Hill Station

Kiran Desai attended school in a Himalayan hill station. Her family lives in another hill station, Kalimpong. Hill stations were once a place of refuge for British colonialists to find respite from the heat of the Indian plains. A hill station might stand higher than the plains but it will always be overshadowed by the Himalayan mountains.

All day, the colors had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths. Briefly visible above the vapor, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.

Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss (Penguin 2006)

Desai won the Booker Prize for The Inheritance of Loss. It was her second novel and she a mere 35 years old.

Migrant Stories

Desai has said of her novel, There’s no real plot. It’s not an entirely fair summation. Plenty of things happen in The Inheritance of Loss. A love affair blossoms between Sai and her math tutor, Gyan. The elderly sisters, Lola and Noni, embark on expeditions to the local Gymkhana library. Neighbors consume tea and biscuits in their crumbling mansions. It could almost be a Jane Austen novel albeit in the Indian Himalayas.

This comically brittle take on hill station life could have been enough. But Desai has a larger frame in mind. Sai’s grandfather, the judge, is a miserable and misogynist product of the British Raj. Gyan, the tutor, dreams of independence for his fellow Nepali Indians. Gorkha for Gorkhaland! The judge’s cook prays that his son, Biju, will strike it rich in America and lift his family out of poverty.

These men and women are migrants. The borders are various: between class and ethnicity, across the sea or the other side of the ravine, in defiance of history. Each character in The Inheritance of Loss has a migration story of their own.

Eventually I constructed the book by recognizing echoes and parallels, I drew lines between first world and third world, between colonial times and days of globalization, between stories of migrants from various developing nations.

Interview with Kiran Desai by William Toms, “Activism & Discipline: An Interview With Kiran Desai” in Washington Square Review, 12 Nov 2019

God the Narrator

Such a large cast of characters requires a god-like narrator who can flit from the top of Kachenjunga to the depths of a New York City basement where Biju must wait his turn to sleep on the sodden mattress. Desai’s narrator is a gifted ventriloquist. Listen to this exchange via airmail between Biju and his father, the cook.

“Are you growing fat, beta, like everyone in America?” [the cook] had written his son long ago, in a departure from the usual format.
“Yes, growing fat,” Biju had written back, “when you see me I will be myself times ten.” He laughed as he wrote the lines and the cook laughed very hard when he read them; he lay on his back and kicked his legs in the air like a cockroach.

The range of this loquacious narrator is awe-inspiring. This narrator can, by turns, wax lyric, comic, maudlin or stern depending on the character she’s channeling. Desai is particularly good at voicing the young Sai in love.

She remembered her face in his neck, arms and legs over and under, bellies, fingers, here then there, so much so that at times she kissed him and found instead that she’d kissed herself.

Desai favors short chapters with frequent line breaks to signal to the reader that we are about to visit another character. These constant switchbacks give The Inheritance of Loss its frenetic pace. Too fast, perhaps, as Desai whisks us through her wondrous world.

Dirty Laundry

For the locals, however, Kalimpong is all too recognizable. Some residents find Desai to be condescending and have threatened to burn her book. These critics contend that

the book is more non-fiction than fiction. “It is a one-sided account that tells you about [Desai’s] fears about Kalimpong. The central character Sai is obviously a self-portrait and you can feel her estrangement from this dark, ominous place where Nepalese are just transient interlopers in the landscape,” said Anmole Prasad, a local lawyer.

Randeep Ramesh, “Book-burning threat over town’s portrayal in Booker-winning novel” in The Guardian, 2 Nov 2006

This is not the first time a female writer is presumed to be writing autofiction. It doesn’t seem to matter that Desai has crafted a wonderfully god-like narrator who presides over a vast cast of characters. In the eyes of these critics, Sai and Desai must be one and the same person.

The British novelist Sarah Hall suggests that long form fiction is best suited for exploring issues. Say, the right of an indigenous people to claim their own land. India today is an even more divisive society than it was when Desai set her story in a crumbling hill station in the Indian Himalayas. Perhaps we need more books like hers.

30 Nov 2021 | Karen Kao