The Inheritance of Loss
I read this book a while back, but: I still haven’t finished Catch-22, I’d rather not review “Economy of the invisible. International services transactions” (I took a shot at it this morning, and shamefully gave up one hour later 😀 ) and… I felt a bit provoked (too strong word, I know) to write my own take on it.
Since Salman Rushdie just cracked open Pandora’s box of Indian emigration stories, they just keep flowing. And they seem cliché-ridden, very regionalized and…let’s face it, sometimes, dull, but I think that they say something universally true about the immigrant’s life style and trials, about discrimination and acceptance, about dreams and failure and about the only true realm of calm – wherever it is that you belong. I’m not in immigrant so I can’t speak of my own experiences, but Desai’s description and story seemed realistic and the characters were endearing despite their many faults, flaws and misconceptions.
This is, in short, how it goes: the book opens with Sai, a teenager living with her grandfather (a long-ago famous judge) and their cook in a remote house, in the Indian countryside, and continues on 3 separate paths: the story of the Judge’s youth, his studies in Britain and his arranged marriage, the story of Biju, the cook’s son, an immigrant in the US who sends his father optimistic letters, but lives beyond the border of extreme poverty, and the story of the love between Sai and Gyan, her tutor and his involvement with the Nepalese insurgents (it all takes place in the 80s).
Seemingly different, and taking place in two different eras, the stories of immigration are touchingly similar through the fate their protagonists share in their adoptive country. Not then, and not now, were Indians regarded as citizens, but merely as a lower class. The Judge, despite feeling an inner connection to the West is regarded in Britain as a strange man, he is stunted out of all social activities, thus turning him into an ambitious-but-barely-human machine, which will mark his behaviour throughout the rest of his life, as he returns to India with the fury of utter humiliation and dehumanisation, unleashing it over his powerless wife.
Biju, on the other hand is in the US working low-income jobs in filthy restaurants and illegally sleeping in the basement of a building, together with 20-or-so other men, while being assaulted with requests from relatives to take in other hopefuls from his city. He lives and breathes his failure every day, yet he is too ashamed to reveal the truth to his father. As he gathers enough money and cannot take mistreatment any longer, he returns to India, only to be faced, in his home village of Kalimpong with the ultimate blow.
As for Gyan and Sai – even if they don’t leave their home village, their lives are uprooted by the Nepalese insurgency – while several other secondary characters (such as the sisters Lola and Noni, or the dog Mutt) make out the shape, atmosphere, flavour and depth of this unique novel.
However, like others of its kind, is clichéd, Europeans see Indians as smelly, dumb and lost in a multicultural world, but, at the same time, the despair, frustration, self-hatred and… loss that most characters are faced with is so powerful, that it overwhelms its flaws. After all, it’s not a book about historical accuracy, but a book about the social status and the struggle of the underprivileged and, as many others have said, a book that fits in very well in the post-9/11-world. The writing is flowing, easy and beautiful and the use of many Indian words…well….it will either get you curious about their meaning, either annoy the hell out of you that the editors didn’t think to put in some footnotes. I took a middle road 😉
By the way, I love titles like “The Inheritance of Loss” or “The God of Small Things” – they just seem to promise so much, and the fact that these 2 particular novels actually deliver on their promises is nothing short of… of something spectacularly good; I just can’t find the right word… And, hey, happy New Year, everyone!