Inheritance of Loss (Desai)

The Inheritance of Loss 
Kiran Desai, 2006
Simon & Schuster
357 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780802142818

Winner, 2006 Man Booker Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award

Kiran Desai's first novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, was published to unanimous acclaim in over twenty-two countries. Now Desai takes us to the northeastern Himalayas where a rising insurgency challenges the old way of life. In a crumbling, isolated house at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga lives an embittered old judge who wants to retire in peace when his orphaned granddaughter Sai arrives on his doorstep. The judge's chatty cook watches over her, but his thoughts are mostly with his son, Biju, hopscotching from one New York restaurant job to another, trying to stay a step ahead of the INS, forced to consider his country's place in the world. When a Nepalese insurgency in the mountains threatens Sai's new-sprung romance with her handsome Nepali tutor and causes their lives to descend into chaos, they, too, are forced to confront their colliding interests. The nation fights itself.

The cook witnesses the hierarchy being overturned and discarded. The judge must revisit his past, his own role in this grasping world of conflicting desires—every moment holding out the possibility for hope or betrayal. A novel of depth and emotion, Desai's second, long-awaited novel fulfills the grand promise established by her first. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Birth—September 3, 1971
Where—New Delhi, India
Education—in the USA: Bennington College, Hollins
   University, Columbia University
Awards—Man Booker Prize and National Book Critics Circle
   Award, 2006
Currently—lives in the US

Kiran Desai was born in India in 1971 and educated in India, England, and the United States. She studied creative writing at Columbia University, where she was the recipient of a Woolrich fellowship. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker and Salman Rushdie's anthology Mirrorwork: Fifty Years of Indian Writing. In 2006 Desai won the Man Booker Prize for her novel The Inheritance of Loss. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
Although it focuses on the fate of a few powerless individuals, Kiran Desai's extraordinary new novel manages to explore, with intimacy and insight, just about every contemporary international issue: globalization, multiculturalism, economic inequality, fundamentalism and terrorist violence. Despite being set in the mid-1980's, it seems the best kind of post-9/11 novel.
Pankaj Mishra - The New York Times

The writing has a melancholy beauty here, especially in its sensuous evocations of the natural world: "white azaleas in flower, virginal yet provocative like a good underwear trick"; "mountains where monasteries limpet to the sides of rock." Her keen appreciation of contradiction enriches the book, and, if the integrity of her narrative is less than perfect, the integrity of her ideological convictions is absolute.
Donna Rifkind - THe Washington Post

Desai’s second novel is set in the nineteen-eighties in the northeast corner of India, where the borders of several Himalayan states—Bhutan and Sikkim, Nepal and Tibet—meet. At the head of the novel’s teeming cast is Jemubhai Patel, a Cambridge-educated judge who has retired from serving a country he finds “too messy for justice.” He lives in an isolated house with his cook, his orphaned seventeen-year-old granddaughter, and a red setter, whose company Jemubhai prefers to that of human beings. The tranquillity of his existence is contrasted with the life of the cook’s son, working in grimy Manhattan restaurants, and with his granddaughter’s affair with a Nepali tutor involved in an insurgency that irrevocably alters Jemubhai’s life. Briskly paced and sumptuously written, the novel ponders questions of nationhood, modernity, and class, in ways both moving and revelatory.
The New Yorker

This stunning second novel from Desai (Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard) is set in mid-1980s India, on the cusp of the Nepalese movement for an independent state. Jemubhai Popatlal, a retired Cambridge-educated judge, lives in Kalimpong, at the foot of the Himalayas, with his orphaned granddaughter, Sai, and his cook. The makeshift family's neighbors include a coterie of Anglophiles who might be savvy readers of V.S. Naipaul but who are, perhaps, less aware of how fragile their own social standing is—at least until a surge of unrest disturbs the region. Jemubhai, with his hunting rifles and English biscuits, becomes an obvious target. Besides threatening their very lives, the revolution also stymies the fledgling romance between 16-year-old Sai and her Nepalese tutor, Gyan. The cook's son, Biju, meanwhile, lives miserably as an illegal alien in New York. All of these characters struggle with their cultural identity and the forces of modernization while trying to maintain their emotional connection to one another. In this alternately comical and contemplative novel, Desai deftly shuttles between first and third worlds, illuminating the pain of exile, the ambiguities of post-colonialism and the blinding desire for a "better life," when one person's wealth means another's poverty.
Publishers Weekly

