The Inheritance of Loss

The Inheritance of Loss

by Kiran Desai

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In a crumbling, isolated house at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas lives an embittered judge who wants only to retire in peace, when his orphaned granddaughter, Sai, arrives on his doorstep. The judge’s cook watches over her distractedly, for his thoughts are often on his son, Biju, who is hopscotching from one gritty New York restaurant to another. Kiran Desai’s brilliant novel, published to huge acclaim, is a story of joy and despair. Her characters face numerous choices that majestically illuminate the consequences of colonialism as it collides with the modern world.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802142818
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 08/29/2006
Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 245,020
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

The Inheritance of Loss

By Kiran Desai

Grove Atlantic, Inc.

Copyright © 2006

Kiran Desai

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-87113-929-4

Chapter One

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 vapor, 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.

Sai, sitting on the veranda, was reading an article about giant squid in an old National
. Every now and then she looked up at Kanchenjunga, observed its wizard
phosphorescence with a shiver. The judge sat at the far corner with his chessboard,
playing against himself. Stuffed under his chair where she felt safe was Mutt the dog,
snoring gently in her sleep. A single bald lightbulb dangled on a wire above. It was cold,
but inside the house, it was still colder, the dark, the freeze, contained by stone walls
several feet deep.

Here, at the back, inside the cavernous kitchen, was the cook, trying to light the damp
wood. He fingered the kindling gingerly for fear of the community of scorpions living,
loving, reproducing in the pile. Once he'd found a mother, plump with poison, fourteen
babies on her back.

Eventually, the fire caught and he placed his kettle on top, as battered, as encrusted as
something dug up by an archeological team,and waited for it to boil. The walls were
singed and sodden, garlic hung by muddy stems from the charred beams, thickets of soot
clumped batlike upon the ceiling. The flame cast a mosaic of shiny orange across the
cook's face, and his top half grew hot, but a mean gust tortured his arthritic knees.

Up through the chimney and out, the smoke mingled with the mist that was gathering
speed, sweeping in thicker and thicker, obscuring things in parts-half a hill, then the
other half. The trees turned into silhouettes, loomed forth, were submerged again.
Gradually the vapor replaced everything with itself, solid objects with shadow, and
nothing remained that did not seem molded from or inspired by it. Sai's breath flew from
her nostrils in drifts, and the diagram of a giant squid constructed from scraps of
information, scientists' dreams, sank entirely into the murk.

She shut the magazine and walked out into the garden. The forest was old and thick at the
edge of the lawn; the bamboo thickets rose thirty feet into the gloom; the trees were
moss-slung giants, bunioned and misshapen, tentacled with the roots of orchids. The
caress of the mist through her hair seemed human, and when she held her fingers out, the
vapor took them gently into its mouth. She thought of Gyan, the mathematics tutor, who
should have arrived an hour ago with his algebra book.

But it was 4:30 already and she excused him with the thickening mist.

When she looked back, the house was gone; when she climbed the steps back to the
veranda, the garden vanished. The judge had fallen asleep and gravity acting upon the
slack muscles, pulling on the line of his mouth, dragging on his cheeks, showed Sai
exactly what he would look like if he were dead.

"Where is the tea?" he woke and demanded of her. "He's late," said the judge, meaning
the cook with the tea, not Gyan. "I'll get it," she offered.

The gray had permeated inside, as well, settling on the silverware, nosing the corners,
turning the mirror in the passageway to cloud. Sai, walking to the kitchen, caught a
glimpse of herself being smothered and reached forward to imprint her lips upon the
surface, a perfectly formed film star kiss. "Hello," she said, half to herself and half to
someone else.

No human had ever seen an adult giant squid alive, and though they had eyes as big as
apples to scope the dark of the ocean, theirs was a solitude so profound they might never
encounter another of their tribe. The melancholy of this situation washed over Sai.

Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss? Romantically she decided that love must
surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack, not the contentment.
Love was the ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion

The water boiled and the cook lifted the kettle and emptied it into the teapot.

"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. He worked at Don Pollo-or was it The
Hot Tomato? Or Ali Baba's Fried Chicken? His father could not remember or understand
or pronounce the names, and Biju changed jobs so often, like a fugitive on the run-no

"Yes, it's so foggy," Sai said. "I don't think the tutor will come." She jigsawed the cups,
saucers, teapot, milk, sugar, strainer, Marie and Delite biscuits all to fit upon the tray.

"I'll take it," she offered.

"Careful, careful," he said scoldingly, following with an enamel basin of milk for Mutt.
Seeing Sai swim forth, spoons making a jittery music upon the warped sheet of tin, Mutt
raised her head. "Teatime?" said her eyes as her tail came alive.

"Why is there nothing to eat?" the judge asked, irritated, lifting his nose from a muddle of
pawns in the center of the chessboard.

