The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai

Maps of the heart
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The Independent Culture

February, 1986: in a small town in the hills of India, teenage Sai, living with her grandfather, a retired judge, dreams of a romance with her maths teacher, Gyan. In New York, Biju, son of the judge's drunken cook, is struggling to make an illicit life in the cellars and basements of the city. And in India, among many upheavals, an insurgency is gathering: "the Indian-Nepalese this time, fed up with being treated like a minority in the place where they were a majority". Borders, a colonial legacy, are examined; hypothetical maps redrawn. The judge's family, and their circle of oddly named eccentrics, are under threat, their persons insulted, their property requisitioned. Then Gyan rediscovers his Nepalese heritage, and joins the insurgents, bursting the bubble of Sai's adolescent fantasies.

Nationalism, migration, varieties of belonging: in her hugely ambitious second novel, Kiran Desai gives these grand themes an entirely new spin, unearthing their sources in earlier decades. Is it best to stay in a small place, "the sweet drabness of home"? If so, do we have a right to that territory, and who can stake a claim? These questions shape the destinies of Desai's characters: "the most commonplace of them, those quite mismatched with the larger-than-life questions, caught up in the mythic battles of past and present, justice vs injustice - the most ordinary swept up in extraordinary hatred, because extraordinary hatred was, after all, a commonplace event."

The novel's elaborate structure takes the sometimes dizzy reader into a world that seems both contemporary and timeless, familiar and unpredictable. Chapters alternate between India and the US, juxtaposing the slow pace of life in the hills with the frantic movements of an illegal migrant's existence, maintaining a degree of suspense until discontinuous narratives collide.

Biju's experiences in America are detailed in linear sequences, interspersed with moments of tender and lyrical nostalgia. Like many migrants, Biju forgets the harshness of his life as a servant's son, and recalls only the most sensuous textures: minarets, bangles, samosas, riverside, sugar cane. By contrast, the Indian sections are multivocal, switching from orphaned Sai's point of view and her meagre store of memories to the judge's recollections of his days as a West-struck student abroad that reveal, gradually and in fragments, the secrets of his abusive marriage and his abandonment by his despised wife.

Several scenes are also given to their friends and neighbours, allowing us access to conversations that range from literary modes (VS Naipaul and writers in English who miswrite India, for example) to ethnic minorities (the breeding proclivities of the Muslims). Often, too, we read the inset stories of incidental, or absent, characters, allowing Desai to give glancing historical insights and also to display her considerable gift for the telling phrase.

The judge's wife reflects that the "invading" Mughals were "soft enough to weep for the loss of this flower in the heat; the persistent dream of the iris was carved everywhere, by craftsmen who felt the nostalgia, saw the beauty of what they had made and never known". A Nepalese soldier-ancestor of Gyan's is killed, not in battle, but while making apricot jam "in the unthreatening Italian countryside, pheasants whirring in over the olives and the vines, the resistance army unearthing truffles in the wood. It was a particularly bountiful spring, and then they were bombed".

The Inheritance of Loss is perhaps overlong, and on occasion digressive; its vividly painted backdrops and multiple motifs sometimes overshadow its characters. But Desai's bold, original voice, and her ability to deal in grand narratives with a deft comic touch that affectionately recalls some of the masters of Indian fiction, make hers a novel to be reread and remembered.

Aamer Hussein's new collection of stories, 'Insomnia', appears from Telegram next year

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