Book Review: The Inheritance of Loss By Kiran Desai

Reviewed by Kiprop Kimutai

Somewhere below the five peaks of Kanchenjunga (a range section of the Himalays mountains), a house stands. Built by a Scotsman when India was colonized, it boasted excellent workmanship earlier on-fancy piping and tubing, good tiling and wrought iron gates. but that was then. Now it is an abode for dead spiders and a scorpion’s nest, with soot-clumped walls and the pipes all gone shaky and leaking, bandaged with soppy rags.

It houses a retired judge, his grand-daughter Sai, atimid cook and a dog called Mutt. An odd  crowd whose lack of any defining common identity adds even more to their misery. For Sai, luck comes in the from of Gyan, an accounting student who comes to serve as her tutor, as her former tutor, a lady called Noni, gets defeated by the complexities of physics and mathematics. Gyan is described to carry an ‘unmistakable whiff of ambition ‘ despite his humble background, and the idea of that boy alone in a room with Sai, creates a disquiet in both the judge and the cook. For Sai it is a welcome relief. She has resided in that boring house ever since she was whisked from a Catholic school after her parents (astronauts training in Moscow) perish in a terrible accident and the school, mourning its loss of donor funds (from the deceased) start seeing Sai as a burden, and quickly trace her dwindling relations before finally settling on her grand-father, the judge, to be a guardian. The judge, British-educated like his grandchild is intent that she does not lose her fine accent and English manners and thus sequesters her from anything ‘undesirable’ in the enviroment, insisting in tutors and constant observation of her whereabouts from the cook. Love blossoms between Gyan and Sai. At first it is denied, the two concentrating on the sums before them, dissection of angles and analysis of graphs. Still, like an alien creature, love reaches out with desperate tentacles and entangles the two. They Kiss. They fight. They kiss some more.

The cook is as poor as poor could be, with nothing but a thin mattress, a tiny collection of old clothes and his culinary skills to his name. Still he dreams of modern amenities-refrigerators, microwaves, telephones-at night he dreams of mobile phones that fly off just before he presses the dialling pad. His sole hope is in his son, Biju, who flew to America some time back and is playing a cat and mouse game to be ahead of the immigration police as he looks for low-end, employee-abusing jobs at fast-food joints. The cook talks a lot and is proud of the judge and Sai, and cooks up fascinating hero-worship stories about working for them. He bears an unusually high level of timidity, that seems ingrained to the very core of his fibre, an eagerness to please and give in, whether he is assaulted by the police or robbers alike.

The judge is apparently very cold-hearted, unless to the affections generously shown to his dog Mutt. He hides a lot from his past- a murder, estrangement with family, being bown to a lowly-caste, racial abuse in England where he was educated, and many more bits and pieces of his life that slowly unravel as the story moves on. He is an object of wonderment in the region, a relic whose glory is diminishing with age and whittling resources, but still a pinnacle of achievement to be admired from afar. His desperation and anguish finally spill out at the end, catalysed by the disappearence of his dog ( the latter beingg stolen by a destitute couple to be sold in the next town in exchange for food after they had knocked at the judge’s door and been refused any help).

I have to speak about Biju (the cook’s soon), his disillusionment with the American dream, his deplorable living conditions in America. The book describes his journey to America with effortless grace…the eagerness to queue at the American embassy, and the falsification of a story to earn him a visa and the attendant palpitations of his heart as he is unsure of whether his story would be accepted. It describes how he lives like a rat in America, no health insurance when he breaks his arm and having to let it heal by itself, his desperate attempts to make phone calls to his father, and how his dream of making it in America finally dwindles. He buys a ticket to fly back home to India, packing modern fanciful amenities for his further in his suitcase. It is his journey back to their mountain home that gives the story a final cruel twist.

The author: Kiran Desai

Overall, the Inheritance of Loss is a literary masterpiece, unputdownable and unquestionable in its flair for description, character scrutiny and human emotion mastery. There is more to it than the story of these four individuals, it speaks of a military insurgency arising, awakening hatred and almost tearing that part of the region from India. It speaks of the attendant anguish-not only to these four people but to their neighbours as well, and how their spirits are put to test-the willingness to accept defeat and move on, and the desire to search for the truth, just like the book describes at the end;

“The five peaks of Kanchenjunga turned golden with the kind of luminous light that made you feel, if briefly, that truth was apparent. All you needed to do was to reach out and pluck it.”

Author: Kiprop Kimutai

Present, Kind, Loving, Centered, Connected

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Inheritance of Loss By Kiran Desai”

  1. I read through the review and a question kept ringing through my head…”Why have I not read this”?The book I enjoyed reading and can compare to this is V. S. Naipaul’s “A House for Mr.Biswa’s”, It is the story of the story of Mr Mohun Biswas, who continually strives for success and mostly fails, who marries into the Tulsi family only to find himself dominated by it, and who finally sets the goal of owning his own house…Mr.Biswas may also, like Gyan , carry the ‘unmistakable whiff of ambition ‘…even though his is of a desperate nature so to speak…all in all it sounds like a worthy read

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