Kiran Desai’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ is set in Kalimpong against the backdrop of the GNLF agitation of the mid-1980s in West Bengal. The story centres around the family of a retired widower judge Jemubhai Patel which consists of his 17-year-old orphaned granddaughter Sai and their little dog Mutt. An old cook afflicted with arthritis also resides with them. The foursome resides in a badly maintained cottage named Cho Oyu. Other key characters in the story include Gyan, Sai’s just-out-of-college Maths tutor and Biju, the cook’s son who works as a waiter in the US.
Jemubhai Patel is a Scrooge and a man devoid of passion. He only cares for Mutt. When his daughter and son-in-law pass away in an accident in Russia, their daughter Sai who till then has been a boarder at a residential school in Dehradun, is sent by school authorities to her grandfather. Incidentally, the judge had cut off ties with his daughter after she married a young man who grew up in an orphanage. In order to cut down expenses, the judge opts for home-educating Sai. Needless to say, Sai lives a lonely life in the hills devoid of companions of her age. Her loneliness results in her getting infatuated with her young Maths tutor, a Gorkha. Another victim of the judge’s miserly attitude is the cook. But the poor man manages the show masking his sorrow with a subservient attitude. His only hope in life is his son Biju, who has made it to the land of plenty despite all odds. The once in a while trunk call with Biju is the only time of celebration for the cook.
With a Scrooge of a protagonist and added to that intermittent strife which as the story develops get very intense, one can only expect a melancholic storyline. Kiran Desai has told her story beautifully and has gone into the minutest details when explaining all the situations with a welcome dose of humour thrown here and there. Even as she tells the story of the happenings in and around Cho Oyu, she does not forget to tell us what is happening with Biju in the US. And then there are flasbacks galore about the life of the judge, an ICS pass from London.
As the story develops, one cannot but help sympathising for Sai. Her only friends besides Gyan, are two middle-aged sisters Noni, a spinster, and her widowed sister Lola, who live in a cottage called Mon Ami. Then there is Uncle Potty, a good-natured man with a love for the bottle, and Father Booty, a European priest who chose to stay in India but forgot to renew his papers.
As the GNLF strife gets uglier, peace is lost in Kalimpong and neighbouring Darjeeling. Gyan too joins the protests much to Sai’s displeasure. Mutt gets dog-napped. Noni and Lola’s peaceful home is trespassed and they are forced to put up with anti-social elements residing in their courtyard. Father Booty is asked to leave Kalimpong. And Biju’s homecoming turns into a nightmare when he is robbed by the GNLF men of all his money, clothes, and gifts that he had bought for his dad. The attackers even take away the clothes he is wearing.
This is not one of those novels which you can finish in one reading. The story though it is very gripping and well-told develops very gradually. Definitely worth a read!