Rereading 'The Inheritance of Loss': Identity Crisis in the colonial, (post) colonial and the (neo) colonial Worlds

Adrija Guha 

Assistant Professor of English, JIS College of Engineering, Kalyani, Nadia, West Bengal.

Abstract
An embittered judge living in a crumbling isolated house; his orphaned grand-daughter, Sai, who has grown up in isolation; the judge’s cook whose hopes and dreams are focused on his son, Biju;  Biju hopscotching  on an elusive search for a green card; Lola and Noni, Sai’s elderly neighbours still dreaming of an England of Christie and Wodehouse; Swiss Father Booty and Uncle Potty thinking of the time when colonialism was for the best;  Gyan, Sai's tutor and love, taking part in the Gorkhaland movement : what binds these seemingly disparate characters is a shared historical legacy and a common experience of impotence and humiliation; an ‘inheritance of loss’. "Certain moves made long ago had produced all of them," Desai writes, referring to centuries of subjection by the economic and cultural power of the West. Each and every one is trapped in a world that once promised a better future. In my paper I would like to show how in her award-winning novel, The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai  portrays the desperation for a ‘better life’  and the hope for a world that has not yet been born. Ultimately, the characters are bereft of all their hopes. "Never again could she think there was but one narrative and that this narrative belonged only to herself, that she might create her own mean little happiness and live safely within it"—seems to be the only consolation that Desai offers her characters.

Keywords: Colonialism, Postcolonialism, Neocolonialism, Multiculturalism, Globalization


Rereading The Inheritance of Loss: Identity Crisis in the colonial, (post)colonial and the (neo)colonial Worlds.

More silent than my shadow, I pass through the loftily covetous multitude.
They are indispensable, singular, worthy of tomorrow.
                                                                                                                     --Jorges Luis Borges

An embittered judge living in a crumbling isolated house; his orphaned grand-daughter, Sai, who has grown up in isolation; the judge’s cook whose hopes and dreams are focused on his son, Biju;  Biju hopscotching  on an elusive search for a green card; Lola and Noni, Sai’s elderly neighbours still dreaming of an England of Christie and Wodehouse; Swiss Father Booty and Uncle Potty thinking of the time when colonialism was for the best;  Gyan, Sai's maths tutor and love, taking part in the Gorkhaland movement : what binds these seemingly disparate characters is a shared historical legacy and a common experience of impotence and humiliation; an ‘inheritance of loss’. "Certain moves made long ago had produced all of them," Desai writes, referring to centuries of subjection by the economic and cultural power of the West. Each and every one is trapped in a world that once promised a better future. In my paper I would like to show how in her award-winning novel, The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai  portrays the desperation for a ‘better life’  and the hope for a world that has not yet been born.  

The novel opens with a handful of young Nepali would-be revolutionaries invading the judge's falling-down house in search of the judge’s hunting rifles. Soon it is revealed that they are the supporters of the Gorkhaland Movement . “[A]n impoverished movement with a ragtag army” [Desai, 4], is how Desai describes this movement. This phrase encapsulates the whole problem of the Gorkhaland Movement. Besides Desai also shows the newspapers’ reaction to the movement: while in Bombay the news is about the performance of a band, in Delhi it’s about the technology fair, in Kalimpong, there is “a new dissatisfaction in the hills, gathering insurgency, men and guns.” [Desai, 9]. The importance and immediacy of the movement is as much as that of the band’s performance and the technology fair. This shows how much the Government and media ignore the East and their problems. As the novel unfolds, the story alternates between Kalimpong and New York, between Sai and Biju. Both are aliens: Biju, in the ‘first-world’ America and Sai, in the ‘third-world’ India.  With Biju, we experience the world of illegal aliens, the ''shadow class . . . condemned to movement"; the class who joined “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.” [Desai. 51]. At the same time, the story shuttles back and forth between Sai's youth and that of her Anglophile grandfather, Jemubhai Patel, who belongs to the class of persons “Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” Quite interestingly there is also a parallel between Jemubhai’s experience in England and Biju’s experience in America. Through Jemubhai and Biju, Desai beautifully portrays the post-colonial and the neo-colonial worlds with all their cruelty, hatred and prejudices. In fact by setting the novel against the backdrop of the Gorkha Movement Desai shows how the inequalities of the colonial era still function in different forms.