The theme of loss is explored in this novel through the lives of three characters: a retired judge who went to Cambridge and is now living in Kalimpong, a remote town isolated on the edge of the Himalayas; his orphaned teenage granddaughter, Sai, who lives with him; and her math tutor, Gyan, who soon becomes involved with revolutionaries. Another character, Biju, whose story is told as if he lives in a parallel universe, is an illegal immigrant in New York City, going from one job to another, trying to find a place for himself. The judge has lost his place in India, where once he identified with the British rather than his own people. Sai has lost her parents, her young love, and hasn't yet found herself. Biju is searching for his place in a new world that seems to have no niche for him. Although this story is set in the 1980s, the issues of immigration and resentment of the West by those living in the East are relevant to the post-9/11 world. Despite its serious themes and message that multiculturalism may not be the answer to the world's or any individual's personal woes, Desai's descriptions and her humor make this intensely dense novel of national and personal identity fascinating. (Winner of the 2006 Man Booker Prize.)

Discussion Questions 
1. The Inheritance of Loss is preceded by a poem by Jorge Luis Borges. Given what you know of Borges, why do you think Kiran Desai chose his work as an epigraph? Who are “the ambitious...the loftily covetous multitude”? Why are they “worthy of tomorrow”? Who is “I”?

2. The first evening that Sai was at Cho Oyu, “she had a fearful feeling of having entered a space so big it reached both backward and forward” (p. 34). Discuss this observation. Could this be a description of the novel itself?

3. Discuss the terms globalization and colonialism. What does it mean to introduce an element of the West into a country that is not of the West, a person from a poor nation into a wealthy one? What are examples of this in the novel? Discuss them in political and economic terms. How are Noni and Lola stand-ins for the middle class the world over? See page 242.

4. Why did the judge lead such a solitary life in England? The judge returned to India a changed man. “He envied the English. He loathed Indians. He worked at being English with the passion of hatred and for what he would become, he would be despised by absolutely everyone, English and Indians, both” (p. 119). Discuss the effect that the prejudice and rejection he experienced in England had on the judge for the rest of his life.

5. Bose was the judge’s only friend in England. “A look of recognition had passed between them at first sight, but also the assurance that they wouldn’t reveal one another’s secrets, not even to each other” (p. 118). Compare and contrast the two men. Who was the optimist? How did Bose help the judge when they were in England? When they met again, thirty-three years later, Bose had changed. How? Why did he want to see the judge again?

6. Nimi attended a political rally unknowingly. Who took her to the rally? Explain why the judge was enraged at this. After independence, he found himself on the wrong side of history. What was happening politically in India at this time? What was the Congress Party?

7. The judge’s marriage to Nimi was destined to fail. Did the judge ever have any tender feelings for his wife? Why and how did her family pay for him to go to school in England? What finally happened to Nimi? What did the judge choose to believe about it? And finally, did the judge have regrets that he abandoned his family “for the sake of false ideals” (p. 308)?

8. Discuss the judge’s feelings for Sai, who was “perhaps the only miracle fate had thrown his way” (p. 210). The cook treated Sai like a daughter. Discuss their relationship.

9. Discuss the role that Mutt played in the judge’s life.

10. Sai’s parents left her at St. Augustine’s Convent, and she never saw them again. Why were they in the Soviet Union? How does their journey to and years in another country parallel the stories of Biju and the judge? How do India’s allegiances to other countries prompt this kind of immigration?

