The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

The Inheritance Of LossIt is not a badly written book. But not one “that” well written to deserve an award, and least of all one as prestigious as the Booker. So why did The Inheritance of Loss win the Booker?

Answer:

a) The rest in running were no better

b) The judges blundered

c) My perceptions are, well, questionable.

 

I hope it is option c. But reading the book I felt otherwise.

 

Sai, an orphaned teenager whose parents died tragically in Moscow, is left to the care of a reclusive and disillusioned grandfather, a retired Judge and former ICS officer of the British era, now residing in a desolate Kalimpong bungalow. The judge has a cook, whose son Biju is an illegal immigrant in the States, jumping from one small time job to another to stay afloat. The book hovers between the present life of Sai, the judge and the cook in Kalimpong in the backdrop of the Gorkhaland movement, and Biju’s struggle to find a foothold in New York, interspersed with flashbacks of the judge’s past, his cruelties and illusions of grandeur that have soured his taste for life

 

 

So why is this much vaunted book undeserving of its praise and accolades? Here I attempt a brief five point reasoning:

  1. Stiltedness : The overall effect appears stilted. It seems the author has tried to force fit herself into ideas of the region and its political climate (Kalimpong, Gorkhaland), the characters, and the result has carried forth in the writing. It has lead to characters hard to empathize with, despite numerous situations where it is called for.

  2. Exoticism : There seems to be a clear intent to sell this book to people who are not familiar to India. Exoticism can go beyond mangoes, guavas or chutneys. They tread into long stereotyped rituals like child marriage, subjugation of women, negativism among low level business class Indian immigrants in the USA and so son. The writer’s desire of satire, if any, falls flat, the humour impotent.

  3. Incoherence : While the narrative shifts from present to past, from Kalimpong to New York, from Gorkhaland politics and marginalised victims to Saeed Saeed and his desperateness of becoming an American citizen, the transitions are ill made and jittery, hardly Booker calibre.

  4. Bad dialogue : The dialogues in Inheritence are not only pathetic but also profuse, which adds to the pain.

  5. Failed experimentation: Desai tries non conventional structures, like an oddly punctuated list, or expressions, in the middle of a paragraph. Or even broken half formed sentences given the fullness of whole. While this is novel and does garner some attention, it is not hard to notice the lack of any resounding effect in outcome. Experimentation for its own sake. While Rushdie creates power and Arundhati Roy almost poetry, Desai manages only a hodge podge of something needless.

 

Is the book really that bad? By no means.You can certainly give it a try, though you might be hard pressed to finish it. Desai deserves credit for the research in hill politics and civil servant’s lives, for coming up with something substantial to say in over three hundred pages that perhaps took her years to write and which in no way can be undermined by a review that has taken only minutes. My regret is that with all the content for drama and conflict, the possibility of scintillating characterization and scope, the work frizzles out to produce only something average, that someone will read and forget, with its characters hardly lasting in our memories.

That is where the book fails, and the reason why I felt that option (a) or (b), or both combined is the most plausible answer to the question I had earlier asked.

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12 thoughts on “The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

  1. mystic wanderer Post author

    Unfortunately we stand at opposite poles in our opinions on this book. But your review was quite comprehensive.

    For me, this book only proved that not all award winners deserve their awards.

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Reply
  2. Lacklustre Lawyer

    I thought this novel had a powerful theme in it. That is the one contained in its title. I thought there were some engaging characters if not an always engaging plot.

    In terms of whether it was Booker prize winning material. Of the books shortlisted, it should definitely have been a contender until the end. When comparing it to similar past winners that I enjoyed reading, I can liken it to J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’. So I am happy to call it a worthy winner.

    Reply
  3. mystic wanderer Post author

    While theme and storyline were fine, there are various reasons (which I iterate above) for which I did not like the work. I don’t much care about the plot. But the characters weren’t well formed at all. Overall, it was a disappointment for me. The writer seemed to be struggling with something that she doesn’t fully grasp – due to lack of talent or whatever reason.

    “Disgrace”, in my opinion, is leagues ahead by any standard.

    Reply
  4. Ann Kelly

    I could not disagree more. This is my favorite book at least in the last 10 years. It is wonderfully written. I think your criticism is very shallow.