In the colonial era England was the “promised land” to the Indians. When the young Jemubhai went to Cambridge he had been “serenaded at his departure by two retired members of a military band hired by his father-in-law” [Desai, 36]. because people like Jemu who got a chance to visit the ‘promised land’ let alone study there were considered to be the ‘chosen ones’. In the 20th Century, the era of neo-colonialism, this place has been replaced by America, the land of ‘unlimited opportunities’. Moving to America is itself considered a good luck that a few people have; getting a green card simply adds a cherry on top.  Desai shows the parallel between ‘then’ and ‘now’: When Jemubhai left Bombay by ship he felt a “piercing fear”, not for his future, but “for his past, for the foolish faith with which he had lived in Piphit” [Desai, 36].. Upon reaching England he felt disappointed as it was totally different from its concept. This England was formed of “tiny gray houses in gray streets, stuck together and down as if on a glue trap.” He was appalled by this England as he expected only grandness; he did not realize that here too could be people who were poor and lived unaesthetic lives. On the other hand when  Biju joins a crowd of Indians scrambling to reach the visa counter at the United States Embassy at first he felt contended: "Biggest pusher, first place; how self-contented and smiling he was; he dusted himself off, presenting himself with the exquisite manners of a cat. I'm civilized, sir, ready for the U.S., I'm civilized, mam. Biju noticed that his eyes, so alive to the foreigners, looked back at his own countrymen and women, immediately glazed over, and went dead." The America of his dreams was filled with illegal aliens, from all over the world, the ''shadow class . . . condemned to movement". In Piphit Jemubhai was considered worthy of a hot dinner; in England his land lady put out a tray at the foot of the stairs. In America, Biju put a “padding of newspapers down his shirt . . . and sometimes he took the scallion pancakes and inserted them below the paper.” Once Biju began to weep from the cold, and the weeping unpicked a deeper vein of grief. Grief for a lost identity, for the dreams that shattered.

Wonderfully Desai shows the similarities between colonialism and neo-colonialism, the latter being a continuation of the former. In this multicultural USA people flock from all over the world, especially from the economically developing countries: Mexicans, Indians, Pakistanis, Colombians, Tunisians, Ecuadorians, Gambians.  Developed countries like USA block growth in developing countries and retain them as sources of cheap raw materials and cheap labour. This happened  particularly with the U.S. policy, the Truman Doctrine, during the Cold War. Under that policy the U.S. government offered large amounts of money to any government prepared to accept U.S. protection from communism. That enabled the United States to extend its sphere of influence and, in some cases, to place foreign governments under its control. The United States and other developed countries also ensured the subordination of developing countries by interfering in conflicts and helping in other ways to install regimes that were willing to act for the benefit of foreign companies and against their own country’s interests. Hence, the coming together of people from different cultures, ethnicity, religion. This makes the USA a multicultural society.

Ideally multiculturalism seeks the inclusion of the views and contributions of diverse members of society while maintaining respect for their differences and withholding the demand for their assimilation into the dominant culture. It is both a response to the fact of cultural pluralism in modern democracies and a way of compensating cultural groups for past exclusion, discrimination, and oppression. However, in reality multiculturalism undermines the notion of equal individual rights, thereby weakening the political value of equal treatment. With multiculturalism a few questions arise :  which culture/s will be recognized. This leads to a competition between various cultural groups all vying for recognition. The Americans hope for “men from the poorer parts of Europe—Bulgarians, perhaps, or Czechoslovakians. At least they might have something in common with them like religion and skin colour, grandfathers who ate cured sausages and looked like them, too, but they weren’t coming in numbers great enough or they weren’t coming desperate enough …”. The Indians thought America to be a country where “people from everywhere journeyed to work, but … surely not Pakistanis! Surely they would not be hired. Surely Indians were better liked--.” And to the first-world people, all the third-world people, especially people from South Asian countries, ‘smelled’. Years ago when Jemubhai went to England, he faced the same problem: to the English, he ‘smelled’ - “He began to wash obsessively, concerned he would be accused of smelling ….”[Desai, 40]  The author tells us that till the last day of his life, Jemubhai has always worn socks and shoes and has preferred shadow to light as he is afraid that “sunlight might reveal him, in his hideousness, all too clearly.” [Desai, 40] Both colonialism and neo-colonialism have been successful in making these third-world people question their identities: “[H]e grew stranger to himself than he was to those around him, found his own skin odd-colored, his own accent peculiar....” [Desai,40].

