There are certain fictions upon which fair-minded, relatively affluent citizens of good will base their lives, the first being that we are indeed people of good will. This fiction is allowed by the belief that the infrastructure that makes life possible comes at a cost that is borne mainly by us. We vote to raise taxes, send money to the less fortunate, drink fair-trade coffee, and drive hybrid cars, all in a genuine effort to do the right thing. If, as Aldous Huxley says, the only completely consistent people are dead, then we are very much alive, failing most of the time to wonder how the food got on our plate, or the shirt got on our back, or where the man on the bicycle delivering Chinese take-out lives, or how he got there, too.
Good intentions are often a refuge for moral laziness, a point that is made again and again in Kiran Desai’s lush novel The Inheritance of Loss, which recently won the Man Booker Prize. The year is 1986. So much has not yet happened. In the United States, the economy is trickling down so slowly that most cities have people who live in cardboard boxes and sleep in storefront doorways, though the term “yuppie” has been recently coined, and there is a rising phalanx of young professionals with wads of cash expanding their supple Coach wallets. In the far corner of Asia where India meets up with Nepal and Tibet, and the tallest mountains in the world tower above national borders, those borders, and the political culture they embrace, are giving rise, yet again, to ethnic nationalism and a call for self-determination. This time it is the Gorkhas living in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal who are demanding their own state—or at least a place that is politically divorced from West Bengal.
It is here that the story begins—in the Kalimpong region of the Himalayas, which is technically a part of India, just as the boy-soldiers of the Gorkha National Liberation Front, looting houses and shops, marching through the streets, routing out tourists and ex-patriots, and shutting down the local economy, have pierced the thin skin of civility by their thuggish, swaggering, intoxicated anger. Amateur and deadly (as people with guns tend to be), they are terrorizing the area where Jemubhai Popatlal Patel, an elderly, retired judge and civil servant, lives in a moldering, remote, hillside estate called Cho Oyu (after the sixth-highest peak, one assumes) with his teenaged granddaughter, Sai, his cook (unnamed until the final pages of the book), and his beloved dog, Mutt. In a tightly braided narrative, Desai tells the stories of these three and others in their orbit: the cook’s son, Biju, who might have been the man on the bicycle delivering take-out in Manhattan; their nearest neighbors; and Sai’s tutor Gyan, an ambivalent member of the GNLF. Each is a stand-in for the failed ideologies of the twentieth century—for colonialism, for nationalism, for globalization. It is perhaps a sign of the times that every one of them, too, is a victim of these ideologies, bound by them as if ideology was the only constituent of destiny.
Fate would seem to have been very good to the retired judge, Jemubhai Patel, who slipped into the Indian Civil Service after abysmally low exam results, thanks to the prop of Indianization. The son of a peasant who made his living procuring false witnesses to testify in court, Patel does well enough in school to win a place at a bottom-tier college in Cambridge, to which he travels alone by ship, to study to become a magistrate. (His good fortune also wins him a fourteen-year-old bride, whom he leaves behind, untouched.) In England he sequesters himself in his bed-sitting room, conscious of his dark skin, his curry smell, his unpronounceable name. (He lets his landlady call him James.) He studies hard for years, only to fail his exams, and then is promoted to the ICS anyway. Success, if that is what it is, intensifies his dispossession. He becomes Anglophilic, soaking up English mannerisms, taking on English airs, rejecting what he was, while knowing that is who he is.
“Thus it was that the judge eventually took revenge on his early confusions, his embarrassments gloved in something called ‘keeping up standards,’ his accent behind a mask of a quiet,” Desai writes.
He found he began to be mistaken for something he wasn’t—a man of dignity. This accidental poise became more important than any other thing. He envied the English. He loathed Indians. He worked at being English with the passion of hatred and for what he would become, he would be despised by absolutely everyone, English and Indians, both.
This, of course, is the assimilationist’s dilemma, to be nowhere at home, especially not in one’s own skin. Patel’s skin, in fact, is contemptible to him—the most public display of his failure to shed his past. (He carries a puff to powder his face.) Slave becoming master, he redirects his self-loathing toward his wife, using sex as a weapon—that, and any other opportunity for his hatred to find full force and expression. “Any cruelty to her became irresistible. He would teach her the same lessons of loneliness and shame he had learned himself.” This he does, rendering the young woman mute and invisible, then banishing her from his house when she becomes pregnant, sending her to live with a sister and her husband, who are only marginally more welcoming. And then she disappears for good, reduced to smoke and ash, ephemera and detritus, in a suspicious kitchen fire that no one has the inclination to investigate.
It is to Desai’s credit that, despite his unremitting cruelties, the judge does not seem monstrous, only weak and pathetic. She achieves this not through empathy, or even sympathy—the man remains reprehensible throughout—but by animating politics and making it the villain. Patel is like the man who routinely hits his wife because he grew up watching his father beat his mother, only in this case the progenitor is the very system that made the judge a stranger among his countrymen, a lie waiting to be revealed. How else to defend himself?
