A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Kiran Desai: The Inheritance of Loss

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A policeman at the gorkha statue in Kalimpong

VS Naipaul’s recent assertion that no women authors are equal to him unleashed an avalanche of comments from readers and writers around the world. Among the arguments advanced in the Nobel Prize-winner’s defence was the suggestion that women wordsmiths tend to focus on narrow, domestic topics and leave the empire building to the boys. Women, bless ’em, the implication was, can’t get their pretty little heads round politics and have no need to try when there are big, strong writers like Naipaul around to do the thinking for them.

If evidence were needed against such a ridiculous argument, then Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss surely provides plenty. Set in the 1980s, in the remote community of Kalimpong in the foothills of the Himalayas, the book follows the fortunes of three characters who spend their days alone together in a crumbling villa in the jungle, each locked in his or her own neuroses, obsessions, memories and fears.

While the curmudgeonly judge broods over his chessboard, plagued with recollections of the wife he once cruelly drove away, his orphaned granddaughter beguiles the long hours with dreams of her earnest, impoverished tutor from the slum down the hill. Meanwhile, their cook pines for letters from his emigrated son, who, unbeknownst to him, is tasting the bitter side of the immigrant experience in NYC.

So wrapped up is each of them in his or her own concerns, that they are oblivious to the currents of anger and bitter hatred swirling about the region until the crusade for a separate state of ‘Gorkhaland’ literally invades their home. Yet, as the insurgency gathers pace and atrocity is heaped upon atrocity, they each struggle to break out of their isolation and forge the bonds of affection and understanding that will ultimately save them and, perhaps, their homeland.

Having been lucky enough to spend a few days in Kalimpong recently, I can vouch  for the fidelity of Desai’s evocation of what is a fragile, enchanting and truly moving place. From the tawdriness of the town bazaar, to the steaming momos (dumplings) at Gompu’s shack, and the mountain mist ‘charging down like a dragon, dissolving, undoing, making ridiculous the drawing of borders’, Desai captures the character of the Darjeeling hills and bodies it forth in all its exuberance, madness, wistfulness and colour. She deserves her Booker Prize for this alone.

Yet her portrayal of the complex politics of the region, which has been parcelled up and handed between kings, empresses and governments for centuries, and the violent separatist passions that simmer and flare among rival groups there, is equally strong. With a little probing, the wilderness that at first seems so idyllic and peaceful reveals itself as a warren of grudges and suspicions, in which tensions mount and occasionally explode. 

Desai captures this mixture of sleepiness and sudden, violent action perfectly. In fact, if anything, it informs the book a little too much, being subsumed into the plot so that it too moves sleepily, punctuated here and there by frenetic events, and finally fades into the mist. While some readers may find this frustrating, no-one can dispute Desai’s skill in getting under the skin of the society she portrays and tracing the threads that connect individual lives to the making and breaking of nations. Naipaul himself could do no more.

Photo by Steve Lennon.

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