Immigrant Experience in Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss : Prof. AJ Sebastian sdb
Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss is a superb portrayal of the immigrant experience. I have been fortunate to have lived in both the worlds, viz. Kalingpong and New York. In this setting she has probed into the deep relationship built on high expectations by an emigrant cook and his immigrant son Biju. The novelist has captured the dreams of these two characters and the psychological impact it has on their lives in a very realistic manner.
Raymond Williams’ argument in the essay “Realism and Contemporary Novel” is worth examining in the light of Kiran Desai’s psychological analysis of her characters in the novel. He observes: “What we usually say is that the realistic novel has been replaced by the ‘psychological novel,’ and it is obviously true that the direct study of certain states of consciousness, certain newly apprehended psychological states, has been widely abandoned. It is merely that ‘everyday ordinary reality’ is now differently conceived, and that new techniques have been developed to describe this new kind of reality…” (Williams 583). Desai’s realism brings to her readers, daily concerns, joys and fears of ordinary people of India. These are very profoundly depicted through the characterisation of the cook and his son and their relationship built on agony and ecstasy.
The opening and closing scenic descriptions in the novel can be juxtaposed to present the symbolic landscape in which human relationships and dreams are built. The novel opens with the colours of dusk at Kanchenjunga. “All day, the colors had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths. Briefly visible above the vapour, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit” (TIL 2). The novel concludes with a similar description of Kanchenjunga at the emotional meeting of father and son: “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 need to do was to reach out and pluck it” (TIL 324). This scenic setting of the novel is symbolic of the concerns of the cook and his son who built their sky-high dreams in America.
As it has been pointed out by Champa Bilwakesh, “Desai leads the reader into the inner lives of the poor, and the shadow lives they live within that country where they are born…. The people she writes about may be bent but they are not broken.” (Bilwakesh).
Though Kiran Desai left India as a teenager in the 1980s, she has been deeply rooted in her Indianness and the novel is a study on human emotions and relationships. Reading the novel makes one feel the pangs of Indian immigrants in America. To present her characters’ deep rooted Indianness, Desai had to part from her American style of writing taught at the creative writing course at Columbia University.
In an interview to NDTV, New Delhi, on 26th January 2007 she spoke of the reason for her choosing the story of immigrants in New York. “The novel does not have a geographical location, but an emotional one.” She opined. Hence she wrote something very close to her sensibility as an immigrant. She further affirmed her Indian roots through the various characters portrayed.
I see everything through the lens of being Indian. It’s something that has become stronger. As I’ve got older I have realised that I can’t really write without that perspective…. I find myself at a disadvantage because India has changed, moved on. I go every year, yet it belongs to Indian authors living in India. The subject belongs to them. So the only way I could put this book together was to go back to the India of the 1980s, when I left. (The Guardian).
A perceptive critic will find four basic concerns surrounding the novel: a) The relationship between Mr. Jemubhai Popatlal Patel, the retired judge and his granddaughter Sai; b) the relationship between Mr. Patel’s cook and his son Biju; c) Sai –Gyan romance and d) the setting of insurgency in Darjeeling in the 1980s.
The cook-son relationship and the father’s great expectations from his son in America is the focus of discussion in this discourse. Why does the novelist give such a singular role to an unnamed “cook”?
It may be noted that Kiran Desai had a fascination for her kitchen and cooking. “It’s a great interest of mine; It’s so much a part of my life.. I’m always in the kitchen cooking and experimenting – I love it….But yes, food is a big part of my life.” (Bold Type).
As she narrates the story she enters deeply into each of them, products of her own vivid and mature imagination. She is so involved in their psychological growth, Desai confirms, they are, “…bits and pieces of people I know…. But of course I’m sure they all do have bits of me in them as well, different parts of my personality.” (Ibid).
Throughout the novel he is referred to as ‘the cook’. Why hasn’t he been called by his name? The novelist has very realistically represented him as a type of the cooking class. He has no identity of his own, except by his profession. This is the lot of menial servants in India who are known only by the works they do, be it cook, sweeper, mali, cowman, dhobi. But his son is called Biju. The cook treasures his son, the pride of his life. He fashions a dream world for him and wants him to be a greater cook or someone in a similar profession abroad. Biju is in search of finding an identity of his own which ends up in his vain attempt to get a green card in New York. All that his father wants is that he goes out to America, the land of dreams, doing any job; but being in America, he believes, gives him dignity in his society.
