January 30, 2008
Having worked at Tricycle for over four years, I almost expect writings about Himalayan people to be filled with expeditions for bliss, cavernous and splendid tales of vibrant Buddhist teachings in stark, majestic landscapes, and simple wisdoms that have been frozen on the rooftop of the world. But the motley crew that we discover in the foothills of Mount Kanchenjunga in Kiran Desai’s acclaimed novel The Inheritance of Loss, only has the dharma as a distant neighbor and seems to be a powerless product of—rather than an exception to—the modern conditions of Nationalism, Orientalism, and Globalization.
Set in the mid 1980s, The Inheritance of Loss tells the story of Sai, a teenage Indian girl who lives with her Cambridge-educated grandfather, a retired judge, in a small Anglophiliac community in Kalimpong. Their deluded and groundless existence is uprooted when ethnic Nepalese insurgents thrust the area into a state of emergency. Sai’s Nepalese math tutor and first love becomes seduced by the masculinity of the independence movement and sends Sai spiraling into heartsickness, anger, and resolve.
While Sai’s story is as melancholy as the those of the other characters, at least her youth and intelligence allow her to break away from the culturally confused habits of mind that imprison the other Himalayan residents Desai subjects to our judgment. Perhaps the most impressive, and also the most unpleasant, accomplishment of her novel is Desai’s depiction of bastards of South Asia’s encounter with the West.
The judge “envied the English. He loathed the 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.” In a scene when the judge meets with an old colleague who was also trained by the British to be a judge during the colonial occupation, Desai writes:
“the English government and its civil servants had sailed away throwing their topis overboard, leaving behind only those ridiculous Indians who couldn’t rid themselves of what they had broken their souls to learn.
Again they went to court and again they would go to court with their unshakable belief in the system of justice. Again they lost. Again they would lose.
The man with the white curly wig and a dark face covered in powder, bringing down his hammer, always against the native, in a world that was still colonial.”
And the judge recognizes this contradiction in his granddaughter, Sai, who has the “same accent and manners. She is a westernized Indian brought up by English nuns, an estranged Indian in India.”
Lola, one of the sisters the judge appoints to educate Sai, has “suitcases stuffed with Marmite, Oxo bouillon cubes, Knorr soup packets, After Eights, daffodil bulbs, and renewed supplies of Boots cucumber lotion and Marks and Spencer underwear—the essence, quintessence, of Englishness as she understood it.”
But no matter how many British groceries they own, or how similar to the Queen’s their English accent is, the judge, Sai, Lola, and the rest of the main characters in The Inheritance of Loss, are still Indians, and still suffer from the political struggles and confused identities British left behind in South Asia. As Lola’s sister, Noni, explains “Very unskilled at drawing borders, those bloody Brits.”
Even though I expected this story to reveal timeless Himalayan wisdom, I was moved and heartbroken by this tale of the ignorance of these modern times.
- Alexandra Kaloyanides, Senior Editor