The Inheritance of Loss

Published on Jan 30, 2006 01:59 PM IST

Kiran Desai's folllow-up novel to Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard is, in a word, remarkable.

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The Inheritance of Loss

by Kiran Desai

Viking

Hardcover

Price: Rs 495

Pages: 336

Two-thirds of the way into this remarkable follow up to the much-acclaimed Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, Kiran Desai has one of her central characters pick up from a library a book by Amit Chaudhuri "that contained a description of electricity failure in Calcutta that caused people across India to soften with communal nostalgia for power shortage". It is a clever in-joke; it is also a nodding tribute. Desai's grasp on the physical details of the world around us is as assured as Chaudhuri's. But her writing often has echoes of vintage Salman Rushdie (a writer who could not be more different from Chaudhuri):

breathless sentences; a string of adjectives without a comma as though one was tripping over the other; the framework of the grand, historical narrative -- or at least important historical events playing a key role in the story; a great sense of energy, verve and a certain kind of playfulness.
Posited against all that is the delicate, sublime prose. Desai lingers lovingly on the quotidian and detects in them a touch of the magical. Rarely does a page pass without one exquisitely observed passage. Sample this: "The gale took his words and whipped them away; they reached Biju's ears strangely clipped, on their way to somewhere else." Or this: "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." Desai's prose is one of the delights of this novel. But it is far from being the only one.
As the book opens, Sai, a 17-year-old who has lost her parents in an accident, comes to live with her retired, aloof grandfather in a once-grand house called Cho Oyu in Kalimpong. She is cared for by the cook (whose son is an illegal immigrant in New York, working in the kitchens of the teeming city) to whom she becomes a sort of surrogate child. She falls in love with her mathematics tutor, and then, as conflicting ideologies, circumstance and delusions pull them apart, falls out of love with him. Political upheavals -primarily the GNLF movement and the unrest it caused in the hills -- provide not so much a backdrop as an engine that propels the narrative. It would be unfair to give away any more of the plot. But it is impossible to overemphasize the flawlessness with which Desai captures the rhythm and grace of life in this hill town. Or the manner in which her cast of characters is perfectly etched.
Above everything else, though,

The Inheritance of Loss

is a tender meditation on loving and loss. It is about how, in all our different ways, we wish to fit in. The fact of exile and how that exile affects the notion of home, how it colours perception and how it heightens the sense of wanting to belong are strong currents that run through this novel and make it a parable of our times.
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