(If you plan on reading The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, I recommend that you don’t read the following. The ending of the novel is at once incredibly abrupt and incredibly poignant, and I don’t want to assume responsibility for anyone missing that.)
The Inheritance of Loss was a book that didn’t envelop me in its characters or sweep me away with its story, but rather painted pictures of some of the hardest questions that people of modern times are faced with: What do we do with the life we inherit? Does everything come down to economics? Do people actually believe in justice? How can we establish authentic identities? How do we confront poverty? War? Injustice? Selfishness? Racism? Aye. It’s overwhelming.
That word is really the only way I can describe my reading experience of this book. It is a story of interwoven tales in India: a poor boy given the chance to go to America, his father, a cook, who places every ounce of hope in his son. A retired, hard-hearted Judge and his unredeeming back story of why he is so cold (or does it come redeemable if it is the result of forces beyond his control?). His westernized granddaughter, Sai, and her adolescent love affair with her tutor who goes home to life in a hut, who eventually turns on her in the name of rebellion.
It is through the stories of these characters that I, a white, educated American peeked into life in the aftermath of colonialism. For the past month, so many different thoughts have been swirling in my mind and I am uncertain of how to process through and deal with them all. At this point, I have only my thoughts, which I would like to spring into action. At this point, all I can ask is for you, too, to give it some serious thought. There are countless passages I could bring up, but for time’s sake, I will focus on just this one:
“He knew what his father thought: that immigration, so often presented as a heroic act, could just as easily be the opposite; that is was cowardice that led many to America; fear marked the journey, not bravery; a cockroachy desire to scuttle to where you never saw poverty, not really, never had to suffer a tug to your conscience; where you never heard the demands of servants, beggars, bankrupt relatives, and where your generosity would never be openly claimed; where by merely looking after your own wife-child-dog-yard you could feel virtuous” (page 329).
Here’s what I’m thinking. I have spent a lot of my life avoiding need in the world. It is so easy to put on a mindset of “if I can’t see it, then it must not exist.” And I have to say, that ignorance is often bliss. The longer I live in New York, the harder it is for me to ignore that poverty is real—not only here, but in the global community. I am faced with homelessness everyday. It has to be my choice to deal with it or ignore it. The longer I am a teacher, the more intertwined I have become in the actual lives of kids growing up without parents, without money, without support, without feeling valued. I don’t want to be in a place where I am ignoring reality and scuttling to places, either physical or mental, where poverty doesn’t exist. This is where I am right now.
I mentioned at the beginning that the end of the book is incredibly poignant. Biju is the poor young man who left his father to go to America. His experience in America includes working ridiculous hours in restaurants and sleeping in basement apartments with a dozen other people and rats. Unbeknownst to him, the land where he has grown up becomes ravaged by violent rebellion. Eventually, he decides that he must see his father again. Against the advice of his friends in America, who say that he won’t be able to come back, he returns to India. On his way home, he has to pay off the rebels, who then strip him of all his luggage, earnings and even clothes. He is left to walk to his father in a woman’s night gown. He finally makes it to his father’s:
“Kanchenjunga appeared above the parting clouds, as it did only very early in the morning during this season—
“Biju?” whispered the cook—
“Biju!” he yelled, demented—
Sai looked out and saw two figures leaping at each other as the gate swung open.
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 reach out and pluck it” (357).
This is the immaterial joy that resonates only from love. This is the immaterial joy that can exist even in the most grim situations. Sigh.
So this is what I’m suggesting:
1. Remember the poor to the point where it forces you to take some proactive steps. Whatever that looks like for you.
2. Treasure your relationships, not your things, most of all—and take the time to examine your heart and mind to the point where you really place people above (fill in the blank).