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Loss and Longing

Mala Pandurang

By Kiran Desai
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2006, pp. 324, Rs. 495.00


The Inheritance of Loss has a minimal plot. The narrative is set at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas. It is 1986 when the story opens with a robbery by young insurgents, who force their way into a retired judge’s decrepit colonial mansion and steal his hunting rifles in the presence of the judge, his seventeen-year-old granddaughter Sai, his cook, and his purebred dog Mutt. The narrative then weaves back and forth, offering the personal histories of the characters, and the political background to a growing discontent and insurgency of the Indian Nepalese youth, “fed up with being treated like the minority in a place where they were the majority” (p.19). The Gorkhaland National Liberation Front (GNLF) is now seeking a separate Nepali state , and as acts of violence, and of police brutality mount, the lives of the non-Nepalis who have resided in the hills for decades take tragic twists, as they become unwanted outsiders, and prisoners of their own location.   This is a story as much of loss, as it is of bittersweet longing for a world that eludes each of the characters, as a consequence of their class backgrounds and post/colonial legacies. They thereby become the inheritors of loss.   Justice Jemubhai Patel is a self-centered retired Chief Justice who has opted for the life of a recluse, and has little compassion for any one except, perhaps, his red setter Mutt. The sudden imposed responsibility of guardianship of his granddaughter Sai takes Jembubhai back to “the burning memories of his beginnings” (p.61), when in 1939 he departed for education at Cambridge. In the alien and cold environment of the colonial power, “his pusillanimity and his loneliness had found a fertile soil” (p.39), and “he retreated into a solitude that grew in weight day by day. The solitude became a habit, the habit became the man, and it crushed him into a shadow” (p.39). Yet despite his unhappiness as an alien in England, he envies the English and loathes Indians, and grows increasingly embittered by the realization that he “would be despised by absolutely everyone, English and Indians and both.” Jemubhai’s sickening abusive treatment of his wife Nimi makes him one of the most dislikeable characters of Indian fiction in English.   Sai is orphaned when her parents are crushed by a local bus in Moscow and is compelled to leave the convent and stay with her grandfather. ...

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