang and danced, playing peekaboo in a nice resort hotel. This was classic cinema set in Kulu-Manali or, in preterrorist days, Kashmir, before gunmen came bounding out of the mist and a new kind of film had to be made.
The cook was hiding under the dining table and they dragged him out.
“Ai aaa, ai aaa” he joined his palms together, begging them, “please, I’m a poor man, please.” He held up his arms and cringed as if from an expected blow.
“He hasn’t done anything, leave him,” said Sai, hating to see him humiliated, hating even more to see that the only path open to him was to humiliate himself further.
“Please living only to see my son please don’t kill me please I’m a poor man spare me”
His lines had been honed over centuries, passed down through generations, for poor people needed certain lines; the script was always the same, and they had no option but to beg for mercy. The cook knew instinctively how to cry.
These familiar lines allowed the boys to ease still further into their role, which he had handed to them like a gift.
“Who wants to kill you?” they said to the cook. “We’re just hungry, that’s all. Here, your sahib will help you. Go on,” they said to the judge, “you know how it should be done properly.” The judge didn’t move, so the man pointed the gun at Mutt again.
The judge grabbed her and put her behind him.
“Too soft-hearted, sahib. You should show this kind side to your guests, also. Go on, prepare the table.”
The judge found himself in the kitchen where he had never been, not once, Mutt wobbling about his toes, Sai and the cook too scared to look, averting their gaze.
It came to them that they might all die with the judge in the kitchen; the world was upside down and absolutely anything could happen.
“Nothing to eat?”
“Only biscuits,” said Sai for the second time that day.
“La! What kind of sahib?” the leader asked the judge. “No snacks! Make something, then. Think we can continue on empty stomachs?”
Wailing and pleading for his life, the cook fried pakoras, batter hitting the hot oil, this sound of violence seeming an appropriate accompaniment to the situation.
The judge fumbled for a tablecloth in a drawer stuffed with yellowed curtains, sheets, and rags. Sai, her hands shaking, stewed tea in a pan and strained it, although she had no idea how to properly make tea this way, the Indian way. She only knew the English way.
The boys carried out a survey of the house with some interest. The atmosphere, they noted, was of intense solitude. A few bits of rickety furniture overlaid with a termite cuneiform stood isolated in the shadows along with some cheap metal-tube folding chairs. Their noses wrinkled from the gamy mouse stench of a small place, although the ceiling had the reach of a public monument and the rooms were spacious in the old manner of wealth, windows placed for snow views. They peered at a certificate issued by Cambridge University that had almost vanished into an overlay of brown stains blooming upon walls that had swelled with moisture and billowed forth like sails. The door had been closed forever on a storeroom where the floor had caved in. The storeroom supplies and what seemed like an unreasonable number of emptied tuna-fish cans, had been piled on a broken Ping-Pong table in the kitchen, and only a corner of the kitchen was being used, since it was meant originally for the slaving minions, not the one leftover servant.
“House needs a lot of repairs,” the boys advised.
“Tea is too weak,” they said in the manner of mothers-in-law. “And not enough salt,” they said of the pakoras. They dipped the Marie and Delite biscuits in the tea, drew up the hot liquid noisily. Two trunks they found in the bedrooms they filled with rice, lentils, sugar, tea, oil, matches, Lux soap, and Pond’s Cold Cream. One of them assured Sai: “Only items necessary for the movement.” A shout from another alerted the rest to a locked cabinet. “Give us the key.”
The judge fetched the key hidden behind the National Geographics that, as a young man, visualizing a different kind of life, he had taken to a shop to have bound in leather with the years in gold lettering.
They opened the cabinet and found bottles of Grand Marnier, amontillado sherry, and Talisker. Some of the bottles’ contents had evaporated completely and some had turned to vinegar, but the boys put them in the trunk anyway.
There were none. This angered them, and although there was no water in the tanks, they defecated in the toilets and left them stinking. Then they were ready to go.
“Say, “Jai Gorkha,”” they said to the judge. “Gorkhaland for Gorkhas.”
“Say, “I am a fool.””
“I am a fool.”
“Loudly. Can’t hear you, huzoor. Say it louder.”
He said it in the same empty voice.
“Jai Gorkha,” said the cook, and “Gorkhaland for Gorkhas,” said Sai, although they had not been asked to say anything.
“I am a fool,” said the cook.
Chuckling, the boys stepped off the veranda and out into the fog carrying the two trunks. One was painted with white letters on the black tin that read: ‘mr. J. P. Patel, SS Strathnaver” The other read: ‘miss S. Mistry, St. Augustine’s Convent.” Then they were gone as abruptly as they had appeared.