If people were entirely one thing and not another—only mean, say, or only kind—Patel’s relationship with his granddaughter would make no sense; the depth of his meanness and his studied inhumanity would not allow it. As it is, it’s more of a coexistence than a bond, though Sai has lived in his house since she was a little girl, following the accidental traffic death of her parents in Moscow, where they lived while her father trained to become India’s first astronaut. Orphaned at eight, she has been raised in the drafty old house by the cook, whose own son, Biju, has left to find fortune in America, and by a pair of aging sisters, the local landed gentry, who treat their tenure on the mountain as if it were a kind of wildlife safari—a big adventure, anthropologically interesting, but why bother learning the language? When the math lessons one of the sisters is meant to be teaching Sai surpass the old woman’s knowledge, her grandfather reluctantly hires Gyan, a recent accounting graduate of the local college, to carry on.
Gyan is Nepalese, handsome, with dark hair and high cheekbones, and it doesn’t take long for Sai to fall for him, and he for her. They are infatuated and tender with each other, locked in a constant visual embrace that eliminates peripheral reminders that they are from different cultures, different classes. He is unfamiliar with the cutlery at the judge’s dinner table and with the English pasties the cook makes, but it hardly matters. Ambition—the belief that it is possible to be someone and to do something, even if one comes from nowhere and possesses nothing but ambition itself—makes everything possible, especially love. It cuts across class, across ethnicity. It is its own country, governed by hope.
And then it’s not. Gyan is walking through the market one day when he encounters a few of his old school chums tearing through the stalls, shouting the slogans of the Gorkha liberation movement. Skeptical at first, he is swept along by their scouring enthusiasm, by their claims of discrimination and oppression, until his own distinctly personal passions seem naive and misguided. Gyan’s transformation, from doe-eyed schoolboy to ardent rebel, is swift and encompassing and another kind of infatuation. But Desai does not romanticize it. Not at all. Rather, her nuanced, minute-by-minute commentary on the thoughts charging through Gyan’s mind are a primer on the opiate effect of political rhetoric, and bear repeating here:
As he floated through the market, Gyan had a feeling of history being wrought, its wheels churning under him, for the men were behaving as if they were being featured in a documentary of war, and Gyan could not help but look on the scene already from the angle of nostalgia, the position of a revolutionary.
…The patriotism was false, he suddenly felt as he marched; it was surely just frustration—the leaders harnessing the natural irritations and disdain of adolescence for cynical ends; for their own hope in attaining the same power as government officials held now, the same ability to award local businessmen deals in exchange for bribes….
But the men were shouting, and he saw from their faces that they didn’t have his cynicism. They meant what they were saying; they felt a lack of justice….
“In our own country, the country we fight for, we are treated like slaves. Every day the lorries leave bearing away our forests, sold by foreigners to fill the pockets of foreigners. Every day our stones are carried from the riverbed of the Teesta to build their houses and cities…. We must unite under the banner of the GNLF, the Gorkha National Liberation Front. We will build hospitals and schools. We will provide jobs for our sons. We will give dignity to our daughters carrying heavy loads, breaking stone on the roads. We will defend our own homeland. This is where we were born, where our parents were born, where our grandparents were born. We will run our own affairs in our own language….”
…It suddenly became clear why he had no money and no real job had come his way, why he couldn’t fly to college in America, why he was so ashamed to let anyone see his home…. Gyan felt a moment of shame remembering his tea parties with Sai on the veranda, the cheese toast, queen cakes from the baker, and even worse, the small warm space they inhabited together, the nursery talk—
It suddenly seemed against the requirements of his adulthood.
He voiced an adamant opinion that the Gorkha movement take the harshest route possible.
If The Inheritance of Loss were a conventional romance, Gyan would soon grow disillusioned with the revolution and get back together with his girl. Or she would repudiate as false the accoutrements of class, embrace his poverty, and sign on to the struggle. But this is a catalog of defeats, and Desai is unwilling to let anyone off the hook, especially the reader, who is denied that other refuge of moral laziness: the possibility of sudden, enlightened character transformation. Once Sai makes the two-hour trek to Gyan’s village and sees, at last, the conditions in which he and his family live, once she understands that it has taken ten people living at the margins of existence to make one well-groomed, well-educated boy like Gyan, she is repulsed. Class matters after all. Borders are not, it turns out, porous. We are what we eat.
The Gorkhaland movement was active for two years, its leaders finally settling for an autonomous district in the hill country, rather than a state of their own. In a public statement at the signing of the agreement establishing the district, Subash Ghising, the GNLF leader, proclaimed that this was a better outcome than the creation of a separate state because
in a separate State there would be two classes of people, ministers and the common folk. Ministers are all corrupt. Instead, the [autonomous district] is better because leaders and the people will all sit on the same platform at the same level. There will be no distinctions.
Despite this declaration, Ghising has in fact continued to push for independence. As it stands now, the official language of the autonomous district is something called Gorkhali, which is identical to Nepali, except for its name, and the implication that Gorkhas, though Nepalese in origin, are different from Nepalis from Nepal. As one of the elderly sisters says, “What [is] a country but the idea of it?”
