ALTHOUGH it focuses on the fate of a few powerless individuals, Kiran Desai’s extraordinary new novel manages to explore, with intimacy and insight, just about every contemporary international issue: globalization, multiculturalism, economic inequality, fundamentalism and terrorist violence. Despite being set in the mid-1980’s, it seems the best kind of post-9/11 novel.
“The Inheritance of Loss” opens with a teenage Indian girl, an orphan called Sai, living with her Cambridge-educated Anglophile grandfather, a retired judge, in the town of Kalimpong on the Indian side of the Himalayas. Sai is romantically involved with her math tutor, Gyan, the descendant of a Nepali Gurkha mercenary, but he eventually recoils from her obvious privilege and falls in with a group of ethnic Nepalese insurgents. In a parallel narrative, we are shown the life of Biju, the son of Sai’s grandfather’s cook, who belongs to the “shadow class” of illegal immigrants in New York and spends much of his time dodging the authorities, moving from one ill-paid job to another.
What binds these seemingly disparate characters is a shared historical legacy and a common experience of impotence and humiliation. Almost all of Desai’s characters have been stunted by their encounters with the West.