Christine Strelan - Between the Covers

The Inheritance of Loss

Kiran Desai

Hamish Hamilton 2006

Kiran Desais second novel (winner of the 2006 Booker Prize) is set in the mountains of North Eastern India. Sai, a young Indian woman, lives with her grandfather and his cook in a crumbling tea-planters house; they can see Kanchenjunga from their overgrown garden. Sai has been educated by nuns, and identifies with the Western values established by the British Raj. This causes conflict in her nascent romance with a local Nepalese man, a member of the Gorkha separatist movement.

Nationality and class are the main themes in Desais moving, beautifully written novel. While Sai is immersed in adolescent love-dramas, Desai shows us flashbacks to the grandfathers youth. He was sent to university in England and returned utterly alienated from his homeland. Though his character is arrogant, cruel and deluded, Desai finds some sympathy for a man so damaged by cultural pressure: ...the English government and its civil servants had sailed away, throwing their topis overboard, leaving behind only those ridiculous Indians who couldnt rid themselves of what they had broken their souls to learn.

In the present, the cooks son Biju heads to America, hoping for wealth and a green card. He finds exploitation and miserable living conditions. Desai explores the imbalance between Eastern and Western living standards with subtlety and intelligence. Dont you have any pride? Trying to be so Westernized. They dont want you! Go there and see if they will welcome you with open arms, you will be trying to clean their toilets and even then they wont want you!

While her Indians are often victims, they are also guilty themselves of class snobbery and racism. They feel frustrated by what they see as the chaos of their homeland, yet suffer heartache and dislocation in the countries to which they emigrate.

All these concepts are conveyed through detailed characterisation; Sai and Biju are 3D individuals, not just vehicles for sociological reflection. Desai also does a great job of evoking the extraordinary landscape, flora and fauna of the Himalayan foothills. The five peaks of Kanchenjunga turned golden with the kind of luminous light that made you feel, if briefly, that truth was apparent. All you needed to do was reach out and pluck it.

Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.

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