By Nyambura Mutanyi

India is one of those countries that seem to have an endless supply of stories that awe, surprise and titillate. Sometimes all at once. Hope, sadness, poverty and indescribable wealth all in one place that sometimes feels like a little world mistakenly referred to as a sub-continent.

In The Inheritance of Loss, we encounter India in its beauty and with all its contradictions. This book has such a rich set of characters that one is enraptured. And what beauty one finds in this story of joy and inestimable sadness!

Kiran Desai manages to tell a coherent tale of many people’s interlinked lives across continents. The story flits from the Himalayas to the Big Apple and into the past effortlessly spinning a yarn that keeps the reader engaged in the telling of these people’ lives.

Empathy, I sometimes feel, is an ideal we aspire to without much success. We want so badly to walk in another person’s shoes but more than that we want to pass judgement on them. This book is one of those gems that leaves one wondering if they are the best, or kindest, they can be as they read it. If what you see is so far removed from what you get when you delve into the inner reaches of a person’s life, how much do we really know?

Desai answers that question emphatically in this book. She thrusts us into an India that some of us will recognize for what it is: a product of the British Empire. Britishers, as Indians call those from the isles, may have left more than 60 years ago but their effect is still felt to this day. Desai manages to show us the human tragedy that was colonialism in India; how to succeed in this world one has to change their very person. What cost this exacts on them, their family and their society.

Take the judge. An Anglophile when we meet him (biscuits and pudding for his tea, he has) and a man that is difficult to get along with, the book strips him of all his pretensions and layers and leaves him bare. Desai reveals the man within with such a fine blend of kindness and candour that you see his foibles in a new light. Is this man just Jemubhai or Jemubhai-of-the-Raj? A Kenyan reading this book will see a person they know in the telling of Patel’s peculiarities. Those who went overseas at a certain point in time will recognize the unwillingness of the coloniser’s peoples to view you as a person, not a native (Jemubhai becomes James-his name is too difficult for the lady that provides him with a room). His experiences are some of this book’s charm. Anyone that remembers Soyinka’s poem Telephone Conversation will see why. To be who he wants to be, he must give up who he is-and what chance remains for his redemption. Or so it seems.

And then the star-crossed lovers. India style. By which I mean that they are separated in such myriad ways, such Indian ways. Wealth, religion, class, prestige, and a master-teacher relationship (yes, there’s that, too) complicates what is, even in the most homogenous society, such a convoluted business. Orphaned at an early age and living with her grandfather, Sai makes for a thrilling character. Her mix of naïveté and adventure make her love affair the very stuff of Bollywood films. Her life reveals what the true castes of India are-the haves and the have-nots. Gyan, suffice it to say, has chai for tea. He, the man who teaches and later falls in love with her, comes from humble beginnings. Those of us fed on a steady diet of love and happily-ever-afters half hope that they will surmount the obstacles that separate them. To say that their love meets an interesting end is to fail to state all that this book delivers. On this matter, it packs a punch.

The sisters who tutor Sai when she first arrives at her grandfather the judge’s home hearken to days gone by as if to reassure themselves continuously of their pedigree. This is the singularity of India one finds as they read this book: so happy to be rid of the British yet so desperate to be seen as fruit of the empire’s tree; a contradiction if ever there was any. She finds favour with them because they deem her their social equal and treat her with a kindness that is not extended to their servant who is, of course, beneath them.

Speaking of servants, one will meet the judge’s cook within the pages of this book. He struggles for human dignity in a situation that drains him of whatever shred of humanity he might have left. For those that keep a staff at their homes (the help, the driver, the guard) this will be an illuminating foray into the world of those in their employ. His employer, and his exploits, provide a source of pride for him. Yet that pride exacts such a hefty price on his very person. He lives for his son and his son’s success, weathering many humiliations that would leave few hearts untouched as he hangs on to the hope of better things to come.

This hope, one feels, is almost obscene. The son in question, Biju, is slaving away in New York. Yes, slaving in the land of the brave and the free. He is the quintessential person in the Diaspora dispatching flowery letters detailing his fortunes back home to his poor father who regales his tales to his friends. What a charmed life his Biju lives! A true Indian, Biju is frugal almost to a fault. The fruit of his goodness is heartbreaking, its extraction bitter and demeaning. When illegal workers are spoken of on this beautiful continent, the thought seems far removed. To read this book is to view the lives of the undocumented through new eyes. In a country that’s coming to terms with the fate of its citizens working in foreign lands, a telling of just how deplorable the situation can be.

And in all this, the country that is India. Hulking, intimidating, by turns scary and incredible. The Ghorkas, the Prime Minister, the BBC. The constant struggles for independence in what is supposedly an independent country-the independence of India and the travails that preceded it and followed form an edifying backdrop to the tale. The stark differences between those that pledge allegiance to the flag with the spinning wheel and those that seek to be rid of it. The legacy of the British Raj, manifested in all the characters’ lives in ways that some of them are not privy. Globalization and colonialisation are of a kind; articles cut from the same cloth for different ages, a bit like the enduring quality of denim.

This book follows in the tradition of Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. Part bleakness, part affirmation of the humanity that binds us all, it is a testament to how a story elegantly told can surmount its sub-plots to create a tribute to a much larger theme. If only to experience a tale told with kindness, a measured tone and insight; look for this book.

Publisher: Grove Press

Year published: 2006

Download the audio book, read by the author, here.

About The Author

Kiran Desai was born in 1971 and grew up in India, England and the United States. She first studied science in college then switched to writing, and published her first novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, in 1998. Desai then spent six years writing The Inheritance of Loss, a novel that examines the intricacies of relationships in post-colonial India, England and the U.S.Her novel ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ won the Man Booker Prize and the fiction award from the National Book Critics Circle.