Kiran Desai’s 2006 award winning novel The Inheritance of Loss, is the story of a few connected individuals based in a small hill station Kalimpong, located in North East India in the 1980’s. Having been to Kalimpong myself and lived for long summer vacations in hillside towns, I find Desai’s descriptions and eye for detail nothing short of extraordinary.
Sai is an orphaned teenage girl who lives with her grandfather, a retired judge who studied in Cambridge, in what was once a mansion high in the mountains. She falls in love with her mathematics tutor despite their different backgrounds and upbringing. Also involved in the narrative is Biju, the son of the judge’s cook. Biju is an illegal immigrant working in New York City, desperately moving from one job to another in search of a better livelihood.
Part of the book’s magic is Desai’s seamless transition from describing small town India and New York City in the 1980’s, to pre-second world war England. Desai describes the judge’s life as a student in England, where he feels socially inadequate due to him being born and raised in a village in India. Upon his return to India, to join the civil service, he suddenly finds his wife and others in his family backward. As a stark background to the narrative, Desai tells of the separatist movements which engulfed India at the time. One of which, the Nepalese Ghurkha movement, Sai’s tutor and lover Gyan becomes involved in.
Each of the characters in the book have an air of desperation around them; the cook longing to see his son, Sai determined to leave Kalimpong to travel the world, and the judge desperate to forget his past which continues to haunt and humiliate him. Desai captures this brilliantly and as the tales unravels, the reader tends to feed of their desperation as well.
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