Sunday, October 15, 2006

Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss

(Sorry to have been so solipsistic--although The Yunus Nobel and the Desai Booker provided the much-needed antidote to that : )

I have been praising Desai's novel to anyone who'd listen. Why? You can read the swiftbyte synopsis on Modal Minority where Teju Cole kindly linked to a comment. On the other hand, if you feel i have the right to claim a goodly portion of your life, the full-length, gushy version follows.

Six years ago, on the debut of Kiran Desai’s Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, I wrote a largely negative review for Contemporary South Asia. Therefore, I began Desai’s recent second novel, The Inheritance of Loss, with an attitude of scepticism, and then found myself becoming increasingly impressed and moved by it to an extent where I began to panic, assuming that my earlier review, written as a freshly-minted graduate student, had been arrogant and wrong--The Inheritance of Loss is that good. Commendable in Desai’s new novel is her judicious sense of the world, about which, she speaks with a non show-offy quietness that in no way impairs her immense eloquence on several hot-button issues--such as homosexuality, religious tolerance, multiculturalism, and cross-cultural and cross-class understanding. Also commendable is her understanding of human relationships, beautifully translated into accounts of love, loss, and their lack of logic.

Narratively, The Inheritance of Loss concurrently tells the story of two different kinds of diasporas--that of undocumented, and thereby exploited, blue-collar immigrants in New York City and an aging, elitist cluster of Indian professionals settled post retirement in a remote Gurkha hill station called Cho Oyu. Citizens of both these diasporas face the challenges of a nominally globalized society that is paradoxically fraught with increasingly exclusivist, separatist, and nationalistic agendas; diaspora collapses the boundaries between the first world and the third world while simultaneously enforcing them. Like academic studies of globalism, most notably the work of Hardt and Negri in Empire (2000), Desai has no policy answers, however she presents the complicated multi-faceted minefield of decisions in a global economy honestly, and goes beyond meaning and misery with the implicit humanistic conviction that kindness accomplishes both cure and prevention.

The Inheritance of Loss brilliantly captures globalism reverberating in the aftereffects of cultural encounters post (way past) colonialism and continuing consumerist imperialism. While some of the landscape and final denouement of the novel is reminiscent of Desai senior i.e. Anita Desai, especially in the 1977 novel, Fire on the Mountain, Kiran Desai’s voice is discretely definitive, and she makes some remarkable observations about human movement and migration, demonstrating that they have always been a part of the fabric of human commerce. Also, commendable, given the middle-class provenance of most south-asian novelists and novelistic material in English, is Desai’s easy class shift showing that not all movement to and from the western world falls into the category of middle-class endeavor.

Biju, one of two protagonists, the son of a domestic servant, has entered the United States on a tourist visa and simply overstayed, working illegally, and thus being paid badly, in a variety of New York city eateries, always trying to stay one step ahead of the immigration dragnet. This is an account of life previously abridged in South Asian English fiction for instance in Romesh Gunasekara‘s Reef (1994) and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2003)--both, incidentally, shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In The Inheritance of Loss, Biju’s constant procession through the small-scale eateries of NYC has no hierarchical development and establishes no mobility upwards--its back-and-forthness, on the contrary, illustrates the utter meaninglessness of his progression. Biju’s narrative as an indigent in the first world is balanced by that of the other protagonist, seventeen-year-old Sai, whose life is ostensibly elitist but shabby nevertheless. Sai is an orphan being brought up in a dilapidated once-mansion by her grandfather, a staunch, self-hating colonial, whom we are throughout tempted to describe as Naipaulian. Biju’s father, referred to throughout merely as “the cook,” is the sole domestic--housekeeper, cook, errand boy, and chaperone. The cook is the only witness to Sai’s loneliness, but while appreciative and empathetic to it is constrained by a lack of agency as well as funds, power, and kinship.

Kiran Desai’s intensely realistic portrayal of life on two continents, diasporic on multiple levels, demonstrates an immense tenderness for the human condition, the unmappable, unpredictable journey we all share. The epigraph from Jorge Luis Borges (“My humanity is in feeling we are all voices of the same poverty”) in fact works as an effective foretelling device. However, while there is plenty of human cruelty, it is the usual, small, culminative atrocities of the cosmos that prove overwhelming. Thus it is the cosmos, depicted in Desai’s novel as a kind of self-righteous globalist pimp, that is the source of narrative malevolence, allowing Desai to nimbly sidestep standard manuals of narrative which indicate that novelistic conflict requires good and evil characters. Yet, no matter how seemingly clear-cut the situation, Desai’s description and dialogue allow us to see subtly-planed universal angles, so that even where sympathy seems impossible, empathy interferes.

I'll end this review with two telling performative passages from Desai in which she ably shows rather than tells the foregoing. In the following exchange that takes place at an ubiquitous Gray’s Papaya in New York, we are able to see the harassment that one kind of victimized minority may still inflict on an otherwise privileged Other:
“Would you like a big one?” asked Biju’s fellow server, Romy, lifting a sausage with his tongs, waving it full and fleshy, boing-boinging it against the side of the metal pan, whacking it up and down, elastic before a sweet-faced girl, brought up to treat dark people like anyone else...

Thump Thump Waggle Waggle. Like a pervert jumping from behind a tree--waggling the appropriate area of his anatomy--

Big one? Small one? (p.15)
Later on Desai depicts Sai’s love affair with her mathematics tutor Gyan--an affair that is predicated on the power hierarchy in their age/sex/size/knowledge. While their difference is established, we are witness to sweetly awkward and unwittingly comic initiatory exchanges that are conducted in a spirit of joyous pseudo inquiry embracing both bourgeois consciousness as well as romantic awareness:
“Let me see your hands. They are so small.”
“Are they?”
“Yes.” He held his own out by hers. “See?”
… He weighed her hand.
“Light as a sparrow. The bones must be hollow.” (p115)
At subsequent pauses in the rain they measured ears, shoulders, and the span of their rib cages.
Collar bones, eyelashes, and chins.
Knees, heels, arch of feet.
Flexibility of toes and fingers.
Cheekbones, necks, muscles of the upper arm, the small complexities of the hinge bones.
The green and purple of their veins….
Now and then she recalled certain delicate observations she had made during her own explorations before the mirror that had been overlooked by Gyan, on account of the newness of landscape between them…
She brought up these omissions at his next visit, proffered her hair with the zeal of a silk merchant: “See--feel. Like silk?”
“Like silk,” he confirmed. (pp. 124-125)



maya said...

Aww, Mahesh! Thanks. I bet you're the first person to read it all the way through ;).

Unknown said...

I enjoyed reading this article. However, I personally did not enjoy the book.

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