Strangers to Themselves
The Inheritance of Loss
by Kiran Desai
New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006, 336 pp., $24.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Mandira Sen
“Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss?” asks author Kiran Desai, as she explores the multifaceted aspects of loss. Shifting back and forth between Kalimpong, in the northeastern Himalayas, and the desperate world of the illegal, nonwhite immigrants in the grubby basement kitchens of New York’s restaurants, Desai points to the complexities of race and ethnicity in both places, with their undercurrents of antagonism and incomprehension. Class, too, intrudes, as educated, richer Indians try hard to differentiate themselves from the poor and the underclass.
In Kalimpong, the narrative focuses on the household of Jemubhai Patel, a retired judge from the prestigious Indian Civil Service, the British Empire’s old “steel frame”: a few hundred white civil servants who had administered the subcontinent with the help of a handful of Indians, recruited starting in 1879. Patel, now in his sixties, has bought a cottage, Cho Oyu, from the Scot who had built it and is now leaving India. The place must have been beautiful once, and it still has some vestiges of glory: lacelike gates that hang from two stone pillars; high, vaulted ceilings; windows that seem deliberately positioned to provide just a glimpse of the mountains. But Cho Oyu is now extremely run down and badly in need of restoration: termites are steadily chewing at the cottage’s wooden frame, furniture, and floors. Desai does not explain the judge’s poverty, leaving the reader to wonder why his granddaughter, Sai, who comes to live with him when she is orphaned at nine, must sleep under a tablecloth, the last sheets having given up the ghost, and why the cook is kept on such meager wages and is made to live in a broken-down hut. The curious juxtaposition of high status and genteel poverty may indicate an impoverishment of spirit rather than the simple absence of funds.
The judge is a embittered, angry old man with a terrifying past of destroyed relationships. He treated his wife with unusual cruelty and violence, and abandoned his daughter to a convent boarding school, eventually cutting her off completely when she married a Parsi. Even earlier, he had broken his ties with his parents, extended family, and the community of Patels who had seen him off on his voyage to Cambridge University with great fanfare and hopes of general betterment. In 1939 he was twenty, and most of the Indian students at Cambridge were nationalist and rooting for independence, but Patel had come to see Indian relationships, culture, and dark skin as inferior: “Jemubhai’s mind had begun to warp, he grew stranger to himself than he was to those around him, found his own skin odd-colored, his own accent peculiar.” Alienated from himself, he “learned to take refuge in the third person to keep everyone at bay, to keep even himself away from himself, like the queen.” Now he shows affection only to his dog, Mutt—although he is beginning to recognize that he has something in common with his granddaughter, now sixteen, “an estranged Indian living in India.”
The opportunity to emulate a British lifestyle is what has drawn many westernized Indians to hill stations like Kalimpong, where the temperate climate means that one is not part of tropical, mainstream India. The British built cottages there and gave play to their gardening genius. They encouraged purveyors of the necessities for a colonial lifestyle, such as bakeries that produced the cakes, breads, and biscuits so necessary for a decent tea. The two elderly women who take up Sai, Lola, a widow, and her sister Noni, who tutors Sai, live such a life. Their little rose-covered cottage is called Mon Ami, and its extensive land houses perhaps the country’s first broccoli patch. At night, they listen to the BBC on the radio, drinking smuggled cherry brandy. They are conscious of their class; their superiority to Mrs. Sen, their Anglophile neighbor, who is not quite as genteel as they are; their fellowship with Father Booty of the Swiss dairy, which makes real cheese, not the processed version that most Indians eat; and their relationship to Uncle Potty, a wealthy old Indian who is living off his inheritance. The sisters read nineteenth-century British novels––Lola is saving Trollope for her dotage––and avoid anything by the relatively new group of Indian novelists who write in English. Neither do they read the newer and younger British authors—doubtless because they need their vision of Britain to remain relatively static. Lola travels to England every two years or so and stocks up on Knorr packet soups, Oxo stock cubes, and underwear from Marks and Spencer. She encouraged her daughter Pixie to emigrate to England, and when Pixie marries an Englishman, she is overjoyed.
Sai has never learned any Indian language. As a pupil at St. Augustine’s Convent (which boasts a Latin-sounding motto—concocted by Desai—that isn’t Latin at all), Sai learned that “cake was better than ladoo” (an Indian sweetmeat) and “English was better than Hindi.” She reads To Kill a Mockingbird, Cider with Rosie, Life with Father, and National Geographic. She can converse with the cook, who cared for her as a child, only in broken Hindi. Sai’s world begins to shift when Gyan, a Nepalese college student, is hired as her math and science tutor. Since the class divide is also an ethnic divide, Gyan’s family, like other Nepalese, are poor and uneducated. Sai and Gyan, never having met anyone like one another, are mutually attracted, and for the first time Sai becomes aware of another world.
Lack of faith in India is something the majority of the poor share with their “betters.” Patel’s cook struggles to send his son, Biju, to America. After Biju is duped, along with many others, by an agency supposedly recruiting waiters, cooks, and cleaners for a cruise ship, he manages to get a tourist visa on the basis of an application that is entirely fabricated. The local doctor, whose son, like Biju, is going to America (the cook’s shared experience with a member of the elite fills him with pride), creates a fake record of Biju’s inoculations. Once in New York, Biju becomes a low-level kitchen worker, moving from restaurant to restaurant as jobs fold up or the police invade to check social security cards. Desai captures the desperation of the illegal immigrants from Latin America, Africa, and Asia—all suspicious of one other. As she perceptively notes, Biju is awed by whites, who have harmed India, and prejudiced against Africans, who have not.
