Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai








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Kiran Desai’s new novel, The Inheritance of Loss, is set in the 1980s, mostly in that part of the world where Bhutan, Tibet,  Sikkim and Nepal meet, and when the Nepalese were trying to become an independent state. Cambridge educated Judge Jemubhai Patel has retired to the quiet town Kalimpong, at the foot of the Himalayas, where he prefers to spend his time with a red setter, but lives with his orphaned seventeen-year-old granddaughter, Sai Mistry, and his cook, Nandu. Sai has been uprooted from her life in a convent school, and soon finds herself in love with her tutor, who is part of a Nepalese independence movement. Nandu wants a better life for her son, Biju, and the tranquility of life near the Himalayas contrasts with Biju’s life in Manhattan. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 22, pp. 133-139:


Brigitte’s, in New York’s financial district, was a restaurant all of mirrors so the diners might observe exactly how enviable they were as they ate. It was named for the owners’ dog, the tallest, flattest creature you ever saw; like paper, you could see her properly only from the side.

In the morning, as Biju and the rest of the staff began bustling about, the owners, Odessa and Baz, drank Tailors of Harrowgate darjeeling at a corner table. Colonial India, free India—the tea was the same, but the ro­mance was gone, and it was best sold on the word of the past. They drank tea and diligently they read the New York Times together, including the international news. It was overwhelming.

Former slaves and natives. Eskimos and Hiroshima people, Ama­zonian Indians and Chiapas Indians and Chilean Indians and American Indians and Indian Indians. Australian aborigines, Guatemalans and Colombians and Brazilians and Argentineans, Nigerians, Burmese, An­golans, Peruvians, Ecuadorians, Bolivians, Afghans, Cambodians, Rwan­dans, Filipinos, Indonesians, Liberians, Borneoans, Papua New Guineans, South Africans, Iraqis, Iranians, Turks, Armenians, Palestinians, French Guyanese, Dutch Guyanese, Surinamese, Sierra Leonese, Malagasys, Senegalese, Maldivians, Sri Lankans, Malaysians, Kenyans, Panamanians, Mexicans, Haitians, Dominicans, Costa Ricans, Congoans, Mauritanians, Marshall Islanders, Tahitians, Gabonese, Beninese, Malians, Jamaicans, Botswanans, Burundians, Sudanese, Eritreans, Uruguayans, Nicaraguans, Ugandans, Ivory Coastians, Z ambians, Guinea-Bissauans, Cameroonians, Laotians, Zaireans coming at you screaming colonialism, screaming slavery, screaming mining companies screaming banana companies oil companies screaming CIA spy among the missionaries screaming it was Kissinger who killed their father and why don’t you forgive third-world debt; Lumumba, they shouted, and Allende; on the other side, Pinochet, they said, Mobutu; contaminated milk from Nestlé, they said; Agent Orange; dirty dealings by Xerox. World Bank, UN, IMF, everything run by white people. Every day in the papers another thing!

Nestlé and Xerox were fine upstanding companies, the backbone of the economy, and Kissinger was at least a patriot. The United States was a young country built on the finest principles, and how could it possibly owe so many bills?

Enough was enough.

Business was business. Your bread might as well be left unbuttered were the butter to be spread so thin. The fittest one wins and gets the butter.



“Rule of nature,” said Odessa to Baz. “Imagine if we were sitting around saying, ‘So-and-so-score years ago, Neanderthals came out of the woods, attacked my family with a big dinosaur bone, and now you give back.’ Two of the very first iron pots, my friend, and one toothsome toothy daughter from the first days of agriculture, when humans had larger mo­lars, and four samples of an early version of the potato claimed, inciden­tally, by both Chile and Peru.”

She was very witty, Odessa. Baz was proud of her cosmopolitan style, loved the sight of her in her little wire-rimmed glasses. Once he had been shocked to overhear some of their friends say she was black-hearted, but he had put it out of his mind.



