Judge Jemubhai in Kiran Desai's book The Inheritance of Loss, would not disagree. Born into a middle-class Patel family, he sails for England in 1939. Feeling lost, and scorned for his skin, color, smell, he returns as an ICS officer serving the British. Full of self-hate as well as hate for his family, community, and anyone for not being British, which includes his wife, the Judge settles in Kalimpong in a crumbling old relic of a mansion from the colonial era.
Thus Jemubhai's mind has 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. He forgot how to laugh, could barely manage to lift his lips in a smile, and if he ever did, he held his hand over his mouth, because he couldn't bear anyone to see his gums, his teeth. They seemed too private. In fact he could barely let any of himself peep out of his clothes for fear of giving offence. He began to wash obsessively . . . To the end of his life, he would never be seen without socks and shoes and would prefer shadow to light, faded days to sunny, for he was suspicious that sunlight might reveal him, in his hideousness, all too clearly.
With a keen eye for telling detail and profound wisdom, Desai weaves the weight of colonial history with its slow burn of humiliation, and creates a rich tapestry of characters who live with questions of identity and alienation, exiles at home as well as abroad.
The main story is about the kinds of losses the characters endure. Sai, the orphaned granddaughter of the Judge is returned to his care from the convent school. Hiding from his own life and at a loss to provide the love and warmth she yearns for, the Judge turns her care over to the cook. Infected by the desire to leave home among the people he sees around him, the cook , who has lost his wife, also sends his son Biju off to work on a cruise ship which deposits him in New York. The Nepali math tutor that Sai loves, Gyan, is lost to her when he is absorbed into the 1986 Gorkha insurgency. He joins the movement not as much for the cause but as an outlet to vent his own rage and alienation.
With great tenderness and humor, Desai has populated her book with vibrant characters such as the anglophile sisters Lola and Noni; the refugee Afghani princesses; the Swiss priest Father Potty who had thought his home India, but is deported with dispatch when the Gorkha separatist movement breaks out; the most memorable Saeed Saeed who teaches Biju everything he knows. Not the least are Mustafa the cat, Mutt the Judge's purebred pet dog -- who is lost -- and other various animals, alive and dead, who make command appearances in the story.
In both places, New York and Kalimpong, Indians live parallel lives, conflicted by class and nationality. Untouched by globalization and the prosperity it has brought into one class of Indians, people like the cook and Gyan find the vestiges of colonialism in their unchanging poverty, in the unbreachable power imbalance. With a narrative voice that sparkles with compassion at this imbalance, Desai leads the reader into the inner lives of the poor, and the shadow lives they live within the country where they are born. Sai's first glimpse of the cook:
It seemed a long while before they heard a whistle blowing and saw a lantern approaching, and there had come the cook, bandy-legged up the path, looking as leather-visaged, as weathered and soiled, as he did now, and as he would ten years later. A poverty stricken man growing into an ancient as fast-forward. Compressed childhood, lingering old age. A generation between him and the judge, but you wouldn't know it to look at them. There was age in his temperament, his kettle, his clothes, his kitchen, his voice, his face, in the undisturbed dirt, the undisturbed settled smell of a lifetime of cooking, smoke, and kerosene. . . .
She rarely came into the cook's hut, and when she did come searching for him and enter, he was ill at ease and so was she, something about their closeness being exposed in the end as fake, their friendship composed of shallow things conducted in a broken language, for she was an English-speaker and he was a Hindi-speaker. The brokeness made it easier to never go deep, never ot go into anything that required an intricate vocabulary, yet she always felt tender on seeing his crotchety face, on hearing him haggle at the market, felt pride that she lived with such a difficult man who nonetheless spoke to her with affection, calling her Babyji or Saibaby.
Slogging for the meanest wages in the kitchens of the fancy restaurants of New York City, Biju is learning:
From other kitchens, he was learning what the world thought of Indians:
In Tanzania,if they could, they would throw them out like they did in Uganda.
In Madagascar, if they could, they would throw them out.
In Nigeria, if they could, they would throw them out.
In Fiji, if they could, they would throw them out.
In China, they hate them.
In Hong Kong.
They don't like them.
