Immigrant Experience in Kiran Desai’s “The Inheritance of Loss” : Prof. AJ Sebastian sdb

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 He observes: “What we usually  say is that  the realistic novel has been  replaced by  the ‘psychological  novel,’ and it is  obviously  true that the direct study of certain states of consciousness, certain  newly apprehended psychological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.

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Works Cited

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.