Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Kalimpong Blues

My homeland is the rhythm of a guitar, a few portraits, an old sword, the willow grove’s visible prayer as evening falls.   
                                -Borges (from the epigraph to the novel)

Kiran Desai’s novel The Inheritance of Loss (Penguin, 2006) is set against the backdrop of the agitation in the 1980’s  by the Gorkhas for a separate region called Gorkhaland in India. Around this central theme are woven the lives of the lovers viz. Gyan and Sai; the decrepit judge and his cook (he has no name), and the others who make up the canvas of Kalimpong, viz. the middle-aged sisters Lola and Noni, Father Booty (who gets booted out in the end) and Uncle Potty who is forever tippling – if not eyeing bums outside his balcony.  
A large part of the narrative is taken up by Biju the cook’s son who wants to make it big in America – searng steaks - but pines for his roti back home. Life of expatriates in America is described with a candour which makes compelling reading. Vignettes of Saed Saed the Zanzibari  - who owns 25 pairs of shoes – and Harish-Harry who owns a Gandhi café in New York depict the desperate lives of those in quest of a green card.
The story is about what one considers home. Is it a physical space? Or a mental one? The oscillation between America and India makes the reader wonder whether it is worth it to be away from home. When Biju finally returns to his father in the final scene of the novel, dispossessed by his own people (now the powerful GNLF) life seems to have become inverted. Life is not always what we hope it will be. They had ceased to be relevant to each other, what remained only was the hope of being relevant, observes the novel.
Sai, at sweet sixteen, experiences the pleasures of love with Gyan her maths tutor. But Gyan is a poor Nepali and his sympathies are with the insurgents. He even betrays her to the boys from Kathmandu who come for the judge’s hunting rifles.  Rejected by him, Sai tries to get a toehold on life, but they are destined to be apart.
 What is the loss in the novel? How is it inherited, as the title suggests? For Father Booty it is the loss of Kalimpong -his home for 45 years. For Sai it is the loss of Gyan. For the judge it is the loss of his dog Mutt, and with it all his self-respect. For Biju it is the loss of everything he has, including his savings in the soles of his shoes. Lola and Noni lose the services of their charming library after it is taken over by the GNLF as a barrack. They also lose their sprawling living area Mon Ami – which ironically is ‘My Friend.’
The novel depicts a class struggle where the common Nepalis seek to restore parity with the genteel set and punish them for enjoying things they could not afford, be it education, butter, or self-respect.

There is an interesting narrative strategy in the novel. As the novel moves forward linearly, it moves backward in time. The table below will help understand this:

Chapter 1 -   1986, Kalimpong -   Cho Oyu, the judge's residence raided by the GNLF
Chapter 6 -   1975, Moscow    -  Sai Mistry's parents die in an accident in Moscow
Chapter 6  -   1957, Kalimpong - Cho Oyu built inspired by a Scotsman
Chapter 8 -   1939, Bombay    - Judge Jemu, Sai's grandfather, leaves for England 
Chapter 11-  1919, Piphit, Gujarat - Judge Jemu born
Chapter 18-  1942, England  - Judge Jemu gives his ICS exam
Chapter 23 - 1800, Kathmandu - Gyan's parents move from Kathmandu to Darjeeling
Chapter 25 - 1950-60, Thimpu - Lola and Noni reminsce about pony rides to Thimpu
If there is one thing that does not change in the ferment of the novel it is the view of the summit of  Kanchenjunga which accompanies us throughout the novel like a leitmotif. In them, in the five peaks of Kanchenjunga reside the light of truth. The vast immensity of nature celebrated in Willa Cather’s My Antonia on the ride in the wagon seems apparent here. It is also one of the hallmarks of a novel to juxtapose humankind with Nature.*
Kiran Desai is very sure of her territory. It’s almost as if she has visited and lived in all these places she writes about. One gets a feel of the movie London-Paris-New York while reading the novel.  Kiran has the thoughtfullness of her mother, reminiscent  of Clear Light  of Day (1980) by Anita Desai, but revels in a more diverse linguistic panorama in Inheritance of Loss. Her mimicry of all her characters’ dialogues  make them personalities in their own right.
Ultimately, it is Mutt, the bitch, who has to undergo the indignation of being kidnapped. The judge cannot bear to be without her. ‘The world had failed Mutt. It had failed beauty; it had  grace. But by having forsaken this world, for having held himself apart, Mutt would suffer’ (292). It is the judge, the epitome of justice, who is sacrificed in the novel. Justice is messy in India, he often ruminated.

Yes, the novel does seem to be caught in a time warp of 'colonial neurosis' which Lola finds in A Bend in the Ganges. But over and above all, the novel is about the tragedies of human beings caught in circumstances not of their own making. They seem to lack the prescience of being able to see it coming. No amount of reading Spivak will help them understand the reality of their situation. With things being on the boil, it takes only a stray photograph of a butterfly to get Father Booty deported - never mind this 40 years in the service of the people in Kalimpong. 
‘A woman had caught fire over a stove’ (307). Nimi’s death is described in horrific apathy. The judge and Nimi, his wife, were poles apart. But, one wonders, it needn’t have ended with a cheap sari on a stove.

As I leafed through my book A Peace of India: Poems in Transit (2011), I looked up Dehra Dun and my poem 'Roots and Wings' written under a tree at Doon school. The Tibetan prayer flags came back to me in 'Kundun' which I wrote in Dharamsala. As the visiting nun wends her way from Dehra Dun to Delhi, Delhi to Siliguri enroute to Darjeeling (30) I was wishing I had taken the time to visit Darjeeling and Siliguri while curating my book. Memories of my ride from Dimapur to Kohima, with special forces flanking the road, nevertheless assailed me and I could well feel myself in Biju's pants on the ride home. If the novel in some ways points at the futility of violence in the hill states and the North East a purpose would be well served.
·    From ‘Ten Ways in Which Novels Can Change Your Life,’ Talk by novelist Chandrahas Chaudhury at Gallery Gitanjali, Panaji, Goa on March 30, 2012

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