Book: Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss
Publication date: 2006
Publisher: Penguin Canada, Toronto, ON
The novel as a literary form is a road map of social division, a means of exploring caste in order to transcend it, a field guide listing the tools needed to emerge from the social order with humanity intact, enhanced even. It was ever so, and will be until social divisions are abolished and we live in a world where all things are one.
Despite widespread rumours and the delusion of a classless America, the novel is vibrantly alive to those who empathize with the victims of classism and who are insightful enough to know whence comes their perennial and multi-faceted pain.
Yes, all the way back to Don Quixote and the romans that inspired its amiable caricature of aristocratic pretensions, novelists have demanded we not only apprehend social inequality but also take up a stance toward it. In Cervantes we have a picture of aristocracy as a static way of being, a rigid suckering onto old legends despite the vibrancy of a current reality; the Don himself does not change although his purpose as a member of the nobility is to inspire positive growth in those around him. Which he does.
The Inheritance of Loss deals with a particular series of historical events that spiral out of a specific place in the Himalayas to pierce individuals the world over. The characters do not so much grow and change as prove themselves, ultimately, to be above class division. Open to nearly any page and you will find, rendered in a few deft strokes, at least one character who is real, immediate, and ripe with mystery.
You want to befriend these characters, to share your hard-won leisure with them, but there is a problem: the simple human need for food, sex, shelter, and the less tangible but equally pressing need for beautiful spaces, strong and meaningful friendships, and freedom of expression are trampled beyond recognition, perverted and made false by a historical forking of ethnic streams, separating, dividing, and finally smashing up against the drawn-out horrors of colonialism. According to the experience of Desai’s characters, England has cast stones into India whose concentric circles are ever-widening and which even now touch the lives of people the world over.
The characters are shaded more deeply with the unfolding of conversation, memory, action, and reaction. Complex selves appear, selves created by ancient cultures and jarringly personal events. There is the young Indian Cambridge student, driven nearly catatonic by English racism only to return to India hating Indians, who quickly turns back to the religion he has rejected when his dog (the only being he has been unambiguously willing to admit to his friendship), disappears.
There is the poor young Gurkha who falls in love with a wealthy girl only to despise her when he is swept into his people’s revolt and later becomes wracked with guilt at the harm he has brought upon his beloved and her household.
There is the young man whose father has sacrificed everything to send him to America where he moves from one low-paying job to another, as good as homeless, enraged when he receives letters from his father asking him to find a job and a place to stay for this or that young villager soon to be leaving the motherland.
Then on a mountainside in Kalimpong there is the tight circle of friends who have woven their own bit of heaven out of food, drink, conversation, and literature, only to have it all torn apart by the Nepalese rebellion, mercilessly enacted by one more group that has been deprived and humiliated for far too long.
What Desai so brilliantly gets across is that as crushed as humans can be by class structure, when humanity emerges from the stranglehold of social order it is truly a marvellous thing, precious and complex, rich and splendid?all of the things that, paradoxically, class struggle both grasps at and sabotages.
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