THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS
By Kiran Desai
Price: Rs 495 Pages: 336
With Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, Kiran Desai announced herself as an author in possession of the literary equivalent of perfect pitch. Anita Desai's daughter had a talent all her own, a set of skills too large for the slight but charming tale of an ordinary wastrel turned accidental godman. All she needed was the right story; and in the seven years in between Hullabaloo and The Inheritance of Loss, she's found it in an unlikely conjunction of places.
It's the season of mists in Kalimpong, where Sai's story starts in a crumbling house called Cho Oyu that reeks of loneliness and abandoned memories of perfection fuelled by a long-lost wealth. As Sai, her grandfather the retired judge and the cook watch, the first signs of conflict overtake the quiet rhythms of their lives. A band of young boys, unconvincing in their uniforms of "universal guerrilla fashion", break into Cho Oyu in search of the judge's rusting guns, demanding a reluctant tea-and-pakora hospitality, departing with "only items necessary for the movement", a list that includes Pond's Cold Cream.
| PICTURE SPEAK |
|PERFECT PITCH: A tale of immigrants and settlers |
Sai is an orphan, her parents unlikely casualties of an accident in Russia involving crates of nesting babushka dolls and a Moscow bus, her "dumpling love" for her Nepali tutor, Gyan, the only false note in her narrative, played deliberately but not very effectively for laughs. At Cho Oyu, Sai and the cook are the only still points in a landscape where every person is defined by the journeys they've made.
Sai is, above all, a reader: "Books were making her restless. She was beginning to read, faster, more, until she was inside the narrative and the narrative inside her, the pages going by so fast, her heart in her chest-she couldn't stop." The cook, it emerges, is a natural-born storyteller, inventor of a wonderful, perfect life in America for his immigrant son, Biju, creator of a magnificent, haveli-born past and a passionately loving marriage for the judge (who in truth, had neither).
The three of them, the cook, the judge and the young girl, are hapless, unwilling witnesses to the identity struggle playing out in the hills as the GNLF and other parties claim a land, a language and a respect that have all been denied the Nepali immigrants-turned-settlers. The rituals of Lola's marmalade on toast and the tunes from Uncle Potty's gramophone player, Father Booty's cheese-making dairies and Noni's library books are disrupted by bandhs and food shortages, killings and property takeovers. Gently but relentlessly, and with only an occasional excess of liberal guilt, Desai puts us in the position of the settler who knows the language of privilege better than the local tongue, whose crime is to love the landscape and the mountains passionately while retaining the distance of the outsider.
Sai's tale is beautifully balanced by Biju's journey into territory just as uncharted and exotic for this cook's son from the Himalayas as the journeys of Englishmen and Scotsmen into the hills of Kalimpong were in a previous generation. Biju's New York is the backstairs, underground, precarious and rambunctious universe of the Third World cooks and busboys who staff first-class, first-world restaurants.
Desai captures his particular brand of loneliness and bewilderment with rare empathy: "Biju put a padding of newspapers down his shirt... and sometimes he took the scallion pancakes and inserted them below the paper, inspired by the memory of an uncle who used to go out to the fields in winter with his lunchtime parathas down his vest... Once, on his bicycle, he began to weep from the cold, and the weeping unpicked a deeper vein of grief... " He finds a sense of community among these strugglers and stragglers, their Holy Grail the elusive Green Card; discovers the older immigrant's shame at rejecting the endless waves of new immigrants.
Between these two richly imagined narratives, Desai interrogates our ideas of entitlement and belonging, unpicks the identities of immigrant and settler. She does it all with a style and humour only occasionally marred by a heavyhanded playfulness that shows up in too many capital letters, too many italics-unnecessary embellishments for a writer of her calibre. The Inheritance of Loss, a delightfully original book, justifies every cliché in the reviewer's repertoire: it is that rare thing, a triumph of the storyteller's art, nuanced, and even, we must concede, worthy of the most-overworked term in the reviewer's lexicon: luminous.
| EXCERPT |
All day, the colors had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths. Briefly visible above the vapor, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.
Sai, sitting on the veranda, was reading an article about giant squid in an old National Goegraphic. Every now and then she looked up at Kanchenjunga, observed its wizard phosphorescence with a shiver. The judge sat at the far corner with his chessboard, playing against himself. Stuffed under his chair where she felt safe was Mutt the dog, snoring gently in her sleep. A single bald lightbulb dangled on a wire above. It was cold, but inside the house, it was still colder, the dark, the freeze, contained by stone walls several feet deep.
Here, at the back, inside the cavernous kitchen, was the cook, trying to light the damp wood. He fingered the kindling gingerly for fear of the community of scorpions living, loving, reproducing in the pile. Once he'd found a mother, plump with poison, fourteen babies on her back.
Eventually, the fire caught and he placed his kettle on top, as battered, as encrusted as something dug up by an archeological team, and waited for it to boil. The walls were singed and sodden, garlic hung by muddy stems from the charred beams, thickets of soot clumped batlike upon the ceiling. The flame cast a mosaic of shiny orange across the cook's face, and his top half grew hot, but a mean gust tortured his arthritic knees.
Up through the chimney and out, the smoke mingled with the mist that was gathering speed, sweeping in thicker and thicker, obscuring things in parts-half a hill, then the other half. The trees turned into silhouettes, loomed forth, were submerged again. Gradually the vapor replaced everything with itself, solid objects with shadow, and nothing remained that did not seem molded from or inspired by it. Sai's breath flew from her nostrils in drifts, and the diagram of a giant squid constructed from scraps of information, scientists' dreams, sank entirely into the murk.
She shut the magazine and walked out into the garden. The forest was old and thick at the edge of the lawn; the bamboo thickets rose thirty feet into the gloom; the trees were moss-slung giants, bunioned and misshapen, tentacled with the roots of orchids. The caress of the mist through her hair seemed human, and when she held her fingers out, the vapor took them gently into its mouth. She thought of Gyan, the mathematics tutor, who should have arrived an hour ago with his algebra book.
But it was 4:30 already and she excused him with the thickening mist.
When she looked back, the house was gone; when she climbed the steps back to the veranda, the garden vanished. The judge had fallen asleep and gravity acting upon the slack muscles, pulling on the line of his mouth, dragging on his cheeks, showed Sai exactly what he would look like if he were dead.
"Where is the tea?" he woke up and demanded of her. "He's late," said the judge, meaning the cook with the tea, not Gyan.
"I'll get it." she offered.