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 …
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