Synopsis: In the last paragraph of chapter one, Desai outlines the main storyline of her text: a retired judge, his granddaughter Sai, the cook, and the dog Mutt all reside at the base of Mt. Kalimpong in the Himalayas, at a crossroad of ever-growing hatred and dissatisfaction with the world and how it has been left to them. Here we find an insurgency of Indian-Nepalese growing more and more dissatisfied with the poverty they face, their lack of homeland, and the remnants of a colonial world they embraced, yet hate, yet somehow still need to hold their society together.
As India tries to continue to return to its cultural ways from a time before the colonizer, we find people questioning what is right and good to embrace, and the ironies in doing so. For instance, the judge, upon his return from college in England (where he was hated and looked down on), brings back the accoutrements of a society he learned was "advanced," and to which he now feels akin to and should be more like now that his own social standing in India will far outrank those around him. These accoutrements include a powder puff, which his wife finds strange and silly, and quickly stuffs down her shirt. The judge throws the house into a veritable tizzy in an effort to find said puff (which no one can pronounce and are too embarrassed to explain to others such a dandified object), and becomes incensed when he learns that it was his wife that took them. His social standing is that of the highest ranking in his town (brought on by an education earned at a British college in England), and is recognized and feared by all around him as such, yet he is mocked on every side for his lack of Indianness and his new adopted British qualities that many are embarrassed of him for.
In the meantime, Biju, the cook's son, has taken off for the United States to earn lots of money and great prestige for his father and country. Biju lands in New York City, only to find more poverty, low-paying jobs that have him unable to buy housing, and interacting with people he would never have considered before. Biju learned what it meant to be an Indian, regardless of their worldwide presence:
From other kitchens, he was learning what the world thought of Indians:Although Biju was in the great land of freedom and opportunity, he worked to survive, watched rampant waste going on around him when he knew people at home starved, watched people turn their back on cultural practices they led their families to believe they continued, watched newbies arrive only to allow them to flounder and figure it out the way he was forced to, and watched as his understanding of who he was and what he really wanted out of life disappeared.
In Tanzania, if they could they would throw them out like they did in Uganda.
In Madagascar, if they could, they would throw them out.
In Nigeria, if they could, they would throw them out.
In Fiji, if they could, they would throw them out.
In China, they hate them.
In Hong Kong.
They don't like them.
In Guadeloupe--they love us there?
Then there is the granddaughter Sai, who has been left orphaned and must live with her Indian grandfather that perpetually lives in a British lifestyle, antiquated and falling in around him. Sai has also been raised more "colonial" than Indian, which distances her more and more from the society she lives in. Tutored by a Indian-Nepalese man, she falls in love (or what she believes is love), and the tutor and student experience the joys of life and the community together until the cultural/social clash comes down to haunt their mixed cultural relationship. What was once a small mountain valley town, now becomes a veritable war zone. Those with any vestiges of a colonial past in their lives are held up as the demon holding back "natives" who have lost their lands, culture, and economic holdings. Beyond issues of politics and land distribution, culture becomes the main factor under attack, and all involved in the margins of these cultures are forced to assign themselves to a side.
Review: I can't adequately say how much this novel moved me, troubled me, and worried me. As with many postcolonial/postmodern novels, there are few answers, and many issues brought to the reader's attention. You see that the vestiges of any colonizer leaves those behind with a fierce struggle to determine identity, either stripped of all things colonized, or embittered by evidence that one's former native self might be lacking in some areas. Where does that leave one's identity? In this case, if you like anything British, does that make you non-Indian? How do you etch out an identity from what is left of your former culture, when so much of your economic footholds and social standings are still tied to the former colonizer? It's all so complex, that you can see why it left my head swimming a bit.
The thing I liked the most about Desai's narrative was that it was non-linear. I didn't find this non-linear pattern to be disturbing in the least, in fact, as we bounced backward and forward in time and location, we see even more clearly how troubling is one's identity. Plus, this switching of storylines made me eager to keep reading so that I could learn more about each character. The one thing I have to mention though, would be my response to the judge and his marriage. Although you get that the judge finds he can't relate to his fiercely"desi" wife, in the remnants of his life in England, he seems more angry that he can't get a British wife but may not want one. Then who can he relate to? Not only is he too Indian, but he's not Indian enough, and his relationship with his wife becomes horrifyingly disconnected, disturbing, and downright abusive. I couldn't read the sections that dealt with their relationship fast enough; I just wanted it to be over with and move along. It was just too painful, and made me sad for all involved.
In connection to this sad story of love and disconnection, I have to share one of my favorite quotes of the entire novel. In the opening scene of the novel, we are actually set in the future (without knowing she's starting at the end) waiting for the tutor to arrive as Sai considers the following of love:
Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss? Romantically she decided that love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love was the ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself. (3)I don't know why, but I underlined this quote about love and starred it a million times. Why? Maybe because my own connection to love has been so painful, and that all I see can relate to this beautiful sentiment about love being about all that surrounds love. How does one actually get to the core of it? What a beautifully messy way of describing it!
Overall, Desai's novel was painfully brilliant. Little answers are provided in this agonizing tale of postcolonial discontent and lost identity, yet the awareness brought about by its complexities are breathtaking.
This also fulfills one requirement for the 1% Well Read Challenge.
For more information see: The Inheritance of Loss