In that context, it’s easy to see why globalization, with its multiple choruses of “We Are the World,” might come across as an appealing antidote to the winnowing sectarianism of nationalism. Already in the late 1980s it was spreading virally, jumping continents, promising to overcome the historic inequities between first and third worlds with free-market equalities, making us all citizens of the same realm, our boats all rising with the swell of ubiquitous prosperity. Just how globalization would play out was not yet known in 1986, though the destruction of local economies by the corporate play for cheap labor was not unimagined, and in other ways the human costs were becoming evident. In New York, where the cook’s son, Biju, joins the United Nations of the desperate—young men from around the globe who work at dirty, underpaid jobs and sleep crowded together on the floors of unventilated tenement basements—the goal is still to get a green card and become an American, to hell with being a citizen of the world. Yet when Biju asks his employer, an Indian immigrant who owns the Gandhi Café, to sponsor him for the card, the man makes a jolly, unironic speech about how he can never say that Biju is doing a job that an American can’t do, which is a necessary requirement to qualify for it.
Here is the immigration debate summed up in two words: can’t and won’t. The economies of scale that allow a place like the Gandhi Café (or the Stars and Stripes Diner, the Baby Bistro, Le Colonial, the Queen of Tarts, and Freddy’s Wok, to name a few of Biju’s previous employers) to compete require the fugitive labor of people like Biju who are willing to work long hours for little pay no matter how miserable the conditions, and no surprise, there are no Americans among them. It is globalization in our front yard, though blessedly hidden from us by the lawn ornaments saying cheap and plentiful, no questions asked. (And anyhow, inexpensive ethnic food makes us feel like global citizens ourselves!) When Biju comes across a dead bug in a sack of rice that has, he figures, traveled all the way from India
…he almost wept in sorrow and marvel at its journey, which was tenderness for his own journey. In India almost nobody would be able to afford this rice, and you had to travel around the world to be able to eat such things where they were cheap enough that you could gobble them down without being rich; and when you got home to the place where they grew, you couldn’t afford them anymore.
In a story that is pointedly without heroes, Biju, who feels nothing but self-pity, comes closest to being an admirable man. He works hard, and it all adds up to nothing. He has neither the temperament nor the guile to be like his African friend Saeed Saeed, who learns the language, woos the local girls, carries self-help books in his pocket, buys multiple pairs of shoes that do not fit him just because he can, and convinces an American woman to marry him so he can get his green card. (In the one completely humorous scene in the book, Saeed goes with her to meet her family “and found a family of Vermont hippies feeding on pita bread spread with garlic and baba ghanoush.” Later they visit the Bread & Puppet theater, and in the album compiled for the benefit of the INS there’s a picture of Saeed “with the evil insurance-man puppet,” another of Saeed at the Grafton cheese factory, and one of Saeed
by the compost heap with his arm around Grandma, braless in her summer muumuu, salt-and-pepper armpit hair shooting off in several directions…. The more he told them about his family in Zanzibar…the happier they got…. Any subversion against the US government—they would be happy to help.
Nothing goes right for Biju in America. He is fired from one job because he smells bad, another because a rat is found baked into a loaf of bread, and another because, in the dead of winter, even with old newspapers in his clothes for insulation, he cannot ride his bike fast enough to deliver take-out before it gets cold and the customers complain. He is injured at the Gandhi Café when he slips on some rotten spinach, but his employer will not call a doctor. He is on constant lookout for INS agents, doomed to a claustrophobic, subterranean existence. All of his savings are lost in a green card scam that the reader sees coming a mile away. He is Job ascending.
Though Biju never gets street-smart, he does acquire a particular insight, one that goes against everything his father, the cook back in India, has told him, everything the owner of the Gandhi Café, now the owner, too, of a brand-new condo in New Jersey, tells him, and everything the travel agent who arranges trips to India says as well. It is that the world of promise, the world where all boats rise on the tide of success, will never include him. However hard he works, his head will always be underwater. He can kick, he can fling himself with all his might toward the gunwales, but no matter how furiously he tries he is still going to drown, because the economists or the treaty negotiators or the CEOs or whoever came up with the boats rising on the tide metaphor got it wrong: the only reason that all boats rise on what may look like an endless sea of prosperity is because not everyone can get in them. Against all counsel, Biju makes the uncommon decision to turn his back on the United States and on every dream he’s invested in it, and to go home to be poor in a way that is more ambiguous. What looks like defeat is simply the triumph of clarity.
It is a rare novel that succeeds when every supposedly good idea in it fails, but Desai is a gorgeous writer, capable of pulling us along on a raft of sensuous images that are often beautiful, not because what they describe are inherently so, but because she has shown their naked truth. While it is sometimes hard to care about her characters, sometimes frustrating because they are so small, especially against the broader political and physical landscape, it is her language that draws us in and pins us there. It is so lovely, in fact, that it is possible to miss the nihilism that underwrites everything here, the feeling that we are all puny, that civilization as we have known it is a passing respite from barbarism, that love will not in the end prevail. That there can be books like this in the world, though—elegant and brave—suggests that there just may be a chance that she is wrong.