(This came out in India Today in January 2006; forgot to post it at the time, but given Kiran Desai’s Booker win, this seems like a good moment to catch up.)

The Inheritance of Loss
Kiran Desai
Viking,
Rs 495, 336 pages

With Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard , Kiran Desai announced herself as an author in possession of the literary equivalent of perfect pitch. Anita Desai’s daughter had a talent all her own, a set of skills too large for the slight but charming tale of an ordinary wastrel turned accidental godman. All she needed was the right story; and in the seven years in between Hullabaloo and The Inheritance of Loss , she’s found it in an unlikely conjunction of places.

It’s the season of mists in Kalimpong, where Sai’s story starts in a crumbling house called Cho Oyu that reeks of loneliness and abandoned memories of perfection fuelled by a long-lost wealth. As Sai, her grandfather the retired judge and the cook watch, the first signs of conflict overtake the quiet rhythms of their lives. A band of young boys, unconvincing in their uniforms of “universal guerrilla fashion”, break into Cho Oyu in search of the judge’s rusting guns, demanding a reluctant tea-and-pakora hospitality, departing with “only items necessary for the movement”, a list that includes Pond’s Cold Cream.

Sai is an orphan, her parents unlikely casualties of an accident in Russia involving crates of nesting babushka dolls and a Moscow bus, her “dumpling love” for her Nepali tutor, Gyan, the only false note in her narrative, played deliberately but not very effectively for laughs. At Cho Oyu, Sai and the cook are the only still points in a landscape where every person is defined by the journeys they’ve made.

Sai is, above all, a reader: “Books were making her restless. She was beginning to read, faster, more, until she was inside the narrative and the narrative inside her, the pages going by so fast, her heart in her chest—she couldn’t stop.” The cook, it emerges, is a natural-born storyteller, inventor of a wonderful, perfect life in America for his immigrant son, Biju, creator of a magnificent, haveli-born past and a passionately loving marriage for the judge (who in truth, had neither).

The three of them, the cook, the judge and the young girl, are hapless, unwilling witnesses to the identity struggle playing out in the hills as the GNLF and other parties claim a land, a language and a respect that have all been denied the Nepali immigrants turned settlers. The rituals of Lola’s marmalade on toast and the tunes from Uncle Potty’s gramophone player, Father Booty’s cheese-making dairies and Noni’s library books are disrupted by bandhs and food shortages, killings and property takeovers. Gently but relentlessly, and with only an occasional excess of liberal guilt, Desai puts us in the position of the settler who knows the language of privilege better than the local tongue, whose crime is to love the landscape and the mountains passionately while retaining the distance of the outsider.

Sai’s tale is beautifully balanced by Biju’s journey into territory just as uncharted and exotic for this cook’s son from the Himalayas as the journeys of Englishmen and Scotsmen into the hills of Kalimpong were in a previous generation. Biju’s New York is the backstairs, underground, precarious and rambunctious universe of the Third World cooks and busboys who staff first-class, first-world restaurants.

Desai captures his particular brand of loneliness and bewilderment with rare empathy: “Biju put a padding of newspapers down his shirt…and sometimes he took the scallion pancakes and inserted them below the paper, inspired by the memory of an uncle who used to go out to the fields in winter with his lunchtime parathas down his vest… Once, on his bicycle, he began to weep from the cold, and the weeping unpicked a deeper vein of grief…” He finds a sense of community among these strugglers and stragglers, their Holy Grail the elusive Green Card; discovers the older immigrant’s shame at rejecting the endless waves of new immigrants, the Tribes, coming from home, and the impossibility of helping all of them.

Between these two richly imagined narratives, Desai interrogates our ideas of entitlement and belonging, unpicks the identities of immigrant and settler. She does it all with a style and humour only occasionally marred by a heavyhanded playfulness that shows up in too many capital letters, too many italics—unnecessary embellishments for a writer of her calibre. But The Inheritance of Loss , a delightfully original book, justifies every cliché in the reviewer’s repertoire: it is that rare thing, a triumph of the storyteller’s art, nuanced. It is even, I concede, worthy of the most-overworked term in the reviewer’s lexicon: luminous.