The Inheritance Of Loss, which won the 2006 Man Booker Prize, is like the world itself, both tragic and comic and with moments of great beauty.
The protagonists are misfits one and all — Sai the orphaned teenager, her grandfather the retired judge, and their cook preserving an English lifestyle in a crumbling house in an Indian hill station, and the cook’s son, Biju, an illegal immigrant drifting from one menial job to another, unable to make it in America.
Whether in India or America, they are all living in a hostile environment. Sai suffers agonies in love when ethnic unrest breaks out among the local people and she and her grandfather and the cook are ostracised as outsiders.
But there’s more to the story. Set in the Himalayan foothills, it’s sheer poetry. Like this description of the judge’s dog cowering during a thunderstorm:
A lightning conductor atop (the house) ran a wire into an underground pit of salt, which would save them, but Mutt couldn’t understand. With renewed thunder and a blast upon the tin roof, she sought refuge behind the curtains, under the beds. But either her behind was left vulnerable, or her nose, and she was frightened by the wind making ghost sounds…. whoo hooo hooo.
“Don’t be scared, puppy dog, little frog, little duck, duckie dog. It’s just rain.”
She tried to smile, but her tail kept folding under her and her eyes were those of a soldier in war, finished with caring for silly myths of courage. Her ears strained beyond the horizon, anticipating what didn’t fail to arrive, yet another wave of bombardment, the wound of civilisation crumbling — she had never known it so big — cities and monuments fell — and she fled again.
There’s humour too. When two elderly ladies — one with a daughter working for the BBC in England, and the other with a daughter working for CNN in America — meet, each snubs the other in a polite war of words over whether England is superior to America:
Perhaps England and America did not know they were in a fight to the death, but it was being fought on their behalf, anyway, by these two spirited widows of Kalimpong.
Sai’s little circle of friends, who are much older than her, are amusing in their English mannerisms. Good, decent people, they are powerless when the locals start persecuting them as outsiders. But we see the poverty and misery too which sparks the ethnic unrest.
There are touching moments:
“My son works in New York,” the cook boasted to everyone he met. “He is the manager of a restaurant business.
“New York. Very big city,” he explained. “The cars and buildings are nothing like here. In that country, there is food for everyone.”
“When are you going, Babaji?”
“One day,” he laughed. “One day soon my son will take me.”
It’s an empty boast — this is how Biju lives in New York:
At the Gandhi Cafe, amid oversized pots and sawdusty sacks, he set up his new existence. The men washed their faces and rinsed their mouths over the kitchen sink, combed their hair in the postage stamp mirror tacked above, hung their trousers on a rope strung across the room, along with the dishtowels. At night they unrolled their bedding wherever there was room.
The rats of his earlier jobs had not forsaken Biju. They were here, too. exulting in the garbage, clawing through wood, making holes…
One chewed Biju’s hair at night.
“For its nest,” said Jeev. “It’s expecting, I think.”
They took to creeping up and sleeping on tables.
There’s the thrill of first love — the first kiss Sai shares with a youth not much older than her:
“Kiss me!” he pleaded.
“No,” she said, delighted and terrified.
She would hold herself ransom.
Oh, but she had never been able to stand suspense.
A fine drizzle spelled an ellipsis on the tin roof…
Moments clocked by precisely, and finally she couldn’t bear it — she closed her eyes and felt the terrified measure of his lips on hers, trying to match one shape with the other.
The boy will break her heart. Maybe she will get over it, maybe they will meet again. She can take heart from the happy reunion at the end, when Biju comes home and the cook meets him at the gate. Looking past them, she sees the distant mountaintops:
The five peaks of the Kanchenjuga turned golden with the kind of luminous light that made you feel, if briefly, that truth was apparent.
All you needed to do was to reach out and pluck it.
The Inheritance Of Loss is a touching story rich in poetry, humour, compassion and humanity.