My opinion of INHERITANCE OF LOSS by Keran Desai changed after the discussion by 14 attendees at the CentralMarket Book Club, last Monday, June 9th. This often happens and I continue to be amazed how much a discussion helps my own comprehension and appreciation of the books we read. Most are rather difficult since we are affiliated with Great Books. INHERITANCE OF LOSS was QUITE difficult, perhaps one of the most difficult I've read in sometime.
The fact that I believed the author was a great writer never changed. I found many many passages to be wonderful, enlightening, lyrical, humorous and astute among other adjectives. I can't say enough good things about the quality of her writing. But my first impression of her ability to write a good story was suspect. I thought initially that the story failed to have a good solid linear thread to make it more compelling to read. That some of the pieces of the story were contrived plot devices and not representative of quality literature. But my opinion changed for the better, thanks to Jackie who was moderator of the discussion as well as thanks to numerous other contributors to whom I am grateful for their attendance..
Jackie started our discussion asking us to focus on the characters, which ones did we care about. The cook, Biju who was the cook's son, Jemubhai who was a retired Judge, Sai who was the Judge's grandaughter, Gyan who was the granddaughter's boy friend and numerous secondary characters such as Lola, Noni, Uncle Potty and Father Booty as well as Biju's acquaintances in New York and numerous characters involved on one side or the other of the insurgency. And also characters that were part of the judge's family and past, including his dead wife Nimi and old friend Bose. And finally, can't leave out Mutt, the judge's dog.
Many attendees at the discussion including myself thought the cook was the most endearing. The consensus seemed to be that his son Biju, who immigrated to the US and whose experience working in the basement of restaurant kitchens as an illegal was not as resourceful as his father. It seems his naivete and lack of maturity caused him numerous problems where he was victimized by others who were smarter or more into hustling those less experienced.
Finally in the end, he seems to have developed some kind of "grit" missing in the first part where he is determined to return home to India. We speculated that perhaps this was a sign of his "coming of age". And even after losing all his worldly possessions while making the trip, the joy between the father and son when they are reunited in the end was powerful and effectively written as "two figures leaping at each other" seen by a third person, Sai who didn't yet know that it was the Cook and his son. This gave the passage another dimension, IMO, since the reader realizes that even though the novel has ended, there is a lot more that can be imagined that will come when the son is introduced back into the household and begins to find a new life back in his homeland.
I think Sai illustrated "the pathos that pervades the country" as described by one of those attending the discussion. Sai was an orphan, taken in by her grandfather who had lost any ability to love if he had ever had such an ability (which some doubted). She falls in love with Gyan (name meaning knowledge and who becomes a character having hope). Their falling in love was incredibly tender, I thought as they started describing each other's body parts. We discussed whether we thought she would be able to leave as she expressed a couple of times in the book. As a woman, leaving was going to be much harder than it was for Biju. She didn't seem to have an identity to lose as the title suggests. It seemed as if it was lost to her from the very beginning. She could expect nothing from her grandfather and though she loved the cook, it was clear she was very unimportant to cook compared to his feelings for his son.
Many thought the judge was a very powerful character. I initially thought he was one of the artificial plot devises because the author made him so powerful that the intensity was greatly increased whenever he came on the scene. I originally thought readers were being teased to some extent because they were left wondering so much about the judge, why he was the way he was, what he might be doing or what he might think about something.
Perhaps he might be considered by some the main protagonist but now as I'm writing this, I don't think there was a main character. I felt this more strongly once we had a short lecture from one of the attendees who was Indian and who explained some of the history of India's culture in an "easy to listen to" mode.
I came to believe that not one of the characters was representative of a typical "Indian". Apparently a good case can be made that there is no such thing. That because of India's complex history, these characters that now were described as living in India were at least as complex as their country's history. Their lives were touched by both the legacy of the British as well as non-British, the caste system, as well as the political efforts to eliminate the caste system, various religious cultures, various languages, multiple ethnicities, etc., etc.
As Jackie described it, she thought it was a thangkha which is a kind of tapestry, in this case a tapestry of the lives of these characters. All had mundane problems described often in extreme detail such as how they managed to carry on when the rains came for months as well as extremely tragic problems such as Father Booty being deported and the devastation caused by the insurgency. I described it as a collage which I think is another word for thankha. One of those attending, after the discussion having wine downstairs in the coffee shop said that he thought the book must be comparable to art by a well reputed artist named Jackson Pollack who painted collages and who baffled many art reviewers with the question "what does it mean"?
It is amazing to me that the author manages to cover so many characters, events and situations in only 350 pages. It is an extremely dense book, one of the reasons it is difficult to read and to write about. Most thought the difficulty of the book came from the fact that it didn't flow well. A few thought it "choppy". One accused it of being ADDish (i.e. unfocused).
I thought the best theory was proposed by Jackie, that the book is fragmented and choppy intentionally for a reason. That we are supposed to feel disconnected and be uncomfortable while reading it because that corresponds to how fragmented we readers are as well as how fragmented are the characters with the numerous components of their personal identities especially considering the history of their homeland. That we all have moments, sometimes instants of enlightenment, pleasure, anger, dysfunction or whatever with the focus of our thoughts often changing from one subject to another and back again.
Probably not the only way to explain the author's unusual writing style but it sounded good to me, especially in light of some outside information shared from the New York Times that the author reported having trouble finding a publisher because "It was messy, and they didn't think editing could save it.". .
Looking forward to our next discussion of SISTER CARRIE by Theodore Dreiser scheduled for July 14th, 7pm in the community room upstairs at the Houston Central Market. More info about our group, see http://www.houstonbookclubs.org/CentralMarket/;