In Guadeloupe -- they love us there?
Unlike the class of Indians who are now celebrated for their economic success in America, people like Biju hop from one bad job to another, always staying just a half-step ahead of the INS., in despair for the, "Oh the green card, the green card, the ... "
A taxi driver appeared on the screen: watching bootleg copies of American movies he had been inspired to come to America, but how to move into the mainstream? He was illegal, his taxi was illegal, the yellow paint was illegal, his whole family was here, and all the men from his village were here, perfectly infiltrated and working within the cab system of the city. But how to get their papers? Would any viewer out there wish to marry him? Even a disabled or mentally retarded green card holder would be fine.
Packed into rat infested apartments in Harlem, Biju's life is a juggling act and not at all far from the poverty his father believed he has escaped. In addition he bears the weight of terrible loneliness and does not know how to relive alienation:
He had been abandoned among foreigners: Jacinto the superintendent, the homeless man, a stiff bow-legged coke runner . . . (In the summer) women of great weight and heft appeared in shorts with shaven legs, stippled with tiny black dots, and groups of deflated men sat at cards on boards balanced atop garbage cans . . . They nodded kindly at him, sometimes they even offered him a beer, but Biju did not know what to say to them, even his tiny brief "Hello" came out wrong; too softly, so they did not hear, or just as they turned away.
Biju, homesick and missing his father, returns to a Kalimpong that the violent insurgency, lasting tow years, had left in total ruin and anarchy. Without a green card, he is uncertain of his future.
Dark? Yes. Bleak? You bet. Hopeless? No.
Like Naipaul, Desai bears witness to the suffering of the poor and the powerless by holding up an unflinching mirror to their lives. And like him, she infuses their bitter lives with the kind of humor that only the refugees can deliver. The people she writes about may be bent but they are not broken. Setting the story in Kalimpong and Sikkim, with keen and perceptive visual and aural details, Desai describes the beauty of the Indian landscape which ultimately saves them from their losses. She writes of Biju in his lonely Harlem basement bed:
"he thought of his village where he had lived with his grandmother on the money his father sent each month. The village was buried in silver grasses that were taller than a man and made a sound, shuu shuuuu, shu shuuu, as the wind turned them this way and that. . . . Fishing eagles hovered above the water, changed their horizontal glide within a single moment, plunged, rose sometimes with a thrashing muscle of silver. A hermit also lived on this bank, positioned like a stork, waiting, oh waiting, for the glint of another, an elusive mystical fish: when it surfaces he must pounce lest it is lost again and never return . . . When he had visited his father r in Kalimpong, they had sat outside in the evenings and his father had reminisced: "How peaceful our village is. How good the roti tastes there! It is because the atta is ground by hand, not by machine . . . and because it is made on a choolah, better than anything cooked on a gas or kerosene stove, . . . Fresh roti, fresh butter, fresh milk still warm from the buffalo . . ." They had stayed up late. They had not noticed Sai, . . . staring form bedroom window, jealous of the cook's love for his son. Small-mouthed bats drinking water from the jhora had swept over again and again in a witch flap of black wings.
The novel raises several large, important questions. What about the dividends from globalization? What about the celebration of hybridity, the global citizen, and the spawning of new ideas? At what point does colonialism become an excuse for corrupt government? Desai answers them in a quiet voice and not all answers are complete. But they don't have to be because they force the reader to think of the answers she does give for a long time.
Desai has written an important book.
Book Description: In a crumbling, isolated house at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas lives an embittered judge who wants only to retire in peace, when his orphaned granddaughter, Sai, arrives on his doorstep. The judge's cook watches over her distractedly, for his thoughts are claimed by his son, Biju, who is hopscotching from one gritty New York restaurant to another. When an Indian-Nepali insurgency in the mountains interrupts Sai's exploration of the many incarnations and facets of a romance with her Nepali tutor, and causes their lives to descend into chaos, they are forced to consider their colliding interests.
In a generous vision, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, Desai presents the human quandaries facing a panoply of characters. This majestic novel of a busy, grasping time -- every moment holding out the possibility of hope or betrayal -- illuminates the consequences of colonialism and global conflicts of religion, race, and nationality.
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