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The Inheritance of Loss

by Kiran Desai

So much has already been written about this Booker Prize winning novel that it seems rather superfluous to present another review but as it is now available in paperback the time is right for bookgroup discussion.

The setting is Kalimpong on the India-Nepal border with the magnificent Himalayas as a backdrop. The orphaned Sai is sent to live with her silent, misanthropic grandfather, a retired English educated judge; the cook (we never learn his name) and the dog, Mutt. They live in a crumbling termite-infested mansion – a fitting metaphor for the soon-to-be crumbling social order.

The colonial legacy is all around. An odd assortment of neighbours helps take care of Sai’s education. Anglophile sisters, Lola and Noni tend their garden where they grow (as far as they know) the only broccoli grown in India from English seed, hang their Marks and Spencer knickers on the line and use Pond’s cold cream. There’s also Uncle Potty who likes his wee dram and father Booty a Swiss émigré. These unofficial guardians feel that Sai needs better maths and physics teaching so they find the handsome Gyan, a local Nepalese boy, slightly older than Sai, to take care of this - and Sai and Gyan’s friendship blossoms into a secret romance.

Parallel with the story of Sai & co is the story of Biju, the cook’s son. Biju has gone to New York to seek his fortune but soon finds out that the streets of NYC are not paved with gold. Actually, he rarely sees the streets at all. What the family back home don’t know is that he moves from one awful kitchen job to the other, ill-treated (even by better-off Indians) his companions a hodge-podge of nationalities: “Above the restaurant was French, but below it was Mexican and Indian. And, when a Paki was hired, it was Mexican, Indian, Pakistani”. The cook is so proud of Biju, the son who is going to make good. But the disillusioned Biju can only think of his beloved hills, his father, and how to find a way back home.

Meanwhile back home civil unrest in the surrounding hills is quietly bubbling under. An attack on the judge’s house by local insurgents looking for guns disturbs the relative peace and the inhabitants of Kalimpong are increasingly perturbed. Gyan becomes influenced by the revolutionaries and comes to see Sai as “one of them”. Conscious of his inferior caste he joins the insurgents and rejects Sai.

Biju finally decides to make his way homeward as the order is rapidly changing. And with this change each of the characters is prompted to reflect on his or her life, losses, regrets and insecurities.

This book was seven years in the making and through focusing on the lives of this disparate group of individuals Kiran Desai manages to cover issues of multiculturalism, globalisation, immigration, and the ever increasing phenomenon of the terrorist threat, sometimes with humour, but mostly humanely and sympathetically. A tour de force!

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