The wealthy Indians who dine at the restaurants that employ Biju recognize him as a compatriot but are careful to maintain their distance. Biju is shocked to see Hindu Indians ordering beef: “He took on a sneering look. But they could afford not to notice.” Desai is an astute observer. Brigitte’s, a restaurant in the New York financial district, is
A restaurant of mirrors so that the diners might observe exactly how enviable they were as they ate. . . .[The owners] drank [Tailors of Harrowgate’s darjeeling] tea and diligently they read the New York Times together, including the international news. It was overwhelming . . . [all nationalities] coming at you screaming colonialism, screaming slavery, screaming mining companies . . .and why don’t you forgive third-world debt . . . the United States was a young country built on the finest principles, and how could it possible add up so many bills? . . . Business was business. Your bread might as well be left unbuttered were the butter to be spread so thin. The fittest one wins and gets the butter.”
“These white people!” says Achootan, a fellow dishwasher, to Biju. “ Shit! But at least this country is better than England, at least they have some hypocrisy here. They believe they are good people and you get some relief.” Unlike Saeed Saeed of Zanzibar, with his merry personality and his dreadlocks, who has taken to America with gusto and is longing for a green card, Achootan “wanted the… card in the way of revenge.” But they all want green cards. Despite the misery, no member of the underclass thinks of leaving.
Biju eventually goes to work for an Indian restaurant owner: Harish-Harry, who, with his brothers Gaurish-Gary and Dhansukh-Danny, runs a trio of Gandhi cafes in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. His wife allows the staff to live in the basement for free, and in return, the brothers “cut the pay to a quarter of the minimum wage, reclaim the tips, keep an eye on the workers and drive them to work fifteen- ,sixteen- , seventeen-hour donkey days.”
If it seems that positive changes are not forthcoming for the likes of Biju in America, because as “illegals” they have no political rights, in India, democratic politics have empowered hitherto quiescent groups. In Kalimpong, the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) agitates for rights and justice for the majority Nepalese. The young unemployed men love the mobilization: “Money and guns in their pockets, they were living the movies . . . the new films would be based on them.”
Briefed by Gyan, GNLF guerrillas raid Patel’s house. They take his guns, ransack the property, and stock up on food supplies. Intimidating strikes last for days; electricity and water are cut off; road blocks prevent food from coming into the area. Lola and Noni are forced to shelter the GNLF’s followers, who immediately eat up their carefully accumulated store of cold meat and sausages. When daylight comes, the strikers see the large garden, available for “sharing,” and their supporters start building bamboo huts on its edges. When Lola goes to their leader, Pradhan, to protest, he looks to her “like a bandit teddy bear, with a great beard and a bandana around his head, gold earrings.” He tells her calmly, although with an underlying, implacable menace, that he has to accommodate his men. Lola tries to camouflage her fluent English, but it is actually Nepali that she has never bothered to learn. Mocking her, Pradhan says that as “the raja of Kalimpong,” he could have many wives: “Would you, dear Aunty, be the fifth?” Although, he says, he would need a substantial dowry for her, as she is “nothing much to look at, nothing up”—he pats the front of his khaki shirt––“nothing down”––he pats his behind—“in fact, I have more of both!” After this humiliation, she returns home traumatized, wondering what the future holds for her and Noni. She realizes a truth:
All of a sudden, all that they had claimed innocent, fun, funny, not really to matter was proven wrong. It did matter, buying tinned ham roll in a rice and dal country; it did matter to live in a big house and sit beside a heater in the evening, even one that sparked and shocked; it did matter to fly to London and to return with chocolates filled with kirsch; it did matter that others could not… The wealth that seemed to protect them like a blanket was the very thing that left them exposed. They, amid extreme poverty, were baldly richer, and the statistics of difference were being broadcast . . .they would pay the debt that should be shared with others over many generations.”
Similarly, Gyan and Sai, estranged from each other, have a showdown. He yells,
What’s fair? Do you have any idea of the world? Do you bother to look? Do you have any understanding of how justice operates or, rather, does NOT operate?”
Both realize they are the “other.”
Biju, convinced that his father needs him, returns to Kalimpong when he hears of the political disturbances. He returns not as a hero but as someone who has been robbed of all he had, down to the clothes on his back, but who feels whole and restored: “He had shed the unbearable arrogance and shame of the immigrant… For the first time in God knows how long, his vision unblurred and he found he could see clearly.” The gap between loss and fulfillment is closed.
Desai’s deceptively gentle novel deals with the very basis of existence: the quest for a decent life, for justice. She is not afraid of harsh truths:
“There was no system to soothe the unfairness of things; justice was without scope; it might snag the stealer of chickens, but great evasive crimes would have to be dismissed because, if identified and netted, they would bring down the entire structure of so-called civilization.”
Paradoxically, when she writes of tension and violence, her text reads sensitively. When she writes of the nostalgic past, of the judge in Cambridge, of Kalimpong’s beauty, she is in danger of overwriting: “replications of gardens that segued one into the other or the swans that sailed butterflied to their reflections”; “circination”; “borborgymus.” But it is petty to cavil. Her achievement is considerable, showing how no one can free herself from the dilemmas of existence and how hard it is to lead a decent life amidst injustice.
Mandira Sen lives and works in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India. She is the publisher of two imprints: Stree, on gender studies; and Samya, on social change, dissent, and the construction of culture.