He looked, then, at the sugar in the pot: dirty, micalike glinting granules. The biscuits
looked like cardboard and there were dark finger marks on the white of the saucers.
Never ever was the tea served the way it should be, but he demanded at least a cake or
scones, macaroons or cheese straws. Something sweet and something salty. This was a
travesty and it undid the very concept of teatime.

"Only biscuits," said Sai to his expression. "The baker left for his daughter's wedding."

"I don't want biscuits."

Sai sighed.

"How dare he go for a wedding? Is that the way to run a business? The fool. Why can't
the cook make something?"

"There's no more gas, no kerosene."

"Why the hell can't he make it over wood? All these old cooks can make cakes perfectly
fine by building coals around a tin box. You think they used to have gas stoves, kerosene
stoves, before? Just too lazy now."

The cook came hurrying out with the leftover chocolate pudding warmed on the fire in a
frying pan, and the judge ate the lovely brown puddle and gradually his face took on an
expression of grudging pudding contentment.

They sipped and ate, all of existence passed over by nonexistence, the gate leading
nowhere, and they watched the tea spill copious ribbony curls of vapor, watched their
breath join the mist slowly twisting and turning, twisting and turning.

Nobody noticed the boys creeping across the grass, not even Mutt, until they were
practically up the steps. Not that it mattered, for there were no latches to keep them out
and nobody within calling distance except Uncle Potty on the other side of the jhora
ravine, who would be drunk on the floor by this hour, lying still but feeling himself pitch
about-"Don't mind me, love," he always told Sai after a drinking bout, opening one eye
like an owl, "I'll just lie down right here and take a little rest-"

They had come through the forest on foot, in leather jackets from the Kathmandu black
market, khaki pants, bandanas-universal guerilla fashion. One of the boys carried a gun.

Later reports accused China, Pakistan, and Nepal, but in this part of the world, as in any
other, there were enough weapons floating around for an impoverished movement with a
ragtag army. They were looking for anything they could find-kukri sickles, axes,
kitchen knives, spades, any kind of firearm.

They had come for the judge's hunting rifles.

Despite their mission and their clothes, they were unconvincing. The oldest of them
looked under twenty, and at one yelp from Mutt, they screamed like a bunch of
schoolgirls, retreated down the steps to cower behind the bushes blurred by mist. "Does
she bite, Uncle? My God!"-shivering there in their camouflage.

Mutt began to do what she always did when she met strangers: she turned a furiously
wagging bottom to the intruders and looked around from behind, smiling, conveying both
shyness and hope.

Hating to see her degrade herself thus, the judge reached for her, whereupon she buried
her nose in his arms.

The boys came back up the steps, embarrassed, and the judge became conscious of the
fact that this embarrassment was dangerous for had the boys projected unwavering
confidence, they might have been less inclined to flex their muscles.

The one with the rifle said something the judge could not understand.

"No Nepali?" he spat, his lips sneering to show what he thought of that, but he continued
in Hindi. "Guns?"

"We have no guns here."

"Get them."

"You must be misinformed."

"Never mind with all this nakhra. Get them."

"I order you," said the judge, "to leave my property at once." "Bring the weapons."

"I will call the police."

This was a ridiculous threat as there was no telephone.

They laughed a movie laugh, and then, also as if in a movie, the boy with the rifle pointed
his gun at Mutt. "Go on, get them, or we will kill the dog first and you second, cook third,
ladies last," he said, smiling at Sai.

"I'll get them," she said in terror and overturned the tea tray as she went.

The judge sat with Mutt in his lap. The guns dated from his days in the Indian Civil
Service. A BSA five-shot barrel pump gun, a .30 Springfield rifle, and a double-barreled
rifle, Holland & Holland. They weren't even locked away: they were mounted at the end
of the hall above a dusty row of painted green and brown duck decoys.

"Chtch, all rusted. Why don't you take care of them?" But they were pleased and their
bravado bloomed. "We will join you for tea."

"Tea?" asked Sai in numb terror.

"Tea and snacks. Is this how you treat guests? Sending us back out into the cold with
nothing to warm us up." They looked at one another, at her, looked up, down, and

She felt intensely, fearfully female.

Of course, all the boys were familiar with movie scenes where hero and heroine,
befeathered in cosy winterwear, drank tea served in silver tea sets by polished servants.
Then the mist would roll in, just as it did in reality, and they sang and danced, playing
peekaboo in a nice resort hotel. This was classic cinema set in Kulu-Manali or, in
preterrorist days, Kashmir, before gunmen came bounding out of the mist and a new kind
of film had to be made.

The cook was hiding under the dining table and they dragged him out.

"Ai aaa, ai aaa," he joined his palms together, begging them, "please, I'm a poor man,
please." He held up his arms and cringed as if from an expected blow.

"He hasn't done anything, leave him," said Sai, hating to see him humiliated, hating even
more to see that the only path open to him was to humiliate himself further.

"Please living only to see my son please don't kill me please I'm a poor man spare me."

His lines had been honed over centuries, passed down through generations, for poor
people needed certain lines; the script was always the same, and they had no option but to
beg for mercy. The cook knew instinctively how to cry.

