Kiran Desai: Fiction’s Ms RightThe youngest woman ever to bag the Man Booker prize [Archives:2007/1046/Education]

April 30 2007
Kiran Desai. The Inheritance of Loss. London: Penguin Books, 2006.pp.324.
Kiran Desai. The Inheritance of Loss. London: Penguin Books, 2006.pp.324.
Dr Murari Prasad
Faculty of Arts
Sana'a University
[email protected]

Even before winning the Man Booker Prize for her 2006 novel, The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai had had enthusiastic applause for her debut novel, Hullaballu in the Guava Orchard (1999). Her first novel brought her the Betty Trask Award but no bouncing sales chart or international critical acclaim. With this recent spectacular win at 35, Kiran is the youngest woman to win the GBP50,000 prize (Ben Okri, who won the Booker in 1991 for his novel The Famished Road, is the youngest winner at 32). The inheritance of Loss stole the limelight over substantial novels by big names -past Booker winners Peter Carey's Theft, Barry Unsworth's The Ruby In Her Navel and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer's Get A Life. Also longlisted and later ousted among the Booker contenders were such heavyweights as David Mitchell, Kate Grenville, M.J. Hyland, Hisham Matar, and Sarah Waters. Clearly, the prize confirms the prevailing premium on the English-language fiction from India. Indeed, the lineage of Indian novels in English in Booker history is quite impressive: V.S. Naipaul's In a Free State (1971), J.G. Farrel's The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), Ruth Prawer Jhabwala'a Heat and Dust (1975), Paul Scott's Staying On (1977), Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981), Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Children (1997) and Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss (2006), besides many that were nominated and made it to the shortlist.

Kiran's fiction has striking parallels amidst notable contrasts with that of her mother, Anita Desai, who was thrice shorlisted for the Booker that her daughter has grabbed at the first time of asking. In her acceptance speech the younger Desai said in a reference to her mother: “I owe her such an enormous debt that I can't express it in any ordinary way.” Both mother and daughter tap into their experience of migration, of expatriation, of loneliness and alienation. Unlike her mother, who mutated from a teacher into a struggling writer, Kiran studied in India, England and the United States. Of course the latter, too, had her years of struggle, living for years in the U.S. on a student visa. The hurt and disenchantment that underlie the migrant's restless transits inform the tale's emotional centre in The Inheritance of Loss.

As the Chairperson of the Booker judges, Hermione Lee, said, Kiran's literary inheritance of V.S. Naipaul, Rushdie and R.K. Narayan, and her original way of taking it forward is evident in the book: “She seems to jump on from those traditions and create something which is absolutely of its own. The book is movingly strong in its humanity, and I think that in the end is why it won.” Lee missed to see the subtle reworking of the influences coming from Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy and Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things in Kiran's novel. In its representational exactitude , The Inheritance of Loss reminds us of Seth's novel while in its audacity of imagination it recalls Roy's celebrated book. Lee rightly summed up the salience of Kiran's novel in these words: “A distinctive original voice, an audacious imagination that takes readers to undiscovered countries of the mind, a strong power of storytelling and a historical truthfulness.” Described as ” a magnificent novel of humane breadth and wisdom, comic tenderness and powerful political acuteness,” The Inheritance captures our troubled times, contemporary moment)postmodernity, if you will)in moving scenes of poverty, deprivation, dislocation following immigration, and skewed globalization.

The plot unfolds an elderly retired judge, Jemubhai Patel, who studied at Cambridge before getting into the ICS and is now consumed by self-hatred of his Indianness in independent India. He is spending his last years in Cho Oyu, a crumbling hillside bungalow in Kalimpong in the northeastern Himalayas, with his pet dog Mutt. His granddaughter Sai, the child of a Gujarati mother and a Zoroastrian father who is part of Indo-Russian space collaboration in the last days of the old Soviet state, is orphaned when her parents die under the wheels of a bus in Moscow. When Sai comes to stay with the judge, her embittered grandfather, the cook at Cho Oyu gives her the warmth and affection that he is unable to give his son, Biju, who is an illegal immigrant far away in America.As a desperate alien Biju is drifting from one temporary job to another in the basement kitchens of New York restaurants.

Well-etched episodes of the interlocking stories surrounding ordinary, eccentric characters muddling along in a small hill station town in India and a struggling immigrant trying to make a gruelling living in precarious conditions in America are spliced in a warm and humane story of ordinary people caught up in a changing world. The juxtaposition of the two plot components)the Gorkha movement of the mid 1980s in the Nepalese-dominated hill districts of West Bengal in India and the predicament of nomadic migrants in a first world metropolis like New York)develops the theme of the story and shapes the narrative perspective. What binds the stories together and brings them into a pleasing coherence is the untidy and frustrating aftermath of postcolonial churning and ongoing globalisation. The loss inherited by the global subalterns is too complex to be sorted out in the emerging world with a severely limited level-playing field. Sai's brief love affair with a Nepali youth, Gyan, ends in mutual recriminations as the latter joins the group of Nepalese insurgents; the judge turns out to be a veritable anachronism with his colonial mindset in postcolonial India; Biju, the cook's son, having failed to find his feet in New York, decides to return to India in a disenchanted state only to be robbed of his hard-earned acquisitions by the barbarians in his own backyard. The novel ends in a dramatic denouement wherein the sweet drabness of home brings its own trauma, shock and deprivation.

Kiran has the amazing capacity to breathe life into the page. She has avoided convoluted narrative structuring. In a linear narrative with shifts in time and brief flashbacks she has made a brilliant attempt at delineating the highly stratified society in both India and the USA.The aching quandary stemming from the impulse to immigrate and the ensuing crisis of identity is authentically rendered in concrete, telling situations. Notably in addition, she is the mistress of engaging details and images. Plus the narrative is powered by her superb language)assured and eloquent, supple and elegant. This is why The Inheritance of Loss is, to its readers, an inheritance of gain.