Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss (Grove Press, 2006; 356), winner of the 2006 Man Booker Prize, is a story about impotence and poverty and how they influence each other. Everybody in this story, rich or poor, religious or non-religious, Hindu or Muslim, Indian or Nepali, is a victim in one form or the other. They, the characters, have relinquished control and decisions to act to an invisible authority; they have made this authority more potent by their willingness to succumb and their unwillingness to take any action to change anything in their lives. Perhaps to them, to think of change is to risk worsening an already worst situation. They have thus accepted their victim-hood. This lethargic acceptance, borne not out of ignorance or pleasure of poverty and which is not on a particular romanticism of a past bucolic life, is something one can describe of Developing Countries. Thus, Kiran's characters are like developing countries - things happen to them; decisions are made for them; and when they conceive of a radical action it turns into conflict.
Yet the part of India, described in Kiran's book, is one full of life - animal and plant life. The rain is loud and the soil is fertile and yet these elements, as if in connivance with the authorities, have made life unbearable for the people. Mudslides are common. And robbery, for the people also made life difficult for themselves.
To some, this invisible authority is the 'loss', the 'lack' in their lives. Diseased with poverty, they have nothing to do than to make it a gossamer police ordering their lives and directing them towards an already decided path. One could say that some of the characters, like Biju and his father, are fatalistic. Some survived and lived their lives on borrowed dreams. Biju's father lived on the illusion of a son who was 'making it big' in America; Lola who lived in the knowledge of a daughter who works for the BBC. Sai, the Judge's grand-daughter, herself survived her lonely life by hanging on to a love that shrivelled before it was sown. These individuals lived their present in an ill-conceived future their minds conjured. The Judge, central to the town's life and to the book, was waiting for the peacefulness death offers the living.
But even these borrowed dreams were to furl up like a theatre curtain, exposing to them the decadence of their lives. Even Biju, who was scraping and virtually scavenging to survive in the US, was not spared the reality of the present. To the Judge, the peaceful death he waited for was intruded rudely when his grand-daughter was thrust into his care, the result of a past abandonment and abdication of duties that had finally come calling. His deeds finally catching up with him. For Lola and Noni, the reality dawned on them when their compound was invaded by vagrants who were calling for their rights to be respected and for them to be recognised and treated well. Their garden, their telephone lines and the little things they could describe as comfort were taken from them. They were, thus, forced to face the reality of the privileged lives they lived in the midst of dearth. Biju's father's dream was shattered when the son he had spoken to in America returned a few weeks later, wearing a woman's dress. However, the poor, always resourceful, turned out to be the happiest. The meeting between Biju and his father, even in the state they both were in, was, sadly, the happiest part of the novel. The Judge, aside the initial intrusion of his quietude by Sai, was to have even his dog taken away from him, again as payment of a curlicue deed.
The story is an absolute representation of rot and how it gradually affects the whole. It's a classic case of bacteria invading a living system.
The "texture" of this novel - if there is such a thing - is similar to Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. The prose is unique; humorous at certain parts, very descriptive and detailed. Kiran's observation is keen, describing woodlice, butterflies and other such tiny things in photographic detail. Underlying the story is the dichotomy between the rich and the poor. Its representation in the story gives meaning to this line in Culture's song: share your riches with the poor before they share their poverty with you.
If you enjoyed Roy's book, you will enjoy this one; if you didn't because of Roy's several lateral stories you will enjoy this one; however if the poverty and lack in Roy's bothered you, then don't go into this. But at all cost, read this for your own enjoyment.