Desai’s characters do not suffer from identity crisis in an alien land only. Her characters back at home face the same problem. Anglophile Jemubhai maintains an English lifestyle and ever since his return from England he has disliked everything Indian. He has despised his wife as well. Through him we can see, what Fanon has stated in his famous book, Black Skin, White Masks, that the agony of the colonised people lies in their effort to embrace the language and the values of the coloniser followed by the realisation that this process of internalization will not erase their feeling  of inferiority because their brown skin is an impediment to the possibility of being accepted  as civilized people. Through Jemubhai we see the alienation of the colonized people and the disastrous psychological impact of colonialism over them. Even Sai’s Anglophile neighbours, Lola and Noni, living in India, talks about a ‘New England’, a "completely cosmopolitan society" where "chicken tikka masala has replaced fish and chips as the No. 1 takeout dinner", without even realising the effects of colonialism on the people around them. Desai, quite interestingly comments on how Lola thought of India as a “ concept, a hope, or a desire”, far removed from the real country. 

Touching upon the chord of multiculturalism and globalization, Desai  tries to show how these concepts have failed to address violence in the modern world. Setting the novel in 1986, against the backdrop of Gorkhaland Movement , Desai has already touched upon the chord of identity crisis of the Gorkhas in the Indian state. In 1986, Subhash Ghisingh, the leader of Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) demanded a separate state that included the hill regions of the Darjeeling district and the Kalimpong and Duars areas, based on their ethnic and cultural identity and the fact that under the state government they were deprived and were not treated as bonafide Indian citizens. In fact in 1986, ethnic riots broke out in Meghalaya in which local Khasis threw out thousands of Indian Gorkhas and Nepalis from blue-collar jobs and chased them out of the state. All these incidents called for bandhs, vote boycotts and  a “do or die” struggle. Which side was at the fault – GNLF or the state and central government – is not important here; neither Desai raises that question. Rather she focuses on the fact how this movement gradually gained support from the educated youth like Gyan. When Sai visits his house she “felt a moment of shock” [Desai, 255] by seeing the living condition of Gyan and people like him. Desai comments: “There were houses like this everywhere…the house slipping back, not into the picturesque poverty that tourists liked to photograph but into something truly dismal— modernity proffered in its meanest form, brand-new one day, in ruin the next.” [Desai, 255-56]. Lack of opportunity, career prospects along with the age-old responsibilities – “Sisters’ marriages, younger brother’s studies, grandmother’s teeth” – led to the venting out of frustration and rage; the Movement came to their use.  

Each and every character tries to escape from his / her immediate reality. Dreaming of an England of Christie and Wodehouse, living  an Anglophile life, talking about his family’s achievements in the war, thinking about getting a green card— all of them try to escape the reality until the day comes, when it is at the door, and they do not have any option but to face the reality.  "Never again could she think there was but one narrative and that this narrative belonged only to herself, that she might create her own mean little happiness and live safely within it"—is the only consolation that Desai offers her characters. The novel began with the mighty Kanchenjunga “gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit” and ends with “The five peaks of Kanchenjunga 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 landscape that ignited hope for a better tomorrow in the beginning is left bereft of all its possibilities; only the landscape survives.

Works Cited
Desai, Kiran. The Inheritance of Loss. Penguin Books, 2006.
Eagan, Jennifer L. “Multiculturalism”. Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1 Sept. 2019,
Halperin, Sandra. “Neocolonialism”. Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1 Sept. 2019,
Harleman, Ann. “Luminous family saga bridges eras, cultures”. The Boston Globe. 1 Sept.     2019,
Ivison, Duncan. “Postcolonialism”. Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1 Sept. 2019,
Macaulay, Thomas Babington, ‘Minute on Indian Education’ in Sayantan Dasgupta (ed.) A             South Asian Nationalism Reader. Worldview Publications, 2007.
Mishra, Pankaj. “Wounded by the West”. The New York Times. 1 Sept. 2019,
Pryor, Fiona. “Review: The Inheritance of Loss”. BBC News. 1 Sept. 2019,


No comments :

Post a Comment

We welcome your comments related to the article and the topic being discussed. We expect the comments to be courteous, and respectful of the author and other commenters. Setu reserves the right to moderate, remove or reject comments that contain foul language, insult, hatred, personal information or indicate bad intention. The views expressed in comments reflect those of the commenter, not the official views of the Setu editorial board. प्रकाशित रचना से सम्बंधित शालीन सम्वाद का स्वागत है।