The opening of the novel with the scene of the cold dusk at Kalingpong with the view of the snow clad Kanchenjunga is a perfect match for the symbolic lighting of the fire in the dilapidated kitchen of the cook who wants to bring warmth to his master at tea time. The symbols of cold and warmth runs throughout the novel through human relationships and interactions. The cook brings warmth to the judge, caring for him in his retirement and taking care of Sai. It is the cook who gives attention to the young girl as she hardly gets any love and affection from her grandfather. He is a migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh. He has been living for survival at the judge’s home and does household tasks. Though attached to the family and taking full charge of Sai, the orphaned granddaughter of the judge, he lives for his son Biju in his old age “Terrible” he said, “My bones ache so badly, my joints hurt – I may as well be dead? If not for Biju…” Biju was his son in America… and Biju changed jobs so often, like a fugitive on the run – no papers” (TIL 3).
When the police come to verify robbery at the house, we are given a glimpse of the unknown story of the cook.
It pained Sai’s heart to see how little he had: a few clothes hung over a string, a single razor blade and a sliver of cheap crown soap, a kulu blanket that had once been hers, a cardboard case with metal clasps that had belonged to the judge and now contained the cook’s papers, the recommendations that had helped him procure his job with the judge. Biju’s letters, papers from a court case fought in his village all the way in Uttar Pradesh…a broken watch that would cost too much to mend…. Two photographs hung on the wall – one of himself and his wife on their wedding day, one of Biju dressed to leave home…. Sai wondered if he had loved his wife. She had died seventeen years ago, when Biju was five…. Biju was their only child. “What a naughty boy,” the cook would always exclaim with joy. “But basically his nature was always good (13-14).
The cook goes on recollecting the past and building dreams for his son. He keeps showering praises on Biju. Meanwhile the police had scattered all the letters after the search and the old man began to read one of them. “Respected Pitaji, no need to worry. Everything is fine. The manager has offered me a full-time waiter position. Uniform and food will be given by them. Angrezi khana only, no Indian food, and the owner is not from India. He is from America itself.” (14). This story ran wild in the market as the cook kept telling everyone that Biju works for the Americans. He took pleasure in boasting of Biju. Throughout the novel this becomes the ejaculation for the cook. He lived in a fantasy world typical of parents of immigrants. The search by the police had exposed the misery and poverty of the cook. It revealed his self-made dignity. The revelation is embarrassing for Sai as she never knew his material poverty in her material well-being. They lived at different wavelengths: she spoke English – while he Hindi; yet she felt proud of him for the difficult life he lived.
Chapter three unfolds the story of Biju in America struggling to find a job. The narration is replete with humour and irony. He keeps his father live in his fantasy world writing in letter after letter that he was doing fine.
But although Biju’s letters traced a string of jobs, they said more or less the same thing each time except for the name of the establishment he was working for. His repetition provided a coziness, and the cook’s repetition of his son’s repetition double-knit the coziness. “Excellent job,” he told his acquaintances, “better even than the last.” He imagined sofa TV bank account. Eventually Biju would make enough and the cook would retire. He would receive a daughter-in-law to serve him food, crick-crack his toes, grandchildren to swift like flies. (17).
The story of the cook-son runs through letters exchanged among them between the two worlds. The novelist adds humour to the story with comical and ironical account of Biju at different jobs. Chapter five enumerates his moving from job to job like in a collage. “Biju at the Baby Bistro…. Biju at Le Colonial for the authentic colonial experience….On to the Stars and Stripes Diner….” (21). The cook is overjoyed to get all the news from America. He keeps giving advice after advice to his son to guard himself from cheats. Humorously the narrator laughs at Indians present everywhere, even at the North-pole. Yet they are equally disliked everywhere except in Guatemala.
During his second year in America, Biju becomes a victim in the hands of his Italian Restaurant owner whose wife couldn’t tolerate his Indian smell. To add to the white man’s degrading remarks on Biju, he was looked down upon by the three Indian girls for whom he had taken soups and egg foo yong from the restaurant. Kiran Desai has taken note of racist feelings as well as class-caste-language distinctions among Indians abroad.