11. Describe Noni, who was Sai’s first tutor. What advice did Noni give Sai? Why? See page 69.

12. Compare Gyan’s and Sai’s homes. Gyan’s home is “modernity proffered in its meanest form, brand-new one day, in ruin the next” (p. 256) and Sai’s home had been a grand adventure for a Scotsman, but is now infested with spiders and termites, and the walls sail out from the humidity (p. 7). How do their homes illustrate the differences between them?

13. Compare Gyan and the judge. Both were the chosen sons of the family; much was sacrificed for their success and much expected of them. They are both lonely and feel that they don’t fit in anywhere. If they are so similar, why don’t they get along? Do you think they would raise their sons the way they had been raised?

14. How is it that the judge’s father realized that the class system in India would prevent his son from realizing his potential, but that colonialism offered a chink in that wall? Why does the judge not work in his own province once he returns to India? What are the different types of immigration that take place in the novel? There is Biju, Saeed Saeed, the judge, Sai’s mother and father, Father Booty and Uncle Potty, the Tibetan monks, the workers in the New York restaurants, and all the people in the Calcutta airport when Biju arrives back home (chapter 48). What does all this immigration mean?

15. Was Gyan a strong person? How did he become involved with a “procession coming panting up Mintri Road led by young men holding their kukris aloft and shouting, ‘Jai Gorkha’ ” (p. 156)? Gyan was not totally convinced at the rally. Later at Ex-Army Thapa’s Canteen “fired by alcohol” (p. 160), what decision did Gyan reach? Explain his reasons. What did Gyan think about his father?

16. The next day Gyan went to Cho Oyu. What had changed? He returned to the canteen after leaving Cho Oyu. Discuss his reasons for betraying Sai. “ ‘You hate me,’ said Sai, as if she read his thoughts, ‘for big reasons, that have nothing to do with me’ ” (p. 260). Discuss why Gyan rejected Sai.

17. Discuss the unrest, betrayals, and eventual violence that separate Gyan and Sai. How are their troubles, and those of the cook, the judge, Father Booty, and Lola and Noni, related to problems of statehood and old hatreds that will not die? Does Noni’s statement, “ ‘Very unskilled at drawing borders, those bloody Brits,’ ” (p. 129) fully explain the troubles?

18. Biju’s time in New York City is not what he had expected. How do the earlier immigrants treat him? How do the class differences in India translate into class differences in the United States, where there were supposed to be none? Saeed Saeed is a success in America: “He relished the whole game, the way the country flexed his wits and rewarded him; he charmed it, cajoled it, cheated it, felt great tenderness and loyalty toward it.... It was an old-fashioned romance” (p. 79). Why is he so successful, and Biju is not?

19. Most of the examples of Americans and other tourists in India are extremely unflattering (pp. 197, 201, 237, 264). Most of the Indians in America are also not impressive, such as the students to whom Biju delivers food (pp. 48–51) and the businesspeople who order steak in the restaurant in the financial district (p. 135). How do they judge themselves? How does Biju judge them?

20. How did the cook get his job with the judge? Did the cook accept his position in society? Did he fulfill his responsibilities despite the judge’s treatment? Why did the cook embellish the stories he told about the judge?

21. Why did the cook want his son, Biju, to go to America? Discuss Biju’s experiences there. How did he feel about the possibility that he might never see his father again? Why did Biju return to India? Describe how he felt when he stepped out of the airport.

22. Did Sai mature or change over the months of both personal and political turmoil? “The simplicity of what she had been taught wouldn’t hold. Never again could she think there was but one narrative and that narrative belonged only to herself” (p. 323). Explain what she means by this statement. Will Sai leave Cho Oyu?

23. The cook is not referred to by name until the next to last page of the novel. Why?

24. Which of the characters achieved, in Gyan’s words, “a life of meaning and pride” (p. 260)?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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