“These white people!” said Achootan, a fellow dishwasher, to Biju in the kitchen. “Shit! But at least this country is better than England,” he said. “At least they have some hypocrisy here. They believe they are good people and you get some relief. There they shout at you openly on the street, ‘Go back to where you came from.” He had spent eight years in Canterbury, and he had responded by shouting a line Biju was to hear many times over, for he repeated it several times a week: “Your father came to my country and took my bread and now I have come to your country to get my bread back.”

Achootan didn’t want a green card in the same way as Saeed did. He wanted it in the way of revenge.

“Why do you want it if you hate it here?” Odessa had said angrily to Achootan when he asked for sponsorship.

Well, he wanted it. Everyone wanted it whether you liked it or you hated it. The more you hated it sometimes, the more you wanted it.

This they didn’t understand.



The restaurant served only one menu: steak, salad, fries. It assumed a cer­tain pride in simplicity among the wealthy classes.

Holy cow. Unholy cow. Biju knew the reasoning he should keep by his side. At lunch and dinner the space filled with young uniformed busi­nesspeople in their twenties and thirties.

“How would you like that, ma’am?”


“And you, sir?”

“Still mooin’.”

Only the fools said, “Well done, please.” Odessa could barely conceal her scorn. “Sure about that? Well, all right, but it’s going to be tough.”

She sat at the corner table where she had her morning tea and aroused the men by tearing into her steak.

“You know, Biju,” she said, laughing, “isn’t it ironic, nobody eats beef in India and just look at it—it’s the shape of a big T-bone.”

But here there were Indians eating beef. Indian bankers. Chomp chomp. He fixed them with a concentrated look of meaning as he cleared the plates. They saw it. They knew. He knew. They knew he knew. They pretended they didn’t know he knew. They looked away. He took on a sneering look. But they could afford not to notice.

“I’ll have the steak,” they said with practiced nonchalance, with an ease like a signature that’s a thoughtless scribble that you know has been practiced page after page.

Holy cow unholy cow.

Job no job.

One should not give up one’s religion, the principles of one’s par­ents and their parents before them. No, no matter what.

You had to live according to something. You had to find your dig­nity. The meat charred on the grill, the blood beaded on the surface, and then the blood also began to bubble and boil.

Those who could see a difference between a holy cow and an unholy cow would win.

Those who couldn’t see it would lose.



So Biju was learning to sear steaks.

Blood, meat, salt, and the cannon directed at the plates: “Would you like freshly ground pepper on that, sir?”

“You know we may be poor in India, but there only a dog would eat meat cooked like this,” said Achootan.

“We need to get aggressive about Asia,” the businessmen said to each other. “It’s opening up, new frontier, millions of potential con­sumers, big buying power in the middle classes, China, India, potential for cigarettes, diapers, Kentucky Fried, life insurance, water manage­ment, cell phones—big family people, always on the phone, all those men calling their mothers, all those mothers calling all their many, many chil­dren; this country is done, Europe done, Latin America done, Africa is a basket case except for oil; Asia is the next frontier. Is there oil anywhere there? They don’t have oil, do they? They must. . . .“

The talk was basic. If anyone dared to call them Fool! they could just point at their bank accounts and let the numbers refute the accusation.

Biju thought of Saeed Saeed who still refused to eat a pig, “They dirty, man, they messy. First I am Muslim, then I am Zanzibari, then I will BE American.” Once he’d shown Biju his new purchase of a model of a mosque with a quartz clock set into the bottom that was programmed, at the five correct hours, to start agitating: 2lllah Au Akbar, la ilhaha illulah wal la hu akbar. . . .” Through the crackle of the tape from the top of the minaret came ancient sand-weathered words, that keening cry from the desert offering sustenance to create a man’s strength, his faith in an empty-bellied morning and all through the day, that he might not fall through the filthy differences between nations. The lights came on en­couragingly, flashing in the mosque in disco green and white.



“Why do you want to leave?” Odessa was shocked. A chance like they had given him! He surely didn’t know how lucky he was.

“He’ll never make it in America with that kind of attitude,” said Baz hopefully.



Biju left as a new person, a man full to the brim with a wish to live within a narrow purity.



“Do you cook with beef?” he asked a prospective employer.

“We have a Philly steak sandwich.”