“They’ve gone, they’ve gone,” said Sai. Mutt tried to respond despite the fear that still inhabited her eyes, and she tried to wag her tail, although it kept folding back between her legs. The cook broke into a loud lament: “Humara kya hoga, hai hai, humara kya hoga,” he let his voice fly. “Hai, hai, what will become of us?”
“Shut up,” said the judge and thought, These damn servants born and brought up to scream.
He himself sat bolt upright, his expression clenched to prevent its distortion, tightly clasping the arms of the chair to restrict a violent trembling, and although he knew he was trying to stop a motion that was inside him, it felt as if it were the world shaking with a ravaging force he was trying to hold himself against. On the dining table was the tablecloth he had spread out, white with a design of grape-vines interrupted by a garnet stain where, many years ago, he had spilled a glass of port while trying to throw it at his wife for chewing in a way that disgusted him.
“So slow,” the boys had taunted him. “You people! No shame. . . . Can’t do one thing on your own.”
Both Sai and the cook had averted their gaze from the judge and his humiliation, and even now their glances avoided the tablecloth and took the longer way across the room, for if the cloth were acknowledged, there was no telling how he might punish them. It was an awful thing, the downing of a proud man. He might kill the witness.
The cook drew the curtains; their vulnerability seemed highlighted by the glass and they appeared to be hanging exposed in the forest and the night, with the forest and the night hanging their dark shaggy cloaks upon them. Mutt saw her reflection before the cloth was drawn, mistook it for a jackal, and jumped. Then she turned, saw her shadow on the wall, and jumped once more.
It was February of 1986. Sai was seventeen, and her romance with Gyan the mathematics tutor was not even a year old.
When the newspapers next got through the road blocks, they read:
In Bombay a band named Hell No was going to perform at the Hyatt International.
In Delhi, a technology fair on cow dung gas stoves was being attended by delegates from all over the world.
In Kalimpong, high in the northeastern Himalayas where they lived–the retired judge and his cook, Sai, and Mutt–there was a report of new dissatisfaction in the hills, gathering insurgency, men and guns. It was the Indian-Nepalese this time, fed up with being treated like the minority in a place where they were the majority. They wanted their own country, or at least their own state, in which to manage their own affairs. Here, where India blurred into Bhutan and Sikkim, and the army did pull-ups and push-ups, maintaining their tanks with khaki paint in case the Chinese grew hungry for more territory than Tibet, it had always been a messy map. The papers sounded resigned. A great amount of warring, betraying, bartering had occurred; between Nepal, England, Tibet, India, Sikkim, Bhutan; Darjeeling stolen from here, Kalimpong plucked from there–despite, ah, despite the mist charging down like a dragon, dissolving, undoing, making ridiculous the drawing of borders.
1. The Inheritance of Loss is preceded by a poem by Jorge Luis Borges. Given what you know of Borges, why do you think Kiran Desai chose his work as an epigraph? Who are “the ambitious . . . the loftily covetous multitude”? Why are they “worthy of tomorrow”? Who is “I”?
2. The first evening that Sai was at Cho Oyu, “she had a fearful feeling of having entered a space so big it reached both backward and forward” (p. 34). Discuss this observation. Could this be a description of the novel itself?
3. Discuss the terms globalization and colonialism. What does it mean to introduce an element of the West into a country that is not of the West, a person from a poor nation into a wealthy one? What are examples of this in the novel? Discuss them in political and economic terms. How are Noni and Lola stand-ins for the middle class the world over? See page 242.
4. Why did the judge lead such a solitary life in England? The judge returned to India a changed man. “He envied the English. He loathed Indians. He worked at being English with the passion of hatred and for what he would become, he would be despised by absolutely everyone, English and Indians, both” (p. 119). Discuss the effect that the prejudice and rejection he experienced in England had on the judge for the rest of his life.
5. Bose was the judge’s only friend in England. “A look of recognition had passed between them at first sight, but also the assurance that they wouldn’t reveal one another’s secrets, not even to each other” (p. 118). Compare and contrast the two men. Who was the optimist? How did Bose help the judge when they were in England? When they met again, thirty-three years later, Bose had changed. How? Why did he want to see the judge again?
6. Nimi attended a political rally unknowingly. Who took her to the rally? Explain why the judge was enraged at this. After independence, he found himself on the wrong side of history. What was happening politically in India at this time? What was the Congress Party?
