Exotic to whom?

Tessa Hadley

  • The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
    Hamish Hamilton, 324 pp, £16.99, August 2006, ISBN 0 241 14348 9

In The Inheritance of Loss, her second novel, Kiran Desai addresses herself to an Indian culture in which globalisation isn’t imagined but experienced, whether in exile abroad or as a result of painful social and cultural displacements within the country itself. This makes the novel sound rather gloomily earnest, but Desai’s scepticism and fearfulness are expressed as a dark exuberance: she can’t help relishing the textures of the fragmentation she describes.

None of her central characters is ‘at home’ where they live. The novel is set in Himalayan India in the 1980s, against a background of Nepali insurgency: the rebels want ‘Gorkhaland for Gorkhas’, but no such neat solution is plausible in the face of the tense intricacies of ethnicity, culture, language and class, even in this one small piece of India. Jemubhai Patel – atrophied in his function as ‘the judge’, and now elderly and retired – has been locked into brutalising self-disgust since his years at Cambridge long ago. There, he ‘learned to take refuge in the third person and to keep everyone at bay’; now, he beats his cook as he used to beat his wife. Biju, the cook’s son, is an illegal immigrant working in New York restaurant kitchens. Sai, the judge’s 17-year-old granddaughter, has never lived outside India, but only speaks English, knows only the English way to make tea, can’t eat with her fingers; her convent education has been a disorienting mix of ‘“Lochinvar” and Tagore . . . Highland fling in tartan and Punjabi harvest dance in dhotis, national anthem in Bengali and an impenetrable Latin motto emblazoned on banderoles across their blazer pockets’. Gyan, Sai’s tutor, with whom she is having an exploratory love affair, is a Nepali; for a while he boasts about his Gorkha ancestors in the British army (they died in Mesopotamia, Burma, Italy), and marches about with the insurgents, angrily pushing Sai away (‘You hate me,’ Sai tells him, ‘for big reasons, that have nothing to do with me’). His father is a meek teacher in a tea plantation school. Gyan dreams of advancement, and is soon longing for a way out of his involvement in the rebel movement, with its oversimplifications and collapsed ideals.

Cho Oyu, the house where the judge and Sai and the cook live together, is in a mountain forest, and has tall ribbed ceilings, monastic light, an iron gate between stone pillars, and views of Kanchenjunga. Inside, Sai passes empty hours reading National Geographic while the judge plays himself at chess; they take tea at four, and in a corner of the cavernous kitchen the cook prepares chops and potatoes and peas and chocolate pudding for their dinner. The house was built by a Scot who, reading about India in Aberdeen, felt the call of its romance, and ‘refused to be denied the right to adventure’. (‘As always, the price for such romance had been high and paid for by others. Porters had carried boulders from the riverbed – legs growing bandy, ribs curving into caves, backs into U’s, faces being bent slowly to look always at the ground – up to this site chosen for a view that could raise the human heart to spiritual heights.’) Draughty, roomy, doomed, eaten away from inside by termites, the flush in the lavatory fixed with rubber bands and bamboo splints, Cho Oyu is a tragi-comic metaphor for the seedy remains of British imperial culture in India. It is suggestive, too, of the novel form itself, another alien habit that might at first glance seem as ill-matched to its Indian environment as the stodgy meals and ideas about keeping up ‘civilisation’.

Sai visits the library in Darjeeling with her friends, Lola and Noni, Anglophile Bengali sisters retired from Calcutta to ‘exotic’ Kalimpong (‘Exotic to whom?’ Noni asks herself later). On their way back they are stopped and searched at a checkpoint. The suspicious guards, ‘hoping for literature of an antinational and inflammatory nature’, confiscate Wuthering Heights along with Trollope and Agatha Christie. Lola explains that she is reading Trollope precisely ‘to take my mind off all this’, gesturing ‘vaguely and rudely at the scene in general and the guard himself’. ‘Old-fashioned books is what I like. Not the new kind of thing, no beginning, no middle, no end, just a thread of . . . free-floating plasma.’