    Reply
  5. Siddharth

    Hello there, I totally disagree. But well, that’s one side of the literature. Not everyone likes the same book. But you see, I have got answers to my opinions which aren’t very vague, as yours. (No offense)

    The Inheritance of Loss is not a skilted description. Kiran Desai was a resident of Kalimpong almost all her childhood.

    Exoticism adds to a book, doesn’t take credit from it. Kiran Desai has tried to be exotic. Well, true, and I appreciate.

    Well, I might agree with you here. Transitions were a little jittery. The book could have been written in a chronological order. Kiran Desai’s style of writing many parallel stories is, well said, incoherent. She wanted to write about Sai’s romance with Gyan. Alright, but many other parallel tales- American extravaganza, Judge’s past stories and experiences as a civil servant makes the book jittery. Big time! Well said !!

    The dialogues in the book are all exotic, and written in a humorous Hinglish style. The American and British readers are a big fan of such style of writing, and I am too! “Pepsi chahiye, Pepsi cola?” … Funny, Indian and good.

    Now Desai’s style of italicizing Hindi words in her books to shot their untranslatibility and writing in bullet points make a concrete and powerful image in the mind. Its appreciated worldwide. You should read the review at contemporarywriters.com … Desai is just brilliant.

    And an all deserving Booker Prize winner. Just as Salman Rushdie puts it: “Desai is a terrific writer.”

    Reply
    1. mystic wanderer Post author

      I don’t think I am vague at all. I give very clear cut reasons why I didn’t like the book. Also, just because Tom, Dick and Harry (or Salman Rushdie) thinks Desai is a “terrific” writer, I don’t have to. The ultimate opinion of a book is entirely my own. In general, readers are quite polarized on this one.

      Desai grew up in Kalimpong/India. All the more reason for her to not sound exotic. It doesn’t ring true, at least to my ears. Being an Indian, having grown up in India (actually quite close to Kalimpong) it appears phony to me. Why a writer, no matter how famous or talented, needs to resort to such a strategy, defies me. Selling takes precedence over veracity/search for truth. Or perhaps she is more interested in addressing a different kind of audience. It’s a problem typical to the Indian writer in English. Amitava Kumar, in Bombay London New York, writes:

      “There is an account of Naipaul talking to an editor about himself and his brother, Shiva:

      If we were addressing audiences of people like ourselves, we would have been different writers. I am always aware of writing in a vacuum, almost always for myself, and almost not having an audience. That wonderful relationship that I felt an American writer would always have with his American readers, or a French writer with his French readers — I was always writing for people who were indifferent to my material.

      Ah, readers…To think that a critical mass of the right kind of readers could have saved us from the truth of those words, and also, given the fact that Naipaul has often been accused of cultivating a Western audience, their self tormenting irony. That an audience of “ourselves” would have relieved us not only of mannerisms, but also the desperate grasping for authenticity, which produces, as Theroux would want it, the mistress of spices, the heat and dust, sweating men and women in lisping saris, brought together in arranged marriages, yes, the honking traffic, and the whole hullabaloo in the guava orchard. In short, the sound of yakking Indians.”

      Reply
    2. mystic wanderer Post author

      I want to clarify that by “incoherence”, I did not mean chronological order. (I have absolutely no problems with parallel stories. Many writes do it well – Amitav Ghosh for instance). She doesn’t pull it off well – seems forced, as if it was something learned in creative writing class that she “had” to apply.

      Reply
  6. Siddharth

    Well, you are entitled to your opinion, just as I am !!

    But see, cultivating a foreign audience is a strategy I dont disapprove of. The exotic Indian style of writing Desai has will not tickle Indian readers as much as a foreign, distinct audience that finds Desai an explorer of a very different, funny India. One reason, she probably, became a booker prize winning author.

    As Orhan Pamuk (Kiran Desai’s soon-to-be husband) puts it, “Desai is a creative author. India should be proud of her.” But your opine is somewhat agreeable, her creativity is not very natural. It looks as if she sat down with a dictionary, pile of books and crafted her novel artificially. It looks as if she has learnt the “steps” in some creative writing school. Such authors generally become more conscious and thoughtful about their language and insights because their teachers hae put so much thought in their classes.

    I am not a big Kiran Desai fan. But I am thrilled to see a new, very different, stereotyped form of Rushdie in the Indian writing scenario!

    Reply

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