“Tötest du einen, bist du ein Mörder. Tötest du viele, bist du ein Held. Tötest du ALLE, bist du eine Legende.”
“If you kill one, you are a murderer. If you kill many, you are a hero. If you kill ALL, you are a legend.
—Posted by the moderator, “Frontsoldat,” of “Deutschland” an online forum
Inheritance of Loss
by Kiran Desai
Reviewed by Bonny Finberg
We seem to live in a time of ‘otherness’ when there is a prevailing us-vs-them mentality as others threaten to trespass into our once exclusive lives as a result of the increased permeability of geographic boundaries. This ostensibly shortens distances, facilitates communication and disseminates information. But information is not necessarily knowledge and some of it can be faulty or incomplete or based on fear, bias, and lack of vigorous research. Still, we smile and talk of ‘diversity,’ try to show ‘tolerance’ and political correctness, while leaders are building walls to protect our borders as Kings once built walls around medieval cities to keep out the Romans, the Franks, the Goths, or the Vandals. Fear built those walls. Technology made them crumble. These days, Electronic Information Technology is not only dismantling the physical limitations of geography, it is eroding the boundaries between individuals. We now speak of Identity Theft and Geographical Tracking Systems. Personal information and pictures can be sent through some wireless mystery that allows a stranger to steal the idea of your money which doesn’t actually exist except in a data base recorded on a microchip, or share the spectacle of your being run over by a sanitation truck with her best friend in Africa who is going on a guided night safari in a jeep to invade the privacy of animals trying to survive under cover of darkness. This last scenario is not some product of my imagination to prove a point. It was reported in the New York Times Travel Section with its usual peppy tone and sadly ironic use of metaphor. To justify these intrusive night safaris into the African bush the author wrote:
After all, an after-dark shutdown makes as much sense as rolling up Manhattan's sidewalks at sunset: so many African animals come into their own when the heat subsides. Like hip urbanites, they surface from slumberous hideouts to drink, forage, frolic and stalk.
Et voila! The great question of our existence is answered. It’s nothing more than a marvelous amusement park—even those poor animals who take for granted what you and I find so exotic and fascinating as we fuck it up.
Living in big cities we are confronted with the ‘other’ as a matter of daily life. As bona fide members of the First World Club, we enjoy freedom of movement and access to discount travel fares and package tours. But has this increased our sensitivity to other cultures or simply made them an extension of our general Disney consciousness where everything seems to exist for its entertainment value? Just real enough—real-ish. Entertainment itself has taken on a heterogenous look. If one does travel and is privileged enough to have spent time in a hotel with cable TV it’s evident that most countries’ primary programming is either, dubbed American serials and films, or facsimiles in the local argot. I once met a young Bulgarian business student in Paris who cringed when I mentioned Fellini, saying, “I hate European films. I love trashy American movies, like—”…the name escapes me as I write this, but you get the idea.
It may no longer be true, as it used to be, that living in urban areas means you are more exposed to the foreign born, usually two or three generations at most from their country of origin, who nurture a nostalgia for the past, a faraway place, another language. The occasional glimpses that someone of my generation had of a distant time and place were often through the lens of a grandmother’s joke told in a foreign accent with an untranslatable punch line, the homey smell of food as familiar as that of your own body, an aunt singing a song that was popular when she was eighteen and all that it conjured come to life in her aging face, a grandfather’s story about some ancient victimization or mischief whose comfort in the telling, no matter how many times, made you see the boy he was. Then, depending on the year, there might be the mother or father who cut questioning short with a definitive “I don’t want to ‘talk about all of that.’
Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss is more than a simple look at immigration and displacement. It’s a complex map of the experience of leaving one’s country for a better place and that which comes after. It begins with the dream of freedom, increased opportunity, choice, a better education, job, plumbing. Its complexity lies in the social and cultural contexts determined by generation, history, and the dynamics of longing. It’s colored by the self-delusions of assimilation and imitation and the cruel disappointment when, having finally arrived at the end of the rainbow, the anticipated pot of gold is just another path back to one’s self—the inescapable reassessment of what constitutes a ‘better life.” After all, how many choices do you really need when it comes to a cup of coffee?