“Sorry. I can’t work here.”

“They worship the cow,” he heard the owner of the establishment tell someone in the kitchen, and he felt tribal and astonishing.



Smoky Joe’s.


“Honey,” said the lady, “Ah don’t mean to ahffend you, but Ah’m a steak eater and Ah AAHM beef.”



Marilyn. Blown-up photographs of Marilyn Monroe on the wall, Indian owner at the desk!

The owner was on the speakerphone. “Rajnibhai, Kem chho?” “What?”


“Who aez thees?” Very Indian-trying-to-be-American accent.

“Kern chho? Saaru chho? Terne sarnjo chho?”


“Don’t speak Gujerati, sir?”

“You are Gujerati, no?”


“But your name is Gujerati??”

“Who are you??!!”

“You are not Gujerati?”

“Who are you??!!”

“AT&T, sir, offering special rates to India.” “Don’t know anyone in India.”

“Don’t know anyone???? You must have some relative?”

“Yeah,” American accent growing more pronounced, “but I don’ taaalk to my relateev. . . .

Shocked silence.

“Don’t talk to your relative?”

Then, “We are offering forty-seven cents per minute.”

Whaat deeference does that make? I haeve aalready taaald you,” he spoke

s l o w as if to an idiot, “no taleephone caalls to Eeendya.”

“But you are from Gujerat?” Anxious voice.

Veea Kampala, Uganda, Teepton, England, and Roanoke state of Vaergeenia! One time I went to Eeendya and, laet me tell you, you canaat pay me to go to that caantreey agaen!”



Slipping out and back on the street. It was horrible what happened to In­dians abroad and nobody knew but other Indians abroad. It was a dirty little rodent secret. But, no, Biju wasn’t done. His country called him again. He smelled his fate. Drawn, despite himself, by his nose, around a corner, he saw the first letter of the sign, G, then an AN. His soul antici­pated the rest: DHI. As he approached the Gandhi Café, the air gradually grew solid. It was always unbudgeable here, with the smell of a thousand and one meals accumulated, no matter the winter storms that howled around the corner, the rain, the melting heat. Though the restaurant was dark, when Biju tested the door, it swung open.



There in the dim space, at the back, amid lentils splattered about and spreading grease transparencies on the cloths of abandoned tables yet un­cleared, sat Harish-Harry, who, with his brothers Gaurish-Gary and Dhansukh-Danny, ran a triplet of Gandhi Cafés in New York, New Jer­sey, and Connecticut. He didn’t look up as Biju entered. He had his pen hovering over a request for a donation sent by a cow shelter outside Edi­son, New Jersey.

If you gave a hundred dollars, in addition to such bonus miles as would be totted up to your balance sheet for lives to come, “We will send you a free gift; please check the box to indicate your preference”:


1. A preframed decorative painting of Krishna-Lila: “She longs for her lord and laments.”

2. A copy of the Blicigavad Gita accompanied by commentary by Pandit so-and-so (B.A., MPhil., Ph.D., President of the Hindu Heritage Center), who has just completed a lecture tour in sixty­six countries.

3. A CD of devotional music beloved by Mahatma Gandhi.

4. A gift-coupon to the Indiagiftmart: “Surprise the special lady in your life with our special choli in the colors of onion and tender pink, coupled with a butter lehnga. For the woman who makes your house a home, a set of twenty-five spice jars with vacuum lids. Stock up on Haldiram’s Premium Nagpur Chana Nuts that you must have been missing. . . .“


His pen hovered. Pounced.

To Biju he said: “Beef? Are you crazy? We are an all-Hindu estab­lishment. No Pakistanis, no Bangladeshis, those people don’t know how to cook, have you been to those restaurants on Sixth Street? Bilkul bekaar. . . .“

One week later, Biju was in the kitchen and Gandhi’s favorite tunes were being sung over the sound system.



What both Sai and Biju have inherited is high expectations of them, and what they have experiences are multiples losses. The Inheritance of Loss is well written and the questions Desai poses are worth thinking about.


Steve Hopkins, December 18, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the January 2007 issue of Executive Times


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