Friday, January 05, 2007

Desai's Inheritance of Loss

"A book should be an ice-axe break to the frozen sea within us"
–Franz Kafka

Everyone in this 'peaceful chaos' called Kathmandu was talking about this novel with abstract title Inheritance of Loss. One balmy afternoon, I even attended a book discussion centered on this Man Booker prize-winning novel. That Saturday afternoon, I felt out of place, for I hadn't read it and most of the participants were talking about different aspects of the book.

As if to fulfill my desire, Mahesh Poudyal came all the way from England. On his way home from London via New Delhi, he managed to bring the book and provided me for reading. Here are the vignettes from my reading that was delightful and evocative.

It was nice to read the story of Gorkhaland movement at a time when the demand is resurfacing. For me it was a trip down the memory lane: I was in this small hill station Kalimpong in mid 1990s. A religious group called Krishna Pranami from Itahari organized a tour to Kalimpong to attend to Mangaldham. The journeymen consisted of mainly journos from Sunsari district. It was not really memorable except for the wintry season and a whirlwind tour of seven points by taxi in Darjeeling.

Inheritance of Loss is a story of a retired judge Jemubhai "more lizard than human," an orphan teenager Sai from Dehra Dun, Gyan, Nepali mathematics tutor, nameless cook (shows that subaltern is nameless) and his son Biju, the quintessential illegal immigrant stuck in New York. A recent issue of Outlook magazine writes:

[Inheritance of Loss] is exactly the kind of novel that you'd pick up to while away a lazy evening–and abandon it the instant something more exciting came along.

Wrong. At least for me. I had Fareed Zakaria's Future of Freedom in my shelf but I preferred Desai's novel.

Second page in the novel and you are told: "Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss? Romantically she decided that love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack not contentment. Love was an ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself."

Wade through the fourth page, you see rowdy Nepali insurgents enter the judge's house. Thus starts the condemnation of Indian Nepalis living in another side of Mechi River. But, this is not my concern. Fiction is fiction, after all. And, fiction is always stranger than the fact. I liked the way Desai rewards the reader with beautiful lines. She deftly depicts cook's plea to the insurgents who barge into the lonely house:

His lines had honed over centuries, passed down through generations, for poor people needed certain lines; the script was always the same, and they had no option but to beg for money. The cook knew instinctively how to cry.

I could not have put it better.

Watch out in page 31: "Death whispered into Sai's ear, life leaped in her pulse...." But in 45 the author stereotypes Nepali: "I'll tell you, these Neps can't be trusted. And they don't just rob. They think absolutely nothing of murdering as well."

The narration shuttles between New York and Kalimpong, two opposite corners of the globe. This shift coming at unusual moments punctuates the flow of narrative which is at times boring.

Though set in 1980s India, it feels like the novel of 21st century. There are mentions of cell phones, and burgeoning Indian and Chinese market, its mighty middle class.

Desai describes Kathmandu as "a carved wooden city of temples and palaces, caught in a disintegrating tangle of modern concrete that stretched into the dust and climbed into the sky."

The writer's obsession with rat is reeking. She finds it everywhere: New York basement, Kathmandu and judge's Kalimpong residence. In Kathmandu there were "rats in Ganesh temple eating sweets."

When I turned the last 324th page, as usual, I closed my eyes and tried to put the novel in a nutshell: Is this a dark novel? It is really a dark novel; Biju's homecoming has a Hardyesque echo, he is ruthlessly robbed and a dejected Biju casts a forlorn figure as the novel ends. But, despite all this, read it, for melancholy is essential; an essential solitude of life.

2 comments:

mp said...

Deepakjee,
Glad to be of help. I haven't read the book myself so can't comment on it. But after reading numerous reviews and critiques of this book - both before and after its Booker win - I have very little desire to read this book at this time. Plus, I do actually have other books above it on my "to read" list!

Say na Something said...

I tried once to start the book but didn't find interesting to go ahead. but after reading your blog I think I should try once more.Hopefully, I will able to finish.