Desai’s characters come down from the mountain, leaving their failing Shangri-la for the presumed efficacy and abundance of London, or New York City. It can be a ticket to success or, more often than not, turn out to be another kind of jungle where bosses take advantage of those without papers, or protection or family loyalty. Even those that succeed do so at a price. Maybe they achieve success but not without humiliations and hardships along the way. Being at the mercy of their place in history, it can be snatched away at any time. All those within this spectrum of hope and compromise who aspire to what everyone else seems entitled to, those who succeed and those who don’t, are victims in the end. They find themselves in a thick Darwinian tar pit and the ones who manage to climb out and clean up can be thrown right back in if they’re not careful. One can acquire too much, inviting the resentment of those with too little. Status can change in a matter of days, even within a fraction of a moment, humiliation trade places on the wrong side of a gun.
Against the backdrop of a Nepali insurgency in northern India, The Inheritance of Loss traces the dramas of class, culture and generational conflict. The story unfolds moving back and forth through time and continents in a patchwork that reveals the history of India and British colonialism through individual lives.
When Sai is four years old, her parents send her to a convent school where they exchange newsy letters devoid of emotional content. Two years later she is still at the convent school when her parents emigrate to 1950’s cold war Russia where her father is on a fast track to becoming an astronaut in the Soviet space program. His mission, however, is never fulfilled as he and his wife are killed by a bus while crossing a Moscow street. Orphaned at six by parents she hasn’t seen in two years, Sai arrives on the doorstep of a grandfather she’s never met. In a remote house at the foot of Mt. Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas her grandfather, a crusty, Cambridge-educated judge, wants only to be left alone with his dog, the only creature he has any feeling for. “A foreigner in his own country,” he long ago renounced Indian-ness, God, and in brutal fashion, a wife from an arranged marriage. Harboring a disdain for his own countrymen and the inevitable self-hatred that goes along with it, he is unable to reconcile the color of his own skin with his European tastes and affectations.
The judge’s cook takes a fatherly interest in Sai, perhaps in compensation for his absent son, Biju, who is living in New York City crowded together with other illegal immigrants, moving from one degrading restaurant job to another.
A tutor comes into Sai’s life and a love affair develops as they discover themselves through each other’s eyes and bodies. They meet for their tutoring sessions at the nearby house of her two great aunts. These two aging sisters enjoy their mannered lives among the accoutrements of two Indian women who, having lived through the last gasps of the Raj, expect to live out their years with the quiet comforts of proper English ladies.
All the characters in this novel face the forced choices imposed by the collision of colonialism with the modern world. A world where the back and forth governance and nationhood of countries have changed so often as to “(make)…ridiculous the drawing of borders.” The so-called ‘globalization’ we face is essentially driven by commerce, leaving behind those that spend their time striving to be part of a culture that is no culture at all but merely a market place fed by objects providing cheap and easy entertainment without substance. The question is: Why does it seem that those with less seem to have more while those who have it all have nothing? How do we strike a balance that allows us individual freedom and realization of our human potential without destroying what’s precious in human relationships and community?
Living in a cramped basement with a mix of immigrants, one of Biju’s roommates comments on the different attitudes regarding sharing in the States and back home.
“You can’t say this is my food, like Americans, and only I will eat it. Ask Thea” —she was the latest pooky pooky interest in the bakery—“where she live with three friends, everyone go shopping separately, separately they cook their dinner, together they eat their separate food. The fridge they divide up, and into their own place—their own place!—they put what is left in a separate box. One of the roommates, she put her name on the box so it say who it belong to!” His finger went up in uncharacteristic sternness. “In Zanzibar what one person have he have to share with everyone, that is good, that is the right way—But then everyone have nothing, man! That is why I leave Zanzibar.”
When does the exercise of free will become self-indulgence? Kiran Desai’s novel addresses these questions without fully answering them. She rather directs her lens to the weaknesses that have gotten the human condition to its present state of instability—the loss of self and community—and leaves us still wondering.
Paris, April 2007