The Inheritance of Loss is not old-fashioned, but is another of those Indian novels in English that have had a significant influence on our tradition. Modernist and post-modernist experiments with the novel have found renewed purpose in the effort to capture Indian actuality and, in their treatment of the Indian diaspora, a global one, too. Classic realism evolved more or less in order to express the domestic life of the European bourgeoisie (and sometimes the aristocracy); novels were solidly embedded in their material surroundings, rendering subtle interiorities and nuanced relationships. There has never been a shortage of agonised individuals for Indian writers to portray, but the novel has also been used to give form to the intersection of such subjectivities with other Indias, on a quite different scale and modelled on quite other patterns of selfhood and collectivity. (Tolstoy, writing about Russia in the 19th century, struggled with the same problems of form, when he wanted to describe the interactions of his ruling-class characters with the peasantry.)

Although Lola prefers Wodehouse and Trollope, the books confiscated from her sister Noni are a novel by Amit Chaudhuri, and a translation of an account of police brutality by Mahashveta Devi, a Bengali fiction writer and activist. Desai here suggests the wealth – and confusion – of Noni’s opportunities as an Indian reader, and the intricacy of her own position, and Chaudhuri’s, as English-language Indian novelists. They write not only in relation to one another, but also at the point of contact between the sophisticated subjectivity of the European and American novel tradition, on the one hand, and the various vernacular Indian traditions on the other (mostly unknown outside India, except to diaspora audiences). The opportunities English offers the novelist – apart from anything else, as a lingua franca for the educated in a multilingual society – are balanced against the loss of the sense of belonging that writing in a vernacular might bestow, and of the vernacular’s ability to be less effortfully denotative of local realities. Indian novels in English are always sprinkled with an untranslatable residue (puja, bhai, jhora – although Desai uses these sparingly, never merely as exotic intensifiers): the italics indicate the incomplete fit of English, its insufficiency to the Indian whole. But the poor fit of language to experience works both ways: the thinking that gets done in English, and which is not expressible differently, is also part of the Indian composite. This model of a literature with an in-built linguistic insufficiency, one which doesn’t pretend to offer a complete translation of experience, appears distinctively contemporary, a way of imagining the novel in a future of converging cultures. (The politics of the predominance of English, and its hegemonic propensity, are entangled uncomfortably in that future too.)

Aspects of The Inheritance of Loss seem distinctively Modernist. The forward drive of the plot is subordinated to a picaresque tumble of events. The love story between Gyan and Sai, instead of being the all-resolving centre of the book, is disrupted and displaced by other issues, economic and political. Sex isn’t redemptive, it’s fairly peripheral: almost everyone in the foreground of the book is single or widowed; the only cohabitees are an elderly gay couple. Even the worst that happens feels darkly comic, as if tragedy were dependent on the centrality of individual experience. If Crusoe’s triumph in subjecting his wild island to bourgeois ordering is built into the foundations of the European realist novel, here the sheer disorder of competing world-versions – ethnic, economic, cultural, fantastic – spills onto the pages as an uncontrollable excess, overwhelming whatever interpretations of events the protagonists offer. There is no ‘enemy’ to be identified and overcome, or even to succumb to: the sheer multiplication of rationales, justifications and rights, incapacitates judgment. The judge himself is hollowed out after a lifetime of imposing an implacable system he didn’t believe in: ‘India was too messy for justice.’

Desai’s writing, like the Modernists’, is strictly unsentimental: it describes unflinchingly the unbearable-to-know, and then describes just as unflinchingly, without moralising, how her subjects’ human kindness wilts at the omnipresence of suffering, poverty and injustice. Guns are stolen from Cho Oyu, an innocent drunk is picked up for the crime by the police, and tortured; his wife and father come to plead with the judge to help get him released.

