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The great divide

The Inheritance of Loss A Novel Kiran Desai Atlantic Monthly Press: 324 pages, $24

January 22, 2006|Jenifer Berman | Jenifer Berman works for GQ and contributes to the New York Times Book Review, Bookforum and the Forward.

KIRAN DESAI's first novel, "Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard," was an overwhelming critical success, a fabulist's romp through an Indian village full of eccentric, hilarious characters. The book, which garnered Desai favorable comparisons to Salman Rushdie's "The Moor's Last Sigh" and "Midnight's Children," was an intimate work, a satiric story about family and loyalty set in one small and often ridiculous town. "The Inheritance of Loss," Desai's second book, opens a wider aperture, allowing this exceptionally talented writer to focus on the greater post-colonial issues of race, religion and the tumult of modern immigration.

Second novels, though, often come fraught with expectation, especially in the wake of well-received firsts. Take two of Desai's contemporaries, Arundhati Roy and Zadie Smith, whose "The God of Small Things" and "White Teeth," respectively, were wildly praised debuts that proved difficult to follow. Yet if Desai seems to take a page from each -- Roy's lush, magical sense of place and Smith's whip-smart irreverence -- she doesn't falter in her second effort, penning a book that is wise, insightful and full of wonderfully compelling and conflicted characters.

"The Inheritance of Loss" takes place in Kalimpong, an Indian village in the eastern Himalayas on the border with Nepal. In the shadow of these great mountains and their "wizard phosphorescence," a handful of characters must find their own ways in a society alternately romancing its colonial past and trying to keep pace with a modernized future. There is Sai, the 16-year-old orphan who lives with her grandfather, a retired Cambridge-educated judge so stymied by his solitude and snobbery that "[h]e worked at being English with the passion of hatred and for what he would become, he would be despised by absolutely everyone, English and Indians, both." Living with this mismatched pair is their dog, Mutt, and their nameless cook, who had "the undisturbed settled smell of a lifetime of cooking, smoke, and kerosene" and lives only for the intermittent letters he receives from his son Biju, a struggling illegal hopscotching between menial restaurant jobs in New York.

It's Biju, in fact, who provides the book with its First World contrast, illuminating the sham of the American Dream as he shuttles from one kitchen to the next -- the Baby Bistro to Le Colonial to the Stars and Stripes Diner to the Queen of Tarts and finally to the Gandhi Cafe, where he and a handful of other Indian nationals work and sleep in a rat-infested basement. His father may think his son is getting rich and fat in America ("Stay there as long as you can," he urges), but Biju is living in the shadows, becoming rich only with humiliating experience, a vocabulary of curses and a growing sense of self-pity. "In India," he reflects, "almost nobody would be able to afford this rice, and you had to travel around the world to be able to eat such things where they were cheap enough that you could gobble them down without being rich; and when you got home to the place where they grew, you couldn't afford them anymore."

The pain of exile, however, is not limited to Biju. The judge experienced it as an impoverished student at Cambridge, and so has Sai, as a Westernized Indian raised by English nuns. Sai's Nepalese tutor and love interest, Gyan, is similarly estranged, a poor yet ambitious young man who finds himself, like all Nepalese living in India, a foreigner in his own country. A backdrop of social unrest -- the Nepalese insurgency and struggle for statehood in the mid-1980s -- provides Desai's novel with its narrative conflict. Gyan, looking for meaning and purpose, abandons Sai and her sheltered, knife-and- fork ways for the camaraderie of angry boys, the "unleashed Bruce Lee fans in the American T-shirts made-in-China-coming-in-via-Kathmandu," joining them in their marches and protests and repudiation of an unjust world.

In fact, all of Desai's characters confront the elusiveness of justice -- the disenfranchised Nepalese and the abused cook, as well as the judge and his Anglophile neighbors whose property becomes fair game for bandits and squatters. India, the judge says, is "too messy for justice," and Desai is adept at rendering the perverse dynamics of this world. Throughout the novel, we confront the deep-rooted social prejudice, the wrestling with cultural identity, the collective dislocation that bind each of these characters and gives the story richness and depth. No one in Desai's world is capable of joy. All are longing for a sense of place and connection that is frustratingly beyond their grasp. "Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss?" Sai wonders at the start of the novel. In the end, surrounded by a decaying house and a collective anger "solidified into slogans and guns," she sadly answers her own question.

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