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Book Review: Reading Desai’s Loss as a 'Nep'

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Yet another review of Kiran Desai’s widely reviewed book Inheritance of Loss. But this one is by KRISHNA SHARMA, himself a 'Nep' (Desai’s term for Nepali).

The Inheritance of Loss (Novel)
By: Kiran Desai
Published by: Atlantic Monthly Press
Year: 2006
Pages: 324
Price: $24.00

Is there anything more to write about Kiran Desai’s widely reviewed book "Inheritance of Loss"? The Man Booker Prize (2006) winning novel has been featured and discussed many times in the media, literary symposiums, and festivals around the world.

Perhaps literature is something of that nature— you can write any number of reviews, for the belief seems to be such that creativity can be interpreted in many different ways and personal reflections do matter.

I think book reviews are in some ways personal reflections of one’s reading. This became even more personal when I recently attended a literary symposium in Washington DC that featured Desai herself. When I finished reading this novel, I could not stop jotting down my reactions.

desai162[1].jpgMost important for me, I was impressed by her command of language. She is lucid in expression and weaves the plots together artfully to make an engaging fiction. The novel lays bare a profound human side in her postcolonial brainstorming of the lives of migrants whose gripping accounts of hardships, confusions and the erosion of trust and faith among humanity abound across the pages.

Her creative craftsmanship is even more evident in her detailed treatment of her characters in an entirely different cultural setting in foreign lands, be it in the West or within the Indian sub-continent. Like the characters of the noted American novelist Henry James, Desai’s characters land in a new place to experience life as well as suffer it. While retired judge Jemmubhai Patel encounters a racist England of the 1950s, other characters like Biju live a horrible basement life in New York City, the world’s busiest metropolis. For Sai, the principal character, and perhaps Desai’s mouthpiece, everyplace she visits is a new land.

Another facet of the novel is Desai’s successful experiment with ‘streams of consciousness.” She uses the technique to inform us about Jemmubhai’s past. Whenever the retired judge in his dilapidated mansion encounters others with youthful dispositions, he goes down the memory lane to relate us his past. Her excellence lies in being able to take the readers to wherever she wants to. Readers see the full images of the pitiable life of immigrants in New York City and the rustic life of rurals in the Indian town of Kalimpong when Biju and his father talk over the telephone (pages 230-231).

The novel deals with a simple but tumultuous story of Sai, an Indian orphan girl. As we see her grow up from teenager into a young woman, the 324-page novel ends abruptly without unifying her with her tutor sweetheart, Gyan. But the novel does not end without creative tensions.

Earlier in the novel, after the untimely demise of her parents in Russia, Sai returns to her maternal grandfather in the north-eastern Indian hilly town of Kalimpong. During the course of learning Physics, she falls in romantic love with Gyan, the descendant of a Nepali Gurkha soldier who later disappears from the scene and the readers are informed that he had joined the ethnic insurgency.

In a parallel narrative readers are taken to New York to see the troubled life of Biju who had high dreams while coming to the land of plenty. His father, who has been the cook for the judge since he was 12, informs us of Biju at different intervals. His high expectations reflect the state of the mind of the families of migrants in native lands. In the Kalimpong neighborhood, Desai tries to bring nationalities from many different places to weave her tale around migration and intercultural relationships. The novel, through characters like Biju, Jemmubhai and Gyan, attempts to portray unjust suffering and despair of people in the shabby modern, postcolonial societies and social orders.

However, Desai’s multiculturalism is not without problems. Although she earned soaring appreciation in the West, she was deservedly criticized by the Subcontinental reviewers for failing to provide an unbiased portrayal of life particularly in Kalimpong. She does not seem to be fully truthful in explaining the socio-political problem of Kalimpong, where most of the events of the novel take place, or in portraying the bordering nation of Nepal where Gyan traces his roots or the troubled basement life of illegal migrants in the heart of New York. After reading the novel, I can see the wisdom of many readers who argue that despite her efforts, Desai failed to fully examine the cross-cultural realities in the novel as she found little time to explore them.

Take for instance her portrayal of Nepal and the Nepali people. Through characters Lola and Noni she informs the readers "these Neps (meaning Nepali people) can't be trusted. And they don't just rob. They think absolutely nothing of murdering, as well (page 45)". Sadly, there is no evidence that justifies the statement in the novel. That is a very stereotypical view of a population that is so diverse. It does not evoke any image of Nepalis as one of “the most hospitable and friendly peoples” as many travel writers of world repute have described them to be.

