Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 6, 2009

The Inheritance of Loss (2005), by Kiran Desai, Winner of the Booker Prize in 2006

inheritanceThis is one of the saddest books I’ve read. So many books from post-colonial India are, but this one seems to say that life is utterly hopeless. Like Aravind Adiga, Desai makes much of the chasm between rich and poor, and is highly critical of Indians whose ambition is to be more British than the British.  Those who do suffer in this story, but so does everyone else.


Most tragic of all is the story of Biju.  At his father’s insistence, he goes to America, there to work in one menial, badly-paid job after another.  He is  ruthlessly exploited by other expat Indians who use the fact that Biju and others don’t have the coveted ‘Green Card’ in order to pay miserly wages and no health care.  (In America, where health care bankrupts the uninsured middle class and is denied to the poor, this is truly contemptible behaviour towards employees). Biju is marooned there in poverty for years and years, denied the American dream and horribly lonely without any family.  His tragedy is that he is so conscious that his life is passing him by while he is trapped in this misery only by his father’s naive ambitions for him.

For, back in India, his father –  who is cook to an irascible old judge – has an idealised belief that Biju is a success and can even help others to do the same.  They have so lost touch with each other than when Biju finally makes an expensive TransAtlantic phone call, they have nothing to say to each other.  When Mr Katthu eventually sells Biju a cheap ticket home, his odyssey ends badly.  He travels from one tatty airport to another, segregated from the ‘better class of passengers’ until finally he reaches Calcutta – only to find all transport cut because of the Nepali Gurkha/Gorkha insurgency.  He bribes the GNLF to take him on a truck, but they rob him of everything – all the expensive consumer goods he brought to impress: his American clothes, his greenbacks.  He returns near-naked and destitute, worse off than before and feeling like a failure.

There are other tragedies too.  Sai, the Judge’s grand-daughter falls in love with her shy young maths tutor, Gyan, but he joins the insurgents and betrays his community by revealing where the Judge keeps his ancient collection of guns. As their little village society falls apart everyone suffers, from the rich to the poor, and even Mutt, the Judge’s much-loved dog – and the only creature he ever really loved – is stolen.  I felt sorry for the unnamed Judge until it was revealed that he savagely beat his wife and sent her back to her family – where she conveniently ‘fell into the fire’  because she was a burden on her brother-in-law.  It’s true that the Judge suffered from racism in the UK and never fitted in anywhere after that, and his attempts to be British were pathetic rather than venal, but he was cruel to Nomi who was only a child when they were made to marry.  It was not her fault that she was uneducated and passive.

It’s not a nice picture of India, and the culprits are globalisation and colonialism.  It’s shown to be hopelessly divided and riven by separatist movements.  It’s corrupt, dirty and morally bankrupt.   There are too many gods, so Indians don’t need to take notice of them any more.  The poverty is excruciating, but people accept it or are irritated by it, and efforts to transcend it are sabotaged by others.

All this and more, yet parts of the book are droll.  There’s wicked mockery, irony and outright sarcasm which lightens the mood and makes things seem less devastating than they are.  I can see why it won the Booker.


  1. Superb review of this book. A lot of people seemed to be put off by this book, but like you, I found it quite worthy of the Booker. Here is my review.


  2. […] in The Romantics by Pankaj Mishra, (see my review) or The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (see my review).  I didn’t need to read DBC Pierre’s biting satire Vernon God Little to know that […]


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