Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Love is a global surround system

At the age of 35, Kiran Desai was the youngest woman writer ever to win the Man Booker Prize. Her first novel, Hullabaloo at the Guava Orchard, was published in 1998; after the debut it took her eight years to publish the all-important Second Novel. This she wrote mainly in isolation in her writer mother Anita Desai's country house on the US East Coast. In many interviews she tells she had 1500 pages of "raw material" that she needed to process in solitude, in order to reduce the text mass into a novel able to carry its own weight.

Desai, born in 1971, belongs to the academic generation of writers who have received their education in a creative writing programme. This must be something that readers worldwide have begun to doubt, asking if writing is something one can learn in school. Or whether creative writing programs actually slow down talented writers' processes, as they introduce the academic criticism and literary theorizing that may seem too hard for many to handle alongside with the heavy work of making art. In Desai's case, of course, one cannot look for answers to such nihilistic questions. Perhaps writing has come to her as a birthright.

The Inheritance of Loss introduces two protagonists, Sai and Biju, living parallel lives at the hill station of Kalimpong and in New York. Sai is the educated young woman who has stayed, and Biju the little educated young man who has left, only to become an illegal immigrant without rights. Both characters examine belonging, non-belonging, the conditions of love, and increasingly its loss, in the era of speeding globalization. Sai's question sets the tone for the rest of the journey:

"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." (Desai 2006, 2-3)

Although a tragic love story, The Inheritance of Loss is also a vivid document of post/colonial subcontinental history, and the Cold War. Sai's family life is intertwined with India's past Soviet romance, an uncritical belief in high-tech cosmonautical progress:

"Mr. and Mrs. Mistry had grown up during those times when the affection had been cemented by weapons sales, sporting competitions, visiting dance troups, and illustrated books that introduced a generation of Indian schoolchildren to Baba Yaga, who lived in her house on chicken feet in the prehistoric dark of a Russian forest..." (Desai 2006, 25)


Mr. and Mrs. Mistry perish in the snows of Moscow, and Sai is left alone to make sense of this past. The Russian dimension of the story is fascinating, as it gives us a third dimension to the common postcolonial plot. As someone who also sometimes nostalgically returns to the "Friendship, Co-operation, Mutual Help"-pact days of the 70s, I get answers to my questions about Indo-Soviet cultural ties.

The only relative Sai has left is the moody maternal grandfather, who has disowned the daughter, and lives alone with a dog at a remote hill station. Sai has no choice but to move to live with him. Luckily, Sai is also adopted by a group of retired aunties and uncles, some of them Anglo-Indian, others British who have stayed after the Raj. This loose community still clings to the fantasy of colonial verandah life, which is accentuated by piles of National Geographic magazines and everyday sherry-drinking.


The locals are very sensitive to the details in their neighbours' lifestyles. Symbols of wealth come from Europe and America. Exported goods, particularly tax free presents, draw the line between the haves and the have-nots:

"It did matter, buying tinned ham roll in a rice and dal country; it did matter to live in a big house and sit beside a heater in the evening, even one that sparked and shocked; it did matter to fly to London and return with chocolates filled with kirsch; it did matter that others could not." (Desai 2006, 242)

In demonstrating the vastness of differences that make up India, Desai has the taste for hyperbolic exaggeration. Here a detail at the luggage conveyor belt at Kolkata's Dum Dum Airport, one of the non-resident Indian returnees from Europe:

"The hippie who had hit on the fact that you could escape from being a drab immigrant and have a fantastic time as an Indian among the tie-dyed, spout all kinds of Hindu-mantra-Tantra-Mother-Earth-native-peoples-single-energy-organic-Shakti-ganja-crystal-shaman-intuition stuff." (Desai 2006, 296)

Like her mother's novels, The Inheritance of Loss is a novel one has to read slowly and many times over to grasp its many layers. I would expect it to have a life longer than the commercial post-Booker prize shelf life. Even Hullabaloo is still in circulation as a paperback in Finland. The two novels also make a wonderful read together, as a study of how an author can change style and tone, not sticking to once learnt mannerisms but willing to embody new houses of narrative voice and meaning.

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