How Class (Still) Matters In Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance Of Loss

The Inheritance of LossA review of Filipina author Luna Sicat’s Mga Prodigal published in the University of the Philippines Diliman student publication The Philippine Collegian led me to Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss. While I did not find the article agreeable, its mention of the novel made me curious enough to buy it when I found a copy in a used books shop.

I have not read too many novels by Indians except for Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children but I can say that one conspicuous thing about The Inheritance of Loss that it shares with the other two novels is the color. Like Roy and Rushdie’s novels, The Inheritance of Loss is overflowing with descriptions and all sorts of digressions. And while it is a bit sad that it doesn’t actually happen in the novel, there are times when it would seem that the characters are on the verge of singing, just like in Bollywood flicks.

The narratorial voice has a comic quality that always seem to be waiting to say something witty about the social contradictions presented in the novel. The Inheritance of Loss follows the life of Sai, an orphaned teenager living in a lonely old dilapidated mansion with her grandfather and cook. She is visited weekly by her tutor Gyan, whom she is involved in a “puppy love” sort of affair, while the cook worries about the whereabouts of his son Biju, who is working as an illegal migrant in New York.

Middle Class Idyll

One of the main tensions underlying the novel is that between the comfortable privacy this little family carved in their cozy home up in the Himalayas and the encroachment of politics and unrest which threaten to break their idyllic Indian middle class lives. Here, Sai and her aunties would rather discourse on the matter of highbrow literary taste than be buried in the mundane reality of worsening crisis, poverty and political upheavals stirring around them. Of course, while asserting aversion to “Orientalist” depictions of their homeland, the West still represented the ideal they aspired for.

[They] were unanimous in the opinion that they didn’t like English writers writing about India; it turned the stomach; delirium and fever somehow went with temples and snakes and perverse romance, spilled blood, and miscarriage; it didn’t correspond to the truth. English writers writing of England was what was nice…

The first break in the artificial peace came in the form of an ragged band of separatist rebels knocking on their doors, asking for food and confiscating the old rifle of his grandfather, a retired judge now living off his pension. When the police come to investigate the incident, Sai was compelled to accompany them and consequently reexamine her relationship with the people in the house. The lowly cook, a natural suspect for the investigators, naturally had his hut visited. This became an occasion for Sai to confront first hand the abyss of class as reflected in language that separated her and the cook.

She was rarely in the cook’s hut, and when she did come searching for him and enter, he was ill at ease and so was she, something about their closeness being exposed in the end as fake, their friendship composed of shallow things conducted in a broken language, for she was an English-speaker and he was a Hindi-speaker.

Of course, Sai’s aunties, in accordance to received wisdom, have consciously enforced this class divide between the cook and their niece despite their living in a single abode. The cook, being of a lower class, should refrain from talking much to his benefactors except for taking orders, of course.

It was important to draw the lines properly between classes or it harmed everyone on both sides of the great divide. Servants got all sorts of ideas, and then when they realized the world wasn’t going to give them and their children what it gave to others, they got angry and resentful.

But despite the cook’s grumbling acceptance of his subaltern condition under the wings of the ailing judge, he still indulges in the same middle class consumerist aspiration that is repeatedly returned to again and again throughout the novel.

The cook’s desire was for modernity: toaster ovens, electric shavers, watches, cameras, cartoon colors. He dreamed at night not in the Freudian symbols that still enmeshed others but in modern codes, the digits of a telephone flying away before he could dial them, a garbled television.

The other incursion into Sai’s self-contained world came in the form of his love affair with her young tutor Gyan. Rehashing the age-old tale of the romance between the rich girl and the poor boy, Sai’s liaisons with Gyan would lead her to discover Gyan’s real class origins and be introduced to a world entirely different from her own. Gyan, of course, tried to erase this roots when walking miles to visit Sai’s mansion. Sai used brands like Lux and Sunsilk. But Gyan can’t admit “that his mother bought the homemade brown soap that was sold in large rectangles in the market, blocks sliced off and sold cheap.”

And Gyan was not off the mark. Sai would assume a condescending attitude when she sees his house, the regular poor man’s house found in slums all over the world.

Crows’ nests of electrical wiring hung from the corners of the structure, split into sections that disappeared into windows barred with thin jail grill. She could smell an open drain that told immediately of a sluggish plumbing system failing anew each day despite being so rudimentary…

Illegal Migrant Life

But perhaps one of the most illuminating chapters of the novel involves Kiran Desai’s literary interpretation of the lives of illegal migrant workers living in the urban centers of the advanced capitalist nations. Through Biju’s experiences Desai reiterates how the problems in the impoverished developing world are intricately traceable to the race for superprofits by the ruling classes in the First World metropolis. Desai carefully exposes the contradiction between surface appearances of luxury and grandeur and the behind the scenes reality of exploitation, particularly migrant workers.

Above, the restaurant was French, but below in the kitchen it was Mexican and Indian… Le Colonial for the authentic colonial experience. On top, rich colonial, and down below, poor native. Colombian, Tunisian, Ecuadorian, Gambian… On to the Stars and Stripes Diner. All American flag on top, all Guatemalan flag below.

