Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Inheritance Of Loss - Kiran Desai



Yet another award winning work. Yet another disappointment. This time, it’s a Booker.

The thing I loved most about this book was the cover page. I thought it was beautiful. But that’s about the only thing I liked about the book.

The title is very apt. All the characters in the story inherit a loss and live with that inheritance.

Judge Jemubhai Patel, from a middle class family married a rich girl so he could pay for his trip to England and his education with the dowry he received. He returned to India and served the British in several posts.
An incompatible wife, racial discrimination etc. are not problems that no one has faced before.
But a weakling full of complexes, he turned a bitter man, withdrew from people and life. Not only did he make his own life sad but also the lives of those around him – parents, wife, daughter, granddaughter, cook, neighbours, guests and so on.

Sai, his daughter’s daughter, a teenager has lost both parents in an accident in Moscow and returns from a convent to the custody of her grandfather who now lives in Kalimpong. Her grandfather’s aloofness, the absence of any other family member and the gloomy weather of the hill station do not help to make her cheerful. Her world is not much; the cook, a few ladies in the neighbourhood whom she befriends and her tutor Gyan whom she falls in love with.

The cook lives in anticipation of letters and news from his son Biju who has crept his way to America in lure of dollars.

Biju, an illegal immigrant in America, lives in constant fear of the police, works in dismal conditions among many other illegal immigrants from several countries, faces humiliation, contempt and finally disillusioned and unable to take it anymore, returns to India only to be robbed of all he has by the Gorkha rebels.

Gyan, Sai’s tutor is in love with her or may be infatuated to her. Both of them are too young and confused to know for sure and the reader does not get to know either. But even before their feelings could develop, Gyan is carried away by the Gorkha rebellion that was gaining momentum at that time. In an uproar of protest marches, slogans, demonstrations, pillaging and killing, the murmur of love dies down and only anger, hurt and indignation remain.

And then there are the neighbours, visitors and a dog among others.

The story is sad – because of all its characters being so aloof. But it does not move you or touch you. It’s just sad. In fact, the story makes no impact at all. Doesn’t touch you, move you, excite you, sadden you, please you…

The story is not at all gripping. The book is very much putdownable. It could have been a 100 pages lesser.

The shift in focus from Kalimpong in Hiamalayas to a restaurant in the US and back is something you don’t look forward to, something you are not excited about as you read; the shift is too often and too soon.

I don’t know if this modern style of writing (this has crept into movie making too) – no proper beginning, no proper ending, no chronological ordering of events whatsoever, narration oscillating unpredictably between past and present …. all loose threads – serve a good purpose at all times.

Although I did refer the dictionary to get the meanings of certain words,( there were many words, I had to refer the dictionary for), they have not served to bring out the beauty of the language. Therefore the language might as well have been more simple and straightforward.

And then there are words I could not find in the dictionary. Mine is an old edition. So I think, these words must be slang that have been in vogue for so long that those fellows who write the dictionary had no other option but to include these words in the later editions and legitimize them.

And then there are words that I believe one should not use either in conversation or in writing; “kamikaze”, for instance.
You may have by chance picked up a fancy word from the dictionary and are eager to show off, but there is a good chance that you are the only one in this world who knows it!

No praiseworthy effort has been made by the author at imagery but the occasional mention itself of Kunchenjunga, Mt Everest, Darjeeling, pine tree and the hillside brings certain beautiful images to your mind’s eye.
The teesta valley renowned for butterflies…
From Darjeeling you can see Kunchenjunga and Mt Everest as a small triangle…
(Hmm… will have to plan a trip :-))

I must admit that there are a few insightful and interesting observations towards the end but they are fleeting. They come in the form of a few passing comments or sentences. But they will not succeed in causing you to pause or dwell upon these lines because the writer herself does not dwell upon them.

Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss? Love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love is the ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself...

Old hatreds are endlessly retrievable...

When the grief of the past is gone, just the fury remains, pure, distilled…

A sad romance is better than bovine happiness...

…perpetual gnawing urgency and intensity of waiting, of hope living on without sustenance. It must feed on itself, it would drive her mad.….

- the greatest luxury of not noticing oneself at all.


The scene of the story, namely the mountainside, the ever present Kunchenjunga and the time of the story marked by political(if not historical) disturbance such as the separatist movements by Gorkhas offer ample opportunity to salvage an otherwise bland writing. But unfortunately (for the reader), the author has not taken advantage of such an opportunity.

The narrator of the story is not one among the characters unlike in Kanthapura. I will have to digress a bit here.
I was not able to see the work of Kanthapura in the right perspective until I read “The Inheritance of Loss”.
One thing common to both works is the absence of imagery in spite of there being an opportunity to create vivid images for the reader. The difference however, is this.
In “Kanthapura”, the narrator is an old village grandmother who is one among the characters of the story. The story through her eyes had to be the way it appeared and appealed to her. One who is a part of a scene is always oblivious to the fine details of their surroundings and often take their surroundings for granted. So had there been any imagery in the work, it would ring as insincere to an observant reader.
But in “The Inheritance of Loss”, the narrator is not one among the characters of the story but an observer. So she could have filled pages describing the beauty of Kunchenjunga and some more pages with background of the Gorkha movement. History, after all is so interesting.
But as I said, the author has not taken advantage of such an opportunity.

