Through its various characters, relationships and plots, The Inheritance of Loss explores one thing- the power dynamics inherent in societies defined by inequality- whether the inequality between the colonizer and the colonized, or the rich and the poor, or migrant and the native, or the husband and the wife. And more importantly, the consequence of this power dynamic on individual psyches.
While the sense of ‘loss’ is absolute and transparent in the one who is less powerful in society, what is uncanny is to observe what is lost by those who are more powerful, or worse, those who go from being less powerful to more powerful. The Judge, one of the central characters in the book, belongs to this last category. His journey and mindset depict, I think, the collective evolution of at least a large chunk of Indian populace who have sought to emulate the very colonizers who degraded them in the first place. They look down upon themselves and their own kind, with their colonizer’s condescending voice constantly in their head, like that of a highly critical and hard-to-impress parent. And they find no way to redeem themselves than to seek acceptance by this very tormentor- trying hard to fit into their ways and world, and in the process filling their hearts with self-hatred and complete loss of belonging to anywhere or anyone.
The judge is a cold and cruel person with no attachment to anyone but his dog, with a lifetime behind him of disowning everything that was his own- including his culture, his wife and children. This is truly the loss inherited by those who are robbed of their self-respect- to hate oneself and one’s own.
Much of the ‘here and now’ of the story is in Kalimpong in the 1980s, capturing mid-way the Indo-Nepalese insurgency. The central theme then is of Sai, a teenager, and her Gorkha tutor who she falls in love with. Two hapless youngsters coming to realize what class differences mean and privilege or lack of it looks like. While the romance begins on a cloud nine beyond the mundane, it crashes hard against the reality of the difference in their worlds.
Kiran Desai shows great ability to observe and describe the nuances of human feelings and failings. And I recall thinking that one must have at least this much sensitivity to become a writer. However for all her ability, she does go somewhat overboard with stereotypes somewhere along the way- especially in the theme of Biju, the son of the Judge’s cook, who migrates to US for a better life, and also when describing the young people with a post-colonial hangover of the same nature as the judge’s. Biju is shown to be lonely and miserable, working lowly jobs, and in fact hardly speaking any English.
While there must undoubtedly be a large segment of that population, from a socio-economic segment who feel trapped, shackled by responsibility and inferior in another land, there is also a narrative of Indians in the global economy which is quite different from this. When this novel has been written, the dynamic had long shifted and highly skilled Indians were sought after in the global economy, engaging as equals. One could argue about cultural fuzziness, and westernization perhaps, but not so much slavishness as is shown.
But then, I must concede my view is limited having never lived in the US myself, while the author has spent her formative years as an Indian in the US. I just wonder why she decided to obviously focus on a certain kind of narrative, a certain stereotype and a certain bitterness.
If it is in fact a true reflection of her perceptions, it serves still as a reminder of the follies we allowed ourselves post colonization. And as only the vision in hindsight can teach, a reminder not to be slaves again in a free world.
The novel ends on an interesting note, showing, I think, that the poor may still be richer than the rich at the end of the day because they count their biggest wealth in the well-being and company of their loved ones. Another stereotype? Perhaps. But what I can certainly stand behind is that people are simple creatures who need love and belonging- and all the bravado and politics and ideals that isolate people from each other don’t serve anyone.