7. The judge’s marriage to Nimi was destined to fail. Did the judge ever have any tender feelings for his wife? Why and how did her family pay for him to go to school in England? What finally happened to Nimi? What did the judge choose to believe about it? And finally, did the judge have regrets that he abandoned his family “for the sake of false ideals’ (p. 308)?
8. Discuss the judge’s feelings for Sai, who was “perhaps the only miracle fate had thrown his way” (p. 210). The cook treated Sai like a daughter. Discuss their relationship.
9. Discuss the role that Mutt played in the judge’s life.
10. Sai’s parents left her at St. Augustine’s Convent, and she never saw them again. Why were they in the Soviet Union? How does their journey to and years in another country parallel the stories of Biju and the judge? How do India’s allegiances to other countries prompt this kind of immigration?
11. Describe Noni, who was Sai’s first tutor. What advice did Noni give Sai? Why? See page 69.
12. Compare Gyan’s and Sai’s homes. Gyan’s home is ‘modernity proffered in its meanest form, brand-new one day, in ruin the next” (p. 256) and Sai’s home had been a grand adventure for a Scotsman, but is now infested with spiders and termites, and the walls sail out from the humidity (p. 7). How do their homes illustrate the differences between them?
13. Compare Gyan and the judge. Both were the chosen sons of the family; much was sacrificed for their success and much expected of them. They are both lonely and feel that they don’t fit in anywhere. If they are so similar, why don’t they get along? Do you think they would raise their sons the way they had been raised?
14. How is it that the judge’s father realized that the class system in India would prevent his son from realizing his potential, but that colonialism offered a chink in that wall? Why does the judge not work in his own province once he returns to India? What are the different types of immigration that take place in the novel? There is Biju, Saeed Saeed, the judge, Sai’s mother and father, Father Booty and Uncle Potty, the Tibetan monks, the workers in the New York restaurants, and all the people in the Calcutta airport when Biju arrives back home (chapter 48). What does all this immigration mean?
15. Was Gyan a strong person? How did he become involved with a “procession coming panting up Mintri Road led by young men holding their kukris aloft and shouting, “Jai Gorkha” ” (p. 156)? Gyan was not totally convinced at the rally. Later at Ex-Army Thapa’s Canteen “fired by alcohol” (p. 160), what decision did Gyan reach? Explain his reasons. What did Gyan think about his father?
16. The next day Gyan went to Cho Oyu. What had changed? He returned to the canteen after leaving Cho Oyu. Discuss his reasons for betraying Sai. ” “You hate me,” said Sai, as if she read his thoughts, “for big reasons, that have nothing to do with me” ” (p. 260). Discuss why Gyan rejected Sai.
17. Discuss the unrest, betrayals, and eventual violence that separate Gyan and Sai. How are their troubles, and those of the cook, the judge, Father Booty, and Lola and Noni, related to problems of statehood and old hatreds that will not die? Does Noni’s statement, “very unskilled at drawing borders, those bloody Brits,” (p. 129) fully explain the troubles?
18. Biju’s time in New York City is not what he had expected. How do the earlier immigrants treat him? How do the class differences in India translate into class differences in the United States, where there were supposed to be none? Saeed Saeed is a success in America: “He relished the whole game, the way the country flexed his wits and rewarded him; he charmed it, cajoled it, cheated it, felt great tenderness and loyalty toward it. . . . It was an old-fashioned romance” (p. 79). Why is he so successful, and Biju is not?
19. Most of the examples of Americans and other tourists in India are extremely unflattering (pp. 197, 201, 237, 264). Most of the Indians in America are also not impressive, such as the students to whom Biju delivers food (pp. 48–51) and the businesspeople who order steak in the restaurant in the financial district (p. 135). How do they judge themselves? How does Biju judge them?
20. How did the cook get his job with the judge? Did the cook accept his position in society? Did he fulfill his responsibilities despite the judge’s treatment? Why did the cook embellish the stories he told about the judge?
21. Why did the cook want his son, Biju, to go to America? Discuss Biju’s experiences there. How did he feel about the possibility that he might never see his father again? Why did Biju return to India? Describe how he felt when he stepped out of the airport.
22. Did Sai mature or change over the months of both personal and political turmoil? “The simplicity of what she had been taught wouldn’t hold. Never again could she think there was but one narrative and that narrative belonged only to herself” (p. 323). Explain what she means by this statement. Will Sai leave Cho Oyu?
23. The cook is not referred to by name until the next to last page of the novel. Why?
24. Which of the characters achieved, in Gyan’s words, “a life of meaning and pride” (p. 260)?