The cranky judge, his teenage daughter Sai and the cook are made to eat crow by a bunch of leather-jacket clad Nepali teenagers crusading for a homeland. They raid the dilapidated house tucked away under the shadow of the mighty Kanchenjunga — overrun it, wrest the judge’s ancient firearms, intimidates the cook, eat, shit and walk off with two trunk-loads of spoils. As a parting shot, the judge and his family are made to intone: “Jai Gorkhaland, we are fools…” The shell-shocked family retreats into the dank shell of the house in fear.
Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss has won accolades as a work of literature — but has rubbed the hills the wrong way. “The book is fantastic. But she has presented a lop-sided picture of the locals and the place” said Bharat Mani Pradhan, a Kalimpong-based social worker.
The book is a work of fiction — tempered with facts. Some of the dates and incidents are so close to life that the book can be treated as a mirror of Darjeeling’s street-fighting years. “Anyone who doesn’t know Kalimpong and its people can get a very wrong impression of the hills,” Pradhan feared.
The voices are varied, but are bound by one thread. “It was impossible for a 13-year-old — the age when Desai used to frequent Kalimpong and even studied in a local boarding school for two months — to judge the characters, the social melieu and political turmoil. The Kalimpong of her book is more of a reflection of her recent six-month stint at the hill station,” argues a section of readers. “She remained insulated from the local community and was fed coffee table gossip — and a very distorted picture” Pradhan alleged.
In Chapter 44, Desai comments, “If you were a Bengali, people who had known you your whole life, would not acknowledge you on the streets…” She goes on to say even the “Biharis, Lepchas and the Tibetans would not do so”. Sections of the book, says Pradhan, have painted the hills in wrong communal colours — straining the social mosaic of peace and harmony.
Lawyer and amateur writer Anmol Prasad says the book “shows her depressing distaste for Kalimpong. She has projected the Gorkhas and the hill people as transient interlopers. In its own quiet way, it is racist”.
In an interview in January 2006, Kiran said she had always wanted to capture the essence of growing up in Kalimpong— the wonderful land with its unique people. But she admitted that she did not have much understanding of the local politics— though her book talks about the genesis of the Gorkhaland movement. Some, however, take pride in her feat. “I don’t remember Kiran as she was in this school for a short spell. But I am proud that I had taught her English when she was a child,” says Catherine Samling, a retired English teacher of the school where Kiran studied.