An Utterly Compelling Tale

Article excerpt

By now, Kiran Desai's Man Booker Prize cheque must have gathered some interest. This, her second book, was published last year and she - the daughter of Anita Desai, who has written many, many novels before her - clinched the Man Booker for herself, a feat her mother has never quite managed, despite her reputation.

But while the publication and the cheque are no longer so new, the prize will guarantee her continued sales for years to come. And readers will want to know why.

The Inheritance of Loss, with its grand claim as a title and its gentle cover, is a moving achievement in understatement.

It manages to cover all the harshest of the world's problems (globalisation, poverty, ancient hatreds and pointless violence) in a restrained, sad voice that whispers, rather than shouts.

It is the story of Sai, the convent-educated granddaughter of a bitter Indian judge, who must live with her grandfather in an isolated place in the shadow of Kanchenchunga in northern India when her parents die.

Her cantankerous grandfather (who for some reason I pictured vividly as Essop Pahad) is so helplessly incapable of love, that she turns naturally to the cook for conversation and warmth.

The cook's son, Biju, meanwhile, is in America, reassuring his father in short letters that he is well. He is not though. He is lonely beyond words - in fact, rarely has any opportunity to speak in any meaningful way to any other human being - and very mixed up: if this is the land of money and much that all his contemporaries back home long to enter, then why is it all he can think about is India?

Sai falls in love with her Nepalese physics tutor, Gyan, who treks up daily from his impoverished home in the slums of Kalimpong to her creaky, leaky old mansion, built by an optimistic Scot many years before.

And here the scene is set for age-old clashes between rich and poor, master and servant. Once the two have drunk one another in in fits of youthful and lustful amazement, they begin to clash.

Gyan is pulled in by old hatreds which are "endlessly retrievable". He shouts at Sai for her ridiculous middle-class upbringing and her ignorance. She, in turn, is shocked, and feels betrayed on a singularly personal and intimate level. She has done nothing personally to elicit his vitriol. She merely belongs to a different group and is its representative in Gyan's limited life.

The novel takes its beginnings, middles and ends from its characters: all hapless flotsam on the brutal tides of a world pathetically unsuccessful at ideals such as democracy, multi-culturalism, equality and tolerance. …