The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Serious summary of The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai: This stunning second novel from Desai (Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard) is set in mid-1980s India, on the cusp of the Nepalese movement for an independent state. Jemubhai Popatlal, a retired Cambridge-educated judge, lives in Kalimpong, at the foot of the Himalayas, with his orphaned granddaughter, Sai, and his cook. The makeshift family's neighbors include a coterie of Anglophiles who might be savvy readers of V.S. Naipaul but who are, perhaps, less aware of how fragile their own social standing is—at least until a surge of unrest disturbs the region. Jemubhai, with his hunting rifles and English biscuits, becomes an obvious target. Besides threatening their very lives, the revolution also stymies the fledgling romance between 16-year-old Sai and her Nepalese tutor, Gyan. The cook's son, Biju, meanwhile, lives miserably as an illegal alien in New York. 
All of these characters struggle with their cultural identity and the forces of modernization while trying to maintain their emotional connection to one another. In this alternately comical and contemplative novel, Desai deftly shuttles between first and third worlds, illuminating the pain of exile, the ambiguities of post-colonialism and the blinding desire for a "better life," when one person's wealth means another's poverty. {Via}

My two cents

OK bits: I love Desai's writing. She has a comfortable way of describing the most mundane while capturing her character's moods. For example, when Biju finally gets his American visa:
"Raw sewage was being used to water a patch of grass that was lush and stinking, grinning brilliantly in the dusk."
It's been a while since I've read a novel which hits home, as the Indian experience is so very much like the Philippine one (a long history of colonial rule, every family is bound to have one immigrant, persistence of colonial mentality). While there is always a drive to seek a better life, immigrant life is not easy. Desai captures so many issues in her book - the phenomenon of globalization, economic inequality, of power (and lack thereof), multiculturalism, colonialism, prejudice and racism, and the whole struggle for self-identity and the issue of nationalism when being part of both Western and Eastern cultures.

However, while these bigger themes are running thoughout the storyline, she still manages to retain her readers' emotional empathy to each character. For example, I liked the love story of Sai and Gyan as well as the struggles of Biju. People have coped in different ways to the changing world and how Desai explores this is fascinating. Desai gives immigrants a voice.

As a sidebar, the description of the sacrifices made and the visa issue system is highly accurate based on what I have heard from other immigrants.

Boring bits: I didn't find anything boring in this one. The multiple stories kept me going as I had to find out what happened to each character.

Just don't read this if you're feeling down, as reading misfortune after misfortune can get a bit depressing. It may come across as bitter, bleak, cynical - I say it's honest.

Verdict: Powerful. A very worthwhile read.


First line: All day, the colors had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows.

The book in one sentence: The stories of heartache of Indian immigrants (to New York and England) and of the families and communities they have left behind.

Who would you recommend it to: Readers who are not reading for escape, but are ready to face the very sad reality of injustice in this world.

Factoids: Desai, at 35, is the youngest female winner of the Man Booker Prize which she won in 2006. It took her eight years to write The Inheritance of Loss. She is the daughter of novelist Anita Desai who was nominated for the Booker Prize three times but never won.

Desai has retained her citizenship of India and is a Permanent Resident of the United States.

Random quotes:

Love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love is the ache, the anticipation the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself.

... he forgot how to laugh, could barely manage to lift his lips in a smile, and if he ever did, he held his hand over his mouth, because he couldn't bear anyone to see his gums, his teeth.They seemed too private. In fact, he could barely let any of himself peep out of his clothes for fear of giving offence. He began to wash obsessively, concerned he would be accused of smelling. To the end of his life, he would prefer shadow to light, faded days to sunny, for he was suspicious that sunlight might reveal him, in his hideousness, all too clearly.

Interesting links:


  1. It was great reading your review and getting a different perspective on it (I only learnt a few years ago that the Philippines had once been taken over by the US; it's not anymore I hope?) (it's terrible that I didn't know that before, because I grew up in Australia and it's not that far away!) Is that the colonial experience you referred to? Please forgive my ignorance!

    You're right, this isn't a good book to read if you're feeling down; it's also a struggle when you're sleep deprived and struggling with newborn baby hormones! (You really just want to read cheerful things, I find, so this was a hard book to read.)

  2. Thanks Shannon for reading this!

    The Philippines has been under various countries, including Spain (300 years), Britain, Japan, and the US.

    US colonial mentality would probably be the most pervasive influence to date - many Filipinos were educated in a US system - that's why you run into a Filipino and they most likely speak English!

    If I remember right, the book also comments about characters wanting to have whiter skin - that's very common in the Philippines. Though I think this goes way way back to Spanish influence. Having pale skin meant that you could afford not to work (i.e. stay out of the sun, doing work in the fields).

    Colonial mentality is so ingrained in Philippine life in so many ways, that it is just the way of things!

    I hope you are well! Stay away from the depressing reads and focus on your lovely little one :)


© guiltless readingMaira Gall