The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

“Could fulfilment 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 the contentment. Love was the ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself.”

As in Indian cuisine, there is a particular flavour with Indian literature — that’s not too say that Indian literature tastes like chicken tikka massala, even though some punters would probably draw comparisons, but I guess I can make one. Indian cuisine is flavourful, hearty and a mixture of tons of ingredients in the same plate. If you’re having a feast, imagine all the sauce that’s going to go onto your naan, and you’re spoiled for choice. Even when it’s good, it fills you up to your gullet.

I find Indian lit the same — when it’s good, it’s very good and it’s a lot. But sometimes the spice can be overpowering, the flavour is too dense, it messes up your palate and when you finish the book, as you do when you get out of an Indian restaurant, you can ask yourself: What the fuck was that? As in its cuisine, the Indian novel has a lot of players, the characters that make up the story. Luckily, I don’t have a preference for any types of cuisine, I enjoy one as I enjoy the next. Living in Little India, I binged on Indian cuisine for three months straight, and now I’ve had my fill that I only eat Indian food once a month.

I think this is the same with a lot of Indian novels — Rushdie, Roy, Seth fall into the trap of pomposity, even though the substance is rich. But I am glad to have read Desai, because I find her balance just right. The elements of Indian lit is there — the multitudes of characters, the conflicting relationship with the colonial past, the class / caste differences and of course, the casual insertion of the dialects here and there. There is a lot of poetry here, but I’m grateful for its concise economy.

But Inheritance is different in other ways, and in some ways, more extreme just because of where it’s set — in the frontiers of Nepal in the Himalayas. The village is Kalimpong, which I had no idea was fictional or not (it’s not) because it just seemed surreal. There are aristocrats living here living their better lives in solitude, but as always living in condescension to the lower classes and doing their best to be as British as they can — an irony. There is rebellion in the air though, and the Nepali minority increasingly unsettled will raise arms in time and wreak absolute havoc to the ruling classes.

In the midst of all this we get Sai, a teenage girl in love with her tutor, a Nepali student struggling to reach his ambitions. She lives with her embittered retired judge of an uncle, whose back story are also imprinted in many pages of the book; and the cook, loyal to a fault and whose only consolation is his only son, Biju, living illegally in New York. Biju’s story is the other half of the book. Oh yes, there’s the Kalimpong neighbours as well, and their stories are also intermingled with the rest. The flavour is rich, the sauce is dense.

Inheritance deals with the tensions of the region — between the Indians and the Nepalis, between the aristocrats and their servants, between the India of the past and the present, between the aristocrats themselves, between the East and West. It also addresses how Indians are perceived overseas, especially for those who live in the shadows and trying to survive illegally. There are no visits to the Statue of Liberty, or Travolta style living your best life in the disco. It is moving from one job to the next, working as a slave for meagre wages while your family in India thinks that you’ve made it in life. It is also the perception of Indians themselves who had lived overseas, and putting themselves on the pedestal for having lived overseas, and acquiring a non-Indian accent.

But it is the latter parts of the book, when the conflicts come to a head that Inheritance really shines. All of the previous tensions were annulled when the rebels took over, that the fabrics the upper classes know to uphold civil society becomes irrelevant overnight? Like the vast lands that they own that can hold a whole village, and eventually does, or the late library books, or the security guard that gives them a false sense of security, and education.

And what is India? Is it a house once possessed by a Westerner to his liking, and then taken over by a disgruntled old man (“He had felt he was entering a sensibility rather than a house.”)? Is it a house surrounded by estranged neighbours, most of whom you kind of get along with but secretly despise? Is it a house rotting from the inside, lacking maintenance and breaking down overtime? Whatever India is, and however it is portrayed in Inheritance, it is a worthwhile meditation.

A full time project manager who loves to read on the side. Connect with me to chat anything tech and lit.