‘Who do you go to when you’re poor? People like us have to suffer . . . We are not even Nepalis, we are Lepchas . . . He was innocent and the police have blinded him’ . . .

The woman looked raped and beaten already. Her clothes were very soiled and her teeth resembled a row of rotten corn kernels, some of them missing, some blackened, and she was quite bent from carrying stone – common sight, this sort of woman in the hills . . .

The judge seemed suddenly to remember his personality, stiffened, and said nothing, set his mouth in a mask, would look neither left nor right, went back to his game of chess.

In this life, he remembered again, you must stop your thoughts if you wished to remain intact, or guilt and pity would take everything from you, even yourself from yourself.

Sai, upset after a row with Gyan, isn’t any kinder, turns away from the beggars and tells herself she doesn’t care. After throwing herself at her reflection in her room (‘What will happen to me?!’), then imagining herself ‘left for ever adolescent, trapped in shameful dramatics’ while Gyan finds ‘adulthood and purity in a quest for a homeland’, the image of the woman comes back to her, but it’s too late. When she sends the cook out with a sack of rice, the beggars have gone. If guilt or pity began to be voiced, in the world of this novel, where would they end? Sai goes to find Gyan in his own house, and its poverty and meanness shock her (‘The house didn’t match Gyan’s talk, his English, his looks, his clothes, or his schooling’); when they quarrel, the terrible things Sai says to him are probably – probably – more useful in the long run, between them, than tact or commiseration would have been. ‘Typical of you people,’ she screams at him, ‘demand and take and then spit on what you’ve been given. There is exactly one reason why you will get nowhere – because you don’t deserve to.’ He says terrible things to her, too, about her class and privilege and irrelevance.

This disordered multiplication of material is all held together in the novelist’s omniscience, intelligently perceiving, hungrily curious, moving flexibly in and out of her characters’ thoughts, committed to unearthing the truth in what she describes. Because we trust the book’s intelligence, it becomes important to know how the story is going to end. What does Desai think can happen, what human possibilities can emerge out of this disorder, all this suffering and injustice? Will everyone be disappointed? (Why shouldn’t they be disappointed, if happiness and high-mindedness – like Cho Oyu – have been built mostly on the bent backs of the stone-carriers?) The cadences of the finale are complex, intertwining pessimism with a nuanced, minimal openness to the possibility of hope, of a restoration. We don’t see any resolution of the Nepali insurgency, but leave the residents of Kalimpong getting used to the violence, ‘surprised by the mundaneness of it all’, worrying even as civil life breaks down about a missing sock, neighbourly irritations: ‘The most ordinary swept up in extraordinary hatred, because extraordinary hatred was, after all, a commonplace event.’ Mutt, the judge’s dog, is abducted by the beggars who came for help and were turned away. All the poetry blocked up in the judge’s dry heart has been directed at Mutt; now he searches for her wildly. ‘Mutt, mutton, little chop . . . forgive me, my little dog . . . my dear, my lovely girl.’ How can we condemn the thieves? They were wronged, they never had justice; and in any case how much can a dog matter in such a crisis? Yet the judge’s desperate grief infects the cook and Sai and even Gyan too: it becomes the shape of their own unfulfilled longing, and part of the music of the end of the novel. In his desolation, the judge beats the cook.

Just as Sai makes up her mind that the only way to live is to leave India, Biju comes home, sure that he can’t live anywhere else, worn down by dehumanising work in New York restaurant kitchens. When he steps off the plane into the ‘warm, mammalian’ Calcutta night, feeling himself ‘slowly shrink back to size’ in his own place, it reads as a revelation; but Desai won’t simplify real difficulties, and on his way to Kalimpong Biju is abducted by the rebels and stripped of the gifts he’s brought, his sweated-for savings, even his clothes. His appearance, dressed in an old woman’s nightdress, at the gates of Cho Oyu, just when the early light is golden on Kanchenjunga, seems numinous, comic and sorrowful all at once: the novel stops there.