As Biju agonises in New York, the cook in Kalingpong establishes his status as the father of a son in America, he keeps sending more and more recommendations to Biju asking him to arrange jobs for the Metalbox watchman’s son. He takes pride in being an intercessor answering petitions.
He was being besieged by requests for help. The more they asked the more they came the more they asked ….He would begin to lecture them. “Look, you have to have some luck, it is almost impossible to get a visa….” It was superhumanly difficult, but he would write to his son… “Biju beta,” he wrote, “you have been fortunate enough to get there, please do something for others…” (94-5)
The letters always sought so many favours for so many people, Biju was totally at a loss. All he could do was to think of the plight of his Pak friend Saeed who was enveloped in a similar situation. He turned it into self pity. “Biju’s sympathy for Saeed leaked into sympathy for himself, then Saeed’s shame into his own shame that he would never help all those people praying for his help, waiting daily, hourly, for his response.” (98).
While searching for jobs, Biju was advised by Nandu to go back to India where he could do better. But he had set his mind on the green card.
The green card….Without it he couldn’t leave. To leave he wanted a green card. This was the absurdity. How he desired the triumphant After The Green Card Return Home, thirsted for it – to be able to buy a ticket with the air of someone who could return if he wished, on not, if he didn’t wish…. He watched the legalized foreigners with envy…. Then, of course, there were those who lived and died illegal in America and never saw their families….” (99)
In course of time Biju and his friends who were illegal immigrants had to spend most of their earnings on anonymous persons who promised them green cards. Often they waited in fear at strange corners in the city where vehicles came by and they paid money along with their photographs and profiles as per INS requirements. Then they waited in vain with the dream of getting the green cards.
Adding humour to the story Saeed and Biju keep practicing for INS interview by marrying someone by paying money. But that too doesn’t work with the officials who cross question partners to prove their true identity as spouses.
Employing flashback technique the novelist makes Buju introspect on his childhood and thinks of his home, sweet home.
Lying on his basement that night, he thought of his village where he had lived with his grandmother on the money of his father sent each month…. When he had visited his father in Kalingpong, they had sat outside in the evenings and his father had reminisced” “How peaceful our village is….” They hadn’t noticed Sai, then aged thirteen, staring from her bedroom windows, jealous of the cook’s love for his son. (102-3)
The spontaneous exchange of love between the cook and his son, despite their poverty, is very finely contrasted with the lack of love that existed in the Sai-judge relationship.
The cook while sitting and scanning through Biju’s letters, kept his hope of the dream world and “shifted the burden of hope from this day to the next and got into his head, hooked on to his pillow – he had recently had the cotton replaced – and he mistook its softness serenity.”(120).
The novelist makes use of stream of consciousness technique while presenting the cook’s memories of the past. He recollects his sending Biju on a cruise ship four years ago when a recruiting agent came to Kalingpong seeking applications for waiters, vegetable choppers, toilet cleaners – etc. with the promise to get legal employment in the USA. The interview was held at Sinclair’s Hotel which was encircled by innumerable applicants. The cook had called Biju from home to Kalingpong to attend the interview. The judge had objected to the plan as he expected Biju to work in the cook’s place when he retired. Biju’s interview was a success and he was summoned to Kathmandu for a week’s training. But when he reached there he found it was a cheating game. Next he tried directly to get a tourist visa from the American embassy. He had taken a fake bank guarantee which his father got from a corrupt state bank clerk gifting two bottles of black label.
Despite all the lies, Biju got the visa and send the telegram to his father calling himself, “The luckiest boy in the whole wide world.” (187). But that was the idle make-believe world in which the old cook lived hoping for greener days ahead, reminiscing the past.
The novelist draws the reader’s sympathy for Biju when he had an accidental fall at the Gandhi Café and the rough treatment he received from the owner. He knew his fate living like a pig when his sponsor refused to get him the green card. He gave Biju fifty dollars and added, “…if you are not better, go home. Doctors are very cheap and good in India. Get the best medical attention and later on you can always return…. It was a decoy, an old Indian trick of master to servant, the benevolent patriarch garnering the loyalty of staff; offering slave wages, but now and then a box of sweets, a lavish gift…” (189).
