This aptly-titled novel is primarily a dual story, one about Jemubhai, a retired judge and his granddaughter Sai, orphaned, convent-schooled, and now living with her grandfather in a decrepit old mansion, the other about the judge’s cook (who remains nameless until the very last page) and his son Biju, an illegal immigrant working in New York kitchens.
Desai writes excellently, the chapters vividly describing the almost-itinerant, gritty, grimy life of an illegal working in restaurants, and the residents of Kalimpong, in northern India, where Jemubhai, Sai, Mutt (the judge’s dog), and the cook live out their lives during a time of political turmoil (the ethnic Nepalese are demanding their own state or country, which they want to call Ghorkaland).
A strange cast of colorful secondary characters populate Desai’s Kalimpong: Father Booty, Uncle Potty (neither of whose names we are told the origin of), Sai’s tutor Gyan, and sisters Lola and Noni.
The book moves backward and forward in time, tracing Jemubhai’s education in England and Biju’s life before moving to the US, Sai’s schooling, and occasionally hints at things that happen after the book has ended (which I found to be a little frustrating, getting a glimpse or foreshadowing of some future events, but never reading about them directly). Every character has a loss: Jemubhai his humanity, Sai her parents, Biju his homeland (and then more, when he returns), and the cook his son as well as his dignity, and we’re made to feel their suffering rather effectively.
Secondary characters don’t fare any better, with Gyan losing his youth and innocence, Father Booty his home and property, Lola and Noni their dignity and sense of being “above it all.”
All of this makes for a somewhat bleak read, and Desai makes little attempt to wrap things up in a nice happy bow at the end – by and large, everyone winds up miserable and disaffected. Nonetheless I quite enjoyed “Inheritance of Loss” for its high-caliber writing and vagaries.
My rating: Very good