Friday, July 12, 2013

The Inheritance of Loss

Kiran Desai's prizewinning autobiographical novel is a searing picture of how poverty and corruption can damage the human spirit. But the victims are not the poorest. While the young woman Sai -- even the name tells you who she's modeled on -- appears to be the main character, this is really a book about two men, the judge and the cook, known primarily not by their names but by the titles telling us their place in society.

The judge, Sai's grandfather, is a tortured, almost monstrous, human being, emotionally deformed by years of suppressed feeling. His violently misogynist treatment of his wife, shown in repeated flashbacks, and his generally misanthropic behavior cannot even be redeemed by his devotion to his dog, who bears the equally generic name Mutt. It is the cook who steals the show. He is the one who feels genuine affection for Sai when the orphan is taken -- somewhat inexplicably -- into the judge's semi-derelict mansion in Kalimpong. It is the cook who lives for his son and for his son's sake sends him away to make his fortune in America. It is the cook who pities the beggars who beseech the judge for help, the cook who searches the mountains for the missing Mutt, the cook in the end who is reunited happily with his son even while the province is gripped by civil strife.

Next to the judge's travails and the cook's quiet triumph, Sai's adolescent crush on her immature tutor, Gyan, is something of a subplot. Sai realizes she wants a life with wider scope in a foreign country and Gyan learns he wants a life with a much narrower scope and prefers the cowardice of tranquility to the boldness of revolution. Their brief fling is nothing more than the typical coming of age love affair. Even Gyan's betrayal of the judge's family seems relatively trifling against the larger backdrop of the social turmoil depicted in the novel, though it could have ended tragically.

Desai's uncompromising look at the squalor and cruelty of Indian society beneath the thin veneer of civilization was found to be depressing by most members of my book group. The situation seems virtually hopeless. The only escape is literally to leave the country -- as Sai plans and as we know from Desai's success is what she does -- or to accept the limited human happiness available in the small things of life, as the cook, his son, Biju, and Gyan ultimately opt for.

However, Desai is equally uncompromising in her scathing depiction of Biju's exploitation as an illegal immigrant in the U.S. Far from making his fortune -- or having any chance to do so -- Biju scrapes through the underbelly of New York, living in circumstances more squalid even than he would have at home. India, as his eventual homecoming makes clear, also offers the luxury of familiarity, in every sense of the word.

The book is beautifully written. Some book club members said the book was slow, at least at the beginning, but I found the powerful writing compelling from the first page. The descriptions, the insights, the turns of phrase carry the reader on a torrent. So many examples, but to cite just one:
[The judge rejects the supplications of two beggars] In this life, he remembered again, you must stop your thoughts if you wished to remain intact, or guilt and pity would take everything from you, even yourself from yourself....This was why he had retired. India was too messy for justice; it ended only in humiliation for the person in authority....If you let such people get an inch, they's take everything you had -- families yoked together because of guilt on one side, and an unending greed and capacity for dependence on the other -- and if they knew you were susceptible, everyone handed their guilt along so as to augment yours: old guilt, new guilt, any passed-on guilt whatever.
The historical setting -- a separatist uprising in the 1980s to establish an independent Gorkhaland -- provided further education in the multi-ethnic composition of India and the resulting tensions that we remain largely oblivious to. The racial strife and the recurring resistance to the overlay of British colonial administration create a toxic brew that occasionally overflows into violence. The drama of this uprising gave added depth to the novel.

Likewise, the portrayal of the monsoon period -- the relentless corrosion of the constant rain -- was so vivid you felt drenched and lent further drama to the action of the novel.

The book, in short, is a consummate piece of writing and a very satisfying read.