But do read this book as it is an award winning one. With two award winning books now and the resulting disappointment, I wonder if I really know how to read a book. Am I missing something?

I am most curious to know other people’s experience with this.


8 comments:

NISHANT NISCHAL said...

hello. i have this book with me for over an year now but sadly i haven't gone through it yet. i'd appreciate your visit on my blog. please come and watch some shots, mainly nature's. www.nishantnischal.blogspot.com

Sowmya said...

Thanks Nishant for your comment. Do read the book and let me know.
I will be glad to visit your blog.

NISHANT NISCHAL said...

Hi Sowmya. Your blog is an amazing one. I'll get free in May after the endterms then surely Im gonna read this Bookre Prize winner book. Have you tried the David Copperfield by Charles Dickens? Well, my whole life was so much influenced by this book after i went through it in my early boyhood, that I believe, it changed me as a human forever.

Well you know what, your question has left me confused. I mean, a software to remove all the electric wires? Which electric wires? To run a software we need a hardware platform and and I wonder how is this possible to replace the electric wires with a software. I'm a bit embarassed too, coz im in BCA 2nd sem and I hardly heared anything like that before!!! Plz explain.

Yeah, the 2nd question was easy. Haven't travelled much to be honest. I have deceided that till I don't see each and every corner of my incredible india, till I don't interact with the people of all states, at least once,im not gonna look outside this blistering country, no matter how many adventures are waiting there. It might sound weird, coz india itself is a large nation, both geographically and ligually. But i know im ganna do that one day if life granted. On your blog, I found a post on himalayas. It was great. I also have planned to see the Ganga right from the Gangotri till the sundarbans of Hoogli in W Bengal. But, I gonna do all that when I'll earn enough money on my own.

I have visited- jammu ( loved Ladakh really, must read my experience in Ladakh on my blog), himachal, uttarakhand- haridwar, rishikesh- shimla, solan etc, nainital, ranikhet, kathgodam etc, up- prayag, banaras, darjeeling, gantok- sikkim, assam, shilong- meghalya, arunachal, etc. wnet to kerala with family but memories are too foggy, so i dont wanna count that. Got my digicam just an year ago so dont have piks of all the places that i have been to... but whatever i have clicked so far in this short span, is ther on my blog. Thanks for vising my blog. Keepin touch.:-)

Sowmya said...

Thanks Nishant for all the nice words.

I will read Charles Dickens soon. There are soooooo many books in my shelf.. I wish I could live forever and read them all...

I was referring to this software to remove electric wires in the photographs ...the wires that spoil the pictures...

Ganges starts at Gaumukh not at Gangothri :)I would feel saddened to go till Hoogly... the river is poisoned by the time it reaches Bay of Bengal... the poisoning begins right at Haridwar... what with so many people bathing, washing, cleaning... it hurts..

I must plan a trip to the North East soon... heard its beautiful..

After reading Himalayas, I want to go to Kalimpong, Darjeeling to see Kunchenjunga and Mt Everest...

Dont restrict yourself to India... go wherever life takes you... there is beauty everywhere..

NISHANT NISCHAL said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NISHANT NISCHAL said...

Sowmya=>
Now I understood the whole 'electric wire' thing. I'll see, now I also want this software, will surely let you know.
Well, Somehow I knew that the Holy Ganges starts from Gaumukh, but still most of us call it to be Gangothri, from today I'll get it right. Nice to know that you have already been there.
Yes it really hurts to see the river like this. Don't know when people will start showing the respect. Why can't we turn people the way we want to? Sometimes I feel that India is incredible for no reason. But still it doesn't matter if its poisoned, the Sunderban is still beautiful, I love the mangroves.
I used to see a far distant Mt. Kunchenjunga from my own backyard during my early yrars. Its been 8 years since I stepped out and right now I'm in love with New Delhi.

Whenevre planned to see the North East, I suggest, must see Meghalaya.(Megh+Aalay). The land of clouds.
And yeah, surely not gonna restrict myself ot India only. Just waiting for the next 3-4 yaers to get past. :-)

Pramshanks said...

I too felt a little disappointed after reading "Inheritance...'. I felt it had no real plot, no real story; only a laboured and stretched portrayal of an existence that feeds itself on loss.

Having said that, I have a few tips for any ardent lover of literature:

1. Open your mental windows. Read stuff that is opposite in genre to what you have always read. In your case, I would say venture beyond Tagore and Dickens and Sharma, and read American humourists, Russian fiction, Latin American poetry, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath... Because you can appreciate and compare great literature only if you know first-hand what are the new experiments, the vibrant idioms, the deviations from the 'classic'.

2. Explore new worlds of creativity other than writing. Watch Iranian movies, abstract plays... consciouly break the prototypes in your own mind.

3. Write your own stuff. And get is mercilessly criticised by an academician.

It's not easy to be a balanced critic, but once you reach there, life can be a lot richer.

All the best, Pramod

Sowmya said...

Yeah Pramod, I would love to expand my horizon... I know what fulfilment a developed sensitivity can bring to you.

Even when I dont like a book, especially an award winning one, I am not confident about my evaluation. I doubt that I missed something or may be I dont know yet how to read a book or what to look for...

All this is my own writing....in this space...
It will be a privilege to have my writing mercilessly criticized by you... but I wish you had the time...