It starts off on a deceptively simple note. In the world created by author Kiran Desai in her award-winning novel, The Inheritance of Loss, orphaned teenage girl, Sai, lives with her Anglo-obsessed grandfather Jemubhai Patel, who is a retired judge, their cook and their very friendly dog, Mutt. Their house is a crumbling Scottish mansion, named Cho Oyu, in the quaint hilly town of Kalimpong in the foothills of the Himalayas.
The year is 1986. Sai’s world is completed by her 20-year-old Nepali math tutor — Gyan. Their relationship blooms into a romance.
So far, so simple. Deceptively so.
The story takes the first turn towards complexity when the initially naïve Gyan matures as a sympathiser and supporter of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) movement, arising in Kalimpong. Thanks to his new-found political awakening, Gyan’s relationship with the innocent-and-elitist Sai is in peril. Torn between a frustrating romance and his loyalties to the movement, Gyan, in a weak moment betrays Sai and the judge, leading to the young lads of the GNLF ransacking Cho Oyu.
As Desai portrays is vivid graphic detail: “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…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.”
The judge is humiliated, Sai and the cook avert their eyes and Gyan is nowhere in sight. And it is this horrible incident that proves to be the major turning point in the novel, forever altering the relationship between the characters.
Against the historic backdrop of the Gorkhaland movement, there runs a parallel trail and tale of Biju, the cook’s son, who according to him is “the luckiest boy in the world”. The centre of the cook’s universe, Biju is trying to make a life and livelihood in New York for a better life for the family’s future generations. He is an illegal immigrant on Uncle Sam’s soil and hops from one establishment to other, evading and hoping to stay one step ahead of the authorities.
Desai's narration alternates between Sai’s cultural elitism coupled with Gyan’s political activism, and Biju’s survivalism. All these peppered with the heavy legacy of colonialism and the truth of post-colonialism.
It is the bitter judge, Jemubhai Patel, who is caught in the colonial hangover. Filled with disdain for anything Indian, the judge is too Anglicised to be Indian (he eats roti with a fork and knife and tortures his "Indian" wife), and too Indian (read, brown) to be accepted by the Brits. He still roots for the colonial era and is backed to the hilt by his neighbours — the Swiss Father Booty and his alcoholic friend, Uncle Potty.
Educated in England in the 1940s, as a young man, Patel is portrayed to be full of optimistic idealism about the cultural and monetary opportunities of the West. It comes crashing down to the ground, when no matter what and how he does, he is alienated by the cold and snooty Cambridge society, that sees him as a second-class citizen. The judge’s life stands as a prelude to what Biju is facing in New York.
There is a certain bleakness and melancholy in the world spun by Desai. There is also a fair degree of dark comic relief provided by Biju’s escapades in NYC. And these add up to create some very charming and winning moments in The Inheritance of Loss. The 2006 Man-Booker Prize winner is a book that you curl up with over the weekend for some poignant and droll moments.