At this critical juncture, Biju can only escape into a day dream world in nature. “So Biju lay on his mattress and watched the movements of the sun through the grate on the row of buildings opposite.” (189). This is typical of stream of consciousness as in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where Stephen Dedalus when confronted with the crisis in his choice of vocation escapes into nature. “Disheartened, he raised his eyes towards the slow drifting clouds dappled and seaborne. They were voyaging across the deserts of the sky…” (Joyce 190).
But one has to finally surrender to his dream. And Biju has to listen to his heart and decide to leave for home as he reads more and more letters from his father and being informed of the situation of uncertainty due to insurgency. The emotional conversation over the phone between the father and the son is remarkable.
He hadn’t attained the decency of being granted a holiday now and then. He could not go home to see his father.
“WHEN WILL YOU GET LEAVE?”
“I DON’T KNOW…”
…he can’t get leave. Why not? Don’t know, must be difficult there, make a lot of money, but one thing is certain, they have to work very hard for it…. Don’t get something for nothing… nowhere in the world….”
The call was over, and the emptiness Biju hoped to dispel was reinforced.” (TIL 233).
Biju tells Mr. Kakkar at the Shangri-la Travel Agency that he had to return to his father. He took a ticket on Gulf Air from New York to Calcutta. Next he purchased the things he dreamed of. He bought “a TV, VCR, camera, sunglasses, baseball caps that said “NYC” and “Yankees…” (270). As he prepared himself for the return home, the reader is given a peep into the comical side of his tryst with destiny in America. “In the mirror of the bathroom, Biju saluted himself. Here he was on his way home, without name or knowledge of the American president, without the name of the river on whose banks he had lingered, without ever hearing about any of the tourist sights…” (286). His world was very small. He had only thoughts of his father and to return with a lot of money. Nothing else mattered. He even rehearses the scene of his meeting his father with a lot of ‘happiness and emotion.’ It is this happiness and emotion that the author explores in the novel which climaxes in the final section when Biju returns home despite struggles.
The insurgency had blocked all roads to Kalingpong though Biju was insistent and kept saying, “I have to go. My father is there….”(310). He got a lift in a jeep and the insurgents demanded most he owned. The tragic circumstances left him in a worse situation than while in New York. “Darkness fell and he sat right in the middle of the path – without his baggage, without his savings, worse of all, without his pride. Back from America with far less than he’d ever had. (317).
Kiran Desai presents the symbol of darkness and the darkness and terror that loomed large in the surrounding as well as the traumatic experience Biju went through which would only be compensated with the mission he has – to get to his father. On the other hand, the cook was in agony and under intoxication. He was abused by the judge and beaten with his slippers. He was a broken man who kept weeping. In that moment he forgot his son too. “He didn’t mention his son… he had none… he’d never had one… it was just his hope writing to him… Biju was nonexistent….” (320).
The novelist concludes the story with the meeting of the duo in pain. In darkness and gloom when everything reaches the end of the road, only thing that can sustain is human relationships. “Sai looked out and saw two figures leaping at each other as the gate swung open.” (324). It was a time of celebration to which golden Kanchenjunga peaks bore witness. It is love shared that made the two go through their building dreams in their misery. The father and the son finally return to where it all began, into one another’s embrace. Their yearning for the American dream is shattered as they inherit nothing at the end. But they are psychologically and physically united in an emotional location. This is very significant to the Indian ethos where emotional fulfilment gives hope despite material loss.
Bilwakesh, Champa. “In Guadeloupe – they love us there?” book review in Atlantic MonthlyPress.www.sawnet.org/books, 2006. Downloaded on 15/10/08.
Bold Type. Interview with Kiran Desai. www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/ 0599.
Downloaded on 10/10/08.
Desai, Kiran. The Inheritance of Loss. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2006. Abbreviated as TIL.
Desai, Kiran. NDTV interview. New Delhi. 26 January, 2007.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. London: Penguin Books, 1916.
The Guardian. book.guardian.co.uk/ manbooker 2006. 12 October, 2006. Downloaded on 11/10/08.
Williams, Raymond. “Realism and the Contemporary Novel,” 20th Century Literary Criticism:A Reader. Ed. David Lodge. London:Longman, 1972.