But race is not all. Class trumps race. For the upperclass men and women of the same colored races who migrated to the “Home of the Brave,” living the “American Dream,” are just as oppressive and exploitative as the White ruling classes that they aspire to imitate.

They had a self-righteousness common to many Indian women of the English-speaking upper-educated…They took to short hair quickly, were eager for Western-style romance, and happy for a traditional ceremony with lots of jewelry… They considered themselves uniquely positioned to lecture everyone on a variety of topics: accounting professors on accounting, Vermonters on the fall foliage, Indians on America, Americans on India, Indians on India, Americans on America…

This does not prevent an Indian employer from treating Biju like dirt. He is housed in the Gandhi Cafe’s kitchen to save on housing costs.

By offering a reprieve from NYC rents, they could cut the pay to a quarter of the minimum wage, reclaim the tips for the establishment, keep an eye on the workers, and drive them to work fifteen-, sixteen-, seventeen-hour donkey days.

Biju and other illegal migrant workers are “shadow men”:

a shifting population of men camping out near the fuse box, behind the boiler, in the cubby holes, and in odd-shaped corners that once were pantries, maids’ rooms, laundry rooms, and storage rooms at the bottom of what had been a single-family home, the entrance still adorned with a scrap of colored mosaic in the shape of a star. The men shared a yellow toilet; the sink was a tin laundry trough.

They “lived intensely with others, only to have them disappear overnight, since the shadow class was condemned to movement. The men left for other jobs, towns, got deported, returned home, changed names.” These passages strike a familiar chord with Filipinos who share the same dilemma of being forced to leave for greener pastures abroad because of the lack of job opportunities at home. There are presently 11 million Filipino in other countries, most of them sharing the sorry conditions of Biju. More than 4,000 Filipinos continue to leave the country everyday.

And if we Filipinos have the “Balikbayan Box” filled with consumer goods that returning Overseas Filipino Workers carry with them back to the country, the Indians also have their own counterpart: “the miraculous, expandable third-world suitcase, accordion-pleated, filled with pockets and zippers to unhook further crannies, the whole structure unfolding into a giant space that could fit in enough to set up an entire life in another country.”

Biju was the luckiest boy in his town because he made it to the United States. But the luckiest boy in the whole world, like many others, was living badly in the “Land of the Free”!

Limits of Postcolonial Discourse

In the middle of the novel, Sai reflected over the many books she borrowed and concluded how these were precursors of her very own condition, and indirectly unveiling the long line of texts that foreshadowed Desai’s own story of the Inheritance of Loss.

There were endless accounts of travel in India and over and over, in book after book, there was the scene of late arrival at a dark bungalow, the cook cooking in a black kitchen, and Sai realized that her own delivery to Kalimpong in such a manner was merely part of the monotony, not the original. The repitition had willed her, anticipated her, cursed her, and certain moves made long ago had produced all of them: Sai, judge, Mutt, cook, and even the mashed-potato car.

This shows that Kiran Desai is informed by discussions of intertextuality, postcolonialism, and other obtuse literary discourses once fashionable in the Humanities Department of the Western Academe.

The seemingly sophisticated notion of “hybridity” offered by postcolonial academics, wherein both the colonized and the colonizer benefit from interaction, is debunked by the force of concrete conditions. Their penchant for rewriting an inherently exploitative and oppressive political and economic condition as some sort of symbiotic relation is exposed as a farce. In the novel we see globalization for what it truly is.

Yes, there is indeed a multiplicity of cultures in the metropolitan centers of Western Capitalism as a result of decades of colonial and neo-colonial exchange. The colonized have no choice but to appropriate materials from the colonizer. But the latter rarely recognize materials from the colonized world. There is no real reciprocity or conversation between the colonized and the colonizer. It is most of the time a one-way bludgeoning of the former by the latter.

Desai also shows the inadequacy of the multiculturalist injunction for mere tolerance of other cultures as a response to stark realities of exploitation and oppression. After all, cries of racism by colored bosses does not stop them from exploiting workers of their own race.

The novel shows that class analysis and the class struggle remains relevant and cannot be escaped. However, the novel only offers a description of social reality. It does not ascribe a way out.

The Inheritance of Loss presents the grand narrative of resistance and revolution but ultimately offers contentment with the joys of little things -the judge realizing the importance of his stolen pet dog, the cook meeting his son Biju after years of separation, Sai hoping to reconcile with Gyan, and so on – as a way of accepting the prevailing order.

In the contradiction between love and a larger cause as represented in Gyan’s conflict between joining a militant separatist movement and the demands of Sai’s romance, the former wins out. As Karl Marx reiterates: “Philosophers have only interpreted the World in various ways, the point is to change it.”

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3 thoughts on “How Class (Still) Matters In Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance Of Loss

  1. Whoa, great post. However, I think that most novels do not explicitly ascribe a way out of the social problems that they present. It could be that they just merely show and let the readers continue thinking or I am misreading my books.

    By the way, Anita Desai is Kiran Desai’s mother. The title got me a little confused. :D

    • Yes, most are not explicit. But you can still tease out the author’s standpoint from what is said and what is not said in the novel as well as from extra-textual context, i.e. author’s background and position on the issues being tackled.

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