traight hair. A penchant for painting. A small plot of land.
When we think of what we inherit, we think of the things we get from our parents and grandparents: small habits, the color of our eyes, some property or money.
But Kiran Desai’s recent Booker-winning novel, The Inheritance of Loss, talks about a different kind of legacy. And, as you might guess from the book’s title, this inheritance doesn’t always bring joy. In fact, like most inheritances, it brings mixed feelings.
Desai is speaking of our inheritance as products of colonization and immigration. Looking at the world through Desai’s eyes, we see that it’s not just those who have immigrated who are affected by the West. In this picture, everyone is affected.
I just don’t have a simple flag over my identity.
The story follows Biju, who has illegally overstayed his American tourist visa, moving from rat-infested Manhattan basements to rat-infested Manhattan restaurants, all the while yearning for home, all the while reassuring his father back in India that he is getting fatter—all the while getting thinner and thinner.
Back in India, his father cooks for a bitter, British-educated judge who “worked at being English with the passion of hatred and for what he would become, he would be despised by absolutely everyone, English and Indians, both.” The novel goes back and forth between New York City and Darjeeling, where a Nepali insurgency is threatening to overturn the status quo. In this study spanning several continents and a few decades, Desai brings into focus what we lose by colonization and immigration.
Desai might not be the first desi Booker prizewinner—she follows the esteemed footsteps of Arundhati Roy, V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie—but at 35, she is the youngest winner ever. The inheritance of a literary life, however, is one that comes from her mother, novelist Anita Desai, who herself has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize several times. And in fact, they have more than just writing in common: “I find I go over the same subjects,” says Desai. “She’s written older-generation stories of exile and loss, of the West coming to the East, and the reverse journey, what it means to leave India for the West.”
Leaving India for the West is something both are familiar with: Desai moved here from India at the age of 15, though she confesses that she doesn’t feel “purely” American. “I just don’t have a simple flag over my identity. When I first came to this country I was trying to immigrate in a much more simple way—in an old-fashioned immigrant way. And then I found my own feeling about myself didn’t fit into a purely American mold. [But] I actually find I have a much stronger relationship with my being Indian than ever before.”
The life of the immigrant may be rich, but part of Desai’s literary exploration was also to examine the burdens that come with that richness.
And it is the complications of colonization and immigration that Desai has explored in her book—complications that have received little focus. Partly, Desai explains, it is that immigrants naturally want to put their journey “in the best light possible.” In other words, we want to see our stories as ultimately happy and successful. But there’s a darker side to the journey as well: “And yet we all know as immigrants we have lost a lot. You lose all the close family connections. You catch up once in a while, but their daily existence has lost you. It’s a huge sacrifice. There’s obviously a great richness to immigration as well. I don’t think you can go back or want to undo that richness. I don’t think you make your life simple once you’ve made it complicated.”
The life of the immigrant may be rich, but part of Desai’s literary exploration was also to examine the burdens that come with that richness. And so, most of her characters—immigrants or no—display a constant obsession with Western thought and a deep investment in Western institutions. As she notes, “Even when it comes to reading book reviews of Indian writers writing in English, I find so many reviewers in India will not even look at the book from the inside out—the first worry and the first concern is, how is the West going to see this book?” That self-consciousness is amplified through immigration. “Experiencing your being as an individual so drastically has wonderful sides to it, of course, especially the feeling that you’re not entirely trapped by a community. But at the same time, it’s also quite a burden to be so self-conscious and so aware of your individuality and your own destiny. There’s a certain sense of relief and a certain sense of peace and calm to just packing yourself down to size into a smaller person and being part of a community that moves you along, just moved by the momentum of that community.”
We tend to place our identities in many different places—we have complicated identities.
Exploring those burdens has garnered Desai international attention—and the Booker prize, itself a symbol of Empire. “I didn’t want this book to have a flag held over it, because it’s all about how that doesn’t really work, and yet the Booker prize does have a flag to it—the flag of Empire. But I feel it was given to a book that said exactly the opposite, so I don’t think I’ve compromised my work.” But winning the prize has been “weird and wonderful and scary and odd. The prize is just luck—just luck. It’s the same feeling as if you won the lottery.”
Ultimately, though, Desai’s success is due more to her finely-tuned observation of the complexities of our world, not just to luck. “Just as the dialogue is simplified and made more and more simple, I think people’s emotional responses grow more and more complicated. We tend to place our identities in many different places—we have complicated identities.”