The novel is set mostly in India and hops between a number of characters with interwoven life stories. They include an embittered retired judge passing his days in a decrepit isolated estate; his orphaned granddaughter, Sai, who comes to live with him; a self-abasing servant; the servant’s son, who lives illegally in the US; and Sai’s tutor/lover who becomes embroiled in an ethnic separatist rebellion.
It’s perhaps easiest to focus on the judge, whose actions prompt much of the plot. As a young man, he left India to study at Cambridge.
When he returned home, he discovered he no longer belonged in either of the two worlds he knew:
He found he began to be mistaken for something he wasn’t – a man of dignity. This accidental poise became more important than any other thing. He envied the English. He loathed Indians. He worked at being English with the passion of hatred and for what he would become, he would be despised by absolutely everyone…
Conflicts of identity and the hatreds they engender is the main theme of this novel.
An example occurs early on, when a band of Gurkha rebels show up and start looting the judge’s estate. Copying mannerisms they’ve learned from American movies, they taunt the judge, ordering him to fix them a meal:
He had never been, not once, Mutt wobbling about his toes, Sai and the cook too scared to look, averting their gaze.
It came to them that they might all die with the judge in the kitchen; the world was upside down and absolutely anything could happen.
This brief passage is a good illustration of the richness of class-specific details Desai packs into relatively few words. The fact that the judge has never been in his own kitchen speaks volumes about his isolation from his own direct environment and ‘family.’
The inverted commas are needed because, as it gradually emerges in a series of flashbacks, the judge himself long ago unwittingly set the events of the present in motion.
Specifically, by humiliating and then driving away his wife, Sai’s grandmother, who refused to adopt his English façade.
The image Desai uses to introduce this scene is a tumbler of whisky:
His back was to her as she entered. Slowly he fixed himself a drink, poured a cruel shimmer of Scotch, picked up ice cubes with silver pincers in the shape of claws, dropped them into the glass. The ice cracked and smoked.
“What is it?” he asked, swivelling the cubes and turning around, an expression on his face as if he were holding court…
That, you could say, is one mean drink.
The Inheritance of Loss seems slow-paced and excessively detailed at first. But as you press on with the story, even seemingly insignificant details mesh in an intricate portrait of a society with countless levels of ethnic, cultural and class distinctions that put people at odds.
That underlying conflict is what gets inherited, and what causes the personal losses suffered by all these characters. A deserved winner of the Man Booker prize, The Inheritance of Loss is like a rare, older vintage whisky. It requires a bit of work to get all the nuances, but in the end, the effort is more than rewarded.