In my very first attempt to write about someone who has been labelled as “The youngest female writer to win the Man Booker prize,” I was somehow curious to know how the author (thankfully something like ‘authoress’ isn’t used as much yet!) reacted to the tag. So, I raked up the internet and found an interview where she said, “Youngest female makes me feel like a biological specimen! A good book can come from the location of youth or of old age, don’t you think?” Yes, we’d rather like to think so too.
Besides being the youngest female writer, Kiran Desai is a third generation bangaal (native of Bangladesh). Well, that’s a little distant, but never too far from her roots. Her maternal grandfather was born in Bangladesh, and married a German lady. That makes her mother Anita Mazumdar Desai, one of the most prolific Indian writers in English, a second generation bangaal, and Kiran, a third one. She was born on September 3, 1971 in Delhi, lived there till she was fourteen, and moved to England with her mother. After spending a year there, she moved to the USA and studied creative writing at Bennington College, Hollins University and Columbia University.
Her first novel, ‘Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard’ was published in 1998 and received many accolades from critics like Salman Rushdie, and won the Betty Trask award. However, in this review we’ll focus mainly on her second novel, the much coveted Man Booker prize winner ‘The Inheritance of Loss,’ published in 2006.
Honestly speaking, the short summary on the back cover of the book didn’t much interest me before buying it; still I wanted to read the prize-winning book by yet another Indian. As the story proceeded, sheer description of the backdrop Kalimpong gave me goose bumps. For people like us living in plains all their lives, waking up each day to the Kanchenjungha at their doorsteps is absolutely incredible. The weather, cold and raining, perfectly depicted the permanent gloomy state of the protagonists – Sai and her grandfather, the retired judge. The loneliness of the teenager – having been scooped out of an entirely different environment of the convent she studied, to the depressing confinement with her grandfather and his cook – gnaws on your heart, pitying on her enforced muteness. A short-lived romance with her Nepali tutor is merely a consequence of her depleted surroundings and minimal exposure to the world, something which the reader would tend to dismiss as kids’ play, and is proved right when the tutor realizes he has better things to do like joining the GNLF revolution.
Being an immigrant herself, Desai is painfully accurate in exposing the struggles and woes of another in the holy land of America. The readers witness the cook’s son Biju toiling through innumerable restaurants and take-away joints in New York City as a cook, guarding himself from the police for being an illegal immigrant, getting expelled from work for reasons like body odour which has reached the level of intolerable stink, and meeting strange co-workers from stranger parts of the world he didn’t even know ever existed. His closest friend was a smartarse called Saeed Saeed from Zanzibar, exasperated with his mother for giving away his address to every aspiring young man coming from his country to the USA, and finally managed to wed into an American family to obtain a green card. Desai ripped off the gentries of NYC and the false stage set in the dining rooms of big restaurants in one of the best lines of the book – ‘above the restaurant was French, but below in the kitchen it was all Mexican and Indian.’ These restaurants where the workers sleep in the basement with leaking sewer pipes, rats and roaches to save money seem to be the perfect metaphor of USA itself – all polished and clean outside only to cover the loopholes within. Biju shared a similar yet unfamiliar kind of life with his father, the cook – struggling in their work all along for some dream – Biju’s, to secure a green card, and the cook’s, to wait for his rich and successful son to return to India.
Desai has been almost brutal in her style of showing the skewness of human characters, mostly with the other protagonist, the retired judge, who despised his country and his people and his wife because they weren’t British. He’s a perfect example of the colonial babu overawed by everything that’s English. The injustice he meted out to his wife, being a so-called judge himself, somewhat comes back to him later in the life when he’s left with nothing he could love besides his dog.
Despite being snubbed by one of my critic friends as a “dadu-naatni chutney” (mumbo jumbo of a girl and her grandfather), the book has its own appeal in the misty mountains, patter of rains over a house of individual existences, muted love between asymmetric young people, immigration blues and endless struggles just to survive, and some interspersed characters garnishing the platter.
When asked about her next book to be published, says Desai, “Writing a book is a risk, it takes several years, so much time and you never know how it’s going to turn out.” She assured that the next novel too would be a “mish-mash of locations” to be able to explore the truth and lies existing within them. I can only say at least I would be eager to slurp on her next book if she kept on serving such inter-continental infusions.
*This review was published in Bangalnama*