These familiar lines allowed the boys to ease still further into their role, which he had
handed to them like a gift.

"Who wants to kill you?" they said to the cook. "We're just hungry, that's all. Here, your
sahib will help you. Go on," they said to the judge, "you know how it should be done
properly." The judge didn't move, so the boy pointed the gun at Mutt again.

The judge grabbed her and put her behind him.

"Too soft-hearted, sahib. You should show this kind side to your guests, also. Go on,
prepare the table."

The judge found himself in the kitchen where he had never been, not once, Mutt
wobbling about his toes, Sai and the cook too scared to look, averting their gaze.

It came to them that they might all die with the judge in the kitchen; the world was upside
down and absolutely anything could happen. "Nothing to eat?"

"Only biscuits," said Sai for the second time that day.

"La! What kind of sahib?" the leader asked the judge. "No snacks! Make something,
then. Think we can continue on empty stomachs?"

Wailing and pleading for his life, the cook fried pakoras, batter hitting the hot oil, this
sound of violence seeming an appropriate accompaniment to the situation.

The judge fumbled for a tablecloth in a drawer stuffed with yellowed curtains, sheets, and
rags. Sai, her hands shaking, stewed tea in a pan and strained it, although she had no idea
how to properly make tea this way, the Indian way. She only knew the English way.

The boys carried out a survey of the house with some interest. The atmosphere, they
noted, was of intense solitude. A few bits of rickety furniture overlaid with a termite
cuneiform stood isolated in the shadows along with some cheap metal-tube folding
chairs. Their noses wrinkled from the gamy mouse stench of a small place, although the
ceiling had the reach of a public monument and the rooms were spacious in the old
manner of wealth, windows placed for snow views. They peered at a certificate issued by
Cambridge University that had almost vanished into an overlay of brown stains blooming
upon walls that had swelled with moisture and billowed forth like sails. The door had
been closed forever on a storeroom where the floor had caved in. The storeroom supplies
and what seemed like an unreasonable number of emptied tuna fish cans, had been piled
on a broken Ping-Pong table in the kitchen, and only a corner of the kitchen was being
used, since it was meant originally for the slaving minions, not the one leftover servant.

"House needs a lot of repairs," the boys advised.

"Tea is too weak," they said in the manner of mothers-in-law. "And not enough salt,"
they said of the pakoras. They dipped the Marie and Delite biscuits in the tea, drew up
the hot liquid noisily. Two trunks they found in the bedrooms they filled with rice, lentils,
sugar, tea, oil, matches, Lux soap, and Pond's Cold Cream. One of them assured Sai:
"Only items necessary for the movement." A shout from another alerted the rest to a
locked cabinet. "Give us the key."

The judge fetched the key hidden behind the National Geographics that, as a young man,
visualizing a different kind of life, he had taken to a shop to have bound in leather with
the years in gold lettering.

They opened the cabinet and found bottles of Grand Marnier, amontillado sherry, and
Talisker. Some of the bottles' contents had evaporated completely and some had turned
to vinegar, but the boys put them in the trunk anyway.


There were none. This angered them, and although there was no water in the tanks, they
defecated in the toilets and left them stinking. Then they were ready to go.

"Say, 'Jai Gorkha,'" they said to the judge. "Gorkhaland for Gorkhas."

"Jai Gorkha."

"Say, 'I am a fool.'"

"I am a fool."

"Loudly. Can't hear you, huzoor. Say it louder." He said it in the same empty voice.

"Jai Gorkha," said the cook, and "Gorkhaland for Gorkhas," said Sai, although they had
not been asked to say anything. "I am a fool," said the cook.

Chuckling, the boys stepped off the veranda and out into the fog carrying the two trunks.
One trunk was painted with white letters on the black tin that read: "Mr. J. P. Patel, SS
Strathnaver." The other read: "Miss S. Mistry, St. Augustine's Convent." Then they were
gone as abruptly as they had appeared.

"They've gone, they've gone," said Sai. Mutt tried to respond despite the fear that still
inhabited her eyes, and she tried to wag her tail, although it kept folding back between
her legs. The cook broke into a loud lament:

"Humara kya hoga, hai hai, humara kya hoga," he let his voice fly. "Hai, hai, what will
become of us?"

"Shut up," said the judge and thought, These damn servants born and brought up to
scream. He himself sat bolt upright, his expression clenched to prevent its distortion,
tightly clasping the arms of the chair to restrict a violent trembling, and although he knew
he was trying to stop a motion that was inside him, it felt as if it were the world shaking
with a ravaging force he was trying to hold himself against. On the dining table was the
tablecloth he had spread out, white with a design of grapevines interrupted by a garnet
stain where, many years ago, he had spilled a glass of port while trying to throw it at his
wife for chewing in a way that disgusted him.


Excerpted from The Inheritance of Loss
by Kiran Desai
Copyright © 2006 by Kiran Desai.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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