In another instance, Desai talks about the hatred between Pakistanis and Indians in foreign lands. “It (America) was a country where people from everywhere journeyed to work, but oh, surely not Pakistanis! Surely they would not be hired. Surely Indians were better liked …Beware, the cook wrote to his son. Beware. Beware. Keep away. Distrust… Desis (meaning Indians) against Pakis (Pakistanis). Ah, old war, best war”.

In yet another instance, Desai tries to inject the sour Indo-China relations of the eighties. Even if factual, she could have just avoided such references as they add no significance to the development of the novel. All they have done is informed the readers about her lack of enthusiasm to decipher history and the bias against the Indian neighbors.

Although Desai has said in the novel that her characters are purely fictional, she can't deny her thoughts that come through the mouth of her characters. Characters may be fictional but the ideas, no matter who tells them in the work of art, are always of the writer and that the writer should take responsibility for whatever idea is delivered to the readers.

Thus, the novel is a disaster in terms of her intercultural competence. Instead of acquiring the background knowledge about Nepali tradition, religion, norms and values, culture and lifestyle of the Gorkhalis in Darjeeling and the Nepalis in Nepal, and comparing them with her own Indian/German culture and trying to seek what is common between the two (or more) cultures and moving towards peace, tolerance and reconciliation, she remains adamant on her idiosyncrasies, like her protagonist Sai, throughout the novel. Only people who hail from the region in Darjeeling and across the Himalayas, and who are ethnic Nepalis, can read between her lines. That is what I tried to do. They can clearly see that she grossly misrepresented their culture and lifestyle. For those who are not familiar with the culture of Indian sub-continent, the novel is arresting, and it looks like it is, at least in the West.

A friend of mine who was born and raised in Kalimpong was so much disturbed by Desai’s narrative of the ethnic struggle in Kalimpong region that he wrote me this: “Desai seems to have become a spokesperson of the expansionist India.” Gopi Sapkota, himself a writer of a Nepali prize-winning drama entitled “Purna Biram” (Full Stop) had to leave his birthplace of Kalimpong for Nepal with his parents as the locals looted them and threatened to kill unless they migrated from there. “Along with us, thousands of Nepali-speaking communities who had been living there for generations, were forcefully displaced in the eighties."

“I would have loved the novel if there were versions of narratives of the suffering minorities as well,” Sapkota wrote.

India’s hatred and dominance of its neighbors was further demonstrated when it chased nearly one hundred thousand Bhutanese refugees to Nepal. It should be noted here that Bhutan does not share any border with Nepal and the refugees who are languishing in the UNHCR managed camps in Nepal for the last 15 years, had to come to Nepal after their immediate neighbor, India, refused to provide them the first santuary and chased them.

Moreover, if the targeted readers of the novel are like that of the Victorian era, mostly kitchen-bound, then perhaps I would not be even writing this review critically. But if the novel is for readers from the global village (as opposed to a Victorian hamlet), and I believe that is how it is being marketed, it should accurately reflect the history and that the cultures and ideas should be politically correct.

In the world of literature the principle of ‘art for art’s sake’ still rules the roost. But the tastes are changing and so are the values of literature. My view of creativity is that artists and authors must understand that a work of art is not just for its sake. Modern readers of literature have become more interdisciplinary and holistic in their reading approaches.

There is a difference between form and substance. Desai’s form of writing is superb, I agree. She has discovered an excellent title to tell half of what she intends to communicate. In this post modern life, no one has a story of true life and victory. We are all losers. We are the losers of realities and dreams. There are Sais, Gyans and Bijus everywhere in this post modern global village to inherit the loss. There was Jimmubhai during colonial times. Yes, we had inherited loss from the times of Adam and Eve. We have nothing but a loss of love to inherit, a loss of belief to inherit, a loss of faith to inherit and a loss of lost to inherit.

But still, Kiran needs to grow and learn the values of the intercultural relationships if she wants to produce a better novel next time. One does not have to lose anything while s/he tries to fix the realities back in their track.

Krishna Sharma is staff writer of Nepal Monitor. He can be reached at


Why don't you publish reviews of Nepal books, or books from Nepal or by Nepalis? Too much Desai stuff on the web these days.

Your review encompasses may facets of the novel, albeit focusing more on her term 'Neps' for Nepalis. You drew beautiful analogy between Desai and Henry James, also propounder of Stream of Consciousness technique.

A nice read. Check my impressions here:

Through characters Lola and Noni she informs the readers "these Neps (meaning Nepali people) can't be trusted. And they don't just rob. They think absolutely nothing of murdering, as well (page 45)". Sadly, there is no evidence that justifies the statement in the novel.

I think you've drastically misunderstood the novel. Desai's showing and implicitly criticizing the typical prejudice against Nepalis in India -- exactly the point you're making.

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