The Inheritance of Loss explores the lives of characters who are trapped in India's class system—both the lower class and the upper class. The characters' hopes and dreams are conveyed in the novel, along with their ultimate dream of immigrating to America and finally escaping the rigid caste system of their homeland.
The story is set in the 1980s in Kalimpong, located in the northern part of India near Darjeeling. The main characters are Sai, a seventeen-year-old girl living with her grandfather, who is a judge. The judge is an educated man who attended Cambridge University but has fallen in social position due to the country's political unrest. He carries the weight of having abandoned his wife, so he feels he is paying off his guilt by allowing his granddaughter, Sai, to live with him after her parents die. Gyan is Sai's tutor and boyfriend. Other principle characters are the judge's cook and the cook's his son, Biju. Biju went to America and works illegally in kitchens in New York City. Throughout the novel, there are two story strands—one following the lives of the people in Kalimpong, and one following the life of Biju.
In Chapter 1, Sai is sitting in her home, looking at a National Geographicmagazine while waiting for her boyfriend and math tutor, Gyan. The judge is asleep in his chair, but as soon as he wakes, he expects to be served by Sai and the cook. Suddenly, Nepalese guerrillas approach the house, break in, and demand weapons. Everyone is terrified, but because they have no phone and therefore no way to call the police, the young guerrillas sit down and make themselves at home. They steal food and liquor and humiliate everyone, especially the judge, who is in the highest of the social orders represented in the house. The guerrillas also take an heirloom trunk.
In Chapter 2, the judge makes the cook go to the police to report the break-in. The police interrogate the cook, suggesting that it is he who instigated the crime because he is of a lower social class.
Chapter 3 focuses on Biju, the cook's son who lives in New York City. He works selling hot dogs for Gray's Papaya. Biju constantly compares himself to the overly confident workers he is surrounded by. They are crude and take him to a prostitute, insisting that he participate, suggesting that he is not a man unless he has sex. Biju feels humiliated and does not feel himself to be a man.
Chapter 4 returns the narrative to Northern India and the judge's home. The house has been ravaged by the police and still the intruders have not been identified. The cook no longer has his pride, and Sai is sad for him because she feels very close to the man. She tries to help him feel better.
In Chapter 5, Biju's life is highlighted again. Readers see all the kitchens in the basements in New York City where he has worked. Readers also witness his mistreatment by others who seem to despise him because he is from India. Biju is even looked down upon by Pakistanis, whom Biju personally feels are below him. He is confused because he must reassess his values. Biju realizes he is a servant like his father.
Sai's experiences when she first came to live in her grandfather’s home are recounted in Chapter 6. Previously, Sai had lived in Europe and attended a Catholic school where she had associated with Westerners. When she first rode the train to Cho Oyu and saw the common Indian workers, the nun who escorted her told her the lower classes are like animals. She claims that they use the street as a toilet and have no shame. Consequently, Sai feels she is of a higher, elite class.
In Chapters 7 and 8, more is revealed about Sai's life with her grandfather. The judge promises Sai that he will educate her because she is too good for the government school. The judge is haunted by the trunk that the thieves stole when they took their food and alcohol. That trunk had been his father's, and it makes him remember his days in England. He recalls how lonely he had been and how he left his fourteen-year-old wife. At Cambridge, he became negatively obsessed with his Indian identity: he tried to wash himself over and over again, and he began using white powder to hide his Indian features.
In Chapter 7, the judge...
(The entire section is 1730 words.)
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Chapters 1-2 Summary
Set primarily in the mid-1980s in the small, remote village of Kalimpong in India, Kiran Desai's 2006 novel, The Inheritance of Loss, tells the story of the recently impoverished people who are caught in the middle of a revolution. Writing for the New York Times Book Review, Pankaj Mishra referred to Desai's novel as "extraordinary." The author uses "intimacy and insight" to explore not only the challenges of 1980s India, the reviewer wrote, but also contemporary issues of inequality and terrorism that continue to plague almost every country today. Though the characters of The Inheritance of Loss at first appear to be separated by social status, education, and economy, Desai connects them through a "common experience of impotence and humiliation."
A young woman called Sai is the protagonist of The Inheritance of Loss. She is an orphan living with her British-educated grandfather, a retired judge. While she waits for her math tutor, Gyan, to arrive at her home, a small band of young, desperate men push themselves into Sai's house, demanding weapons and food. They threaten to kill the family's dog first, then the grandfather, if Sai does not hand over any guns or knives the family owns. After Sai gives them her grandfather's old shotguns, the young men insist on being fed by the family cook. There is little food stored in the kitchen, but after rummaging through the house, the intruders discover a trunk filled with staples. After eating, they leave, taking the guns and the trunk filled with food with them.
It was February of 1986 and Sai was seventeen years old. She and her math tutor, Gyan, had been in love for almost one year. The village in which Sai lived with her grandfather, a male cook, and a dog called Mutt was located at the edges of the Himalayas. Rebels, who were dissatisfied with their treatment in neighboring Nepal, often raided the Indian villages within their reach. They searched for food and weapons with which to fight their enemies, most of whom were officials from China and England and who were constantly stealing land from them. They had lost too much, and though ill-equipped, they were ready to make a stand.
The day after the robbery, the judge sent the cook to the police station to report the crime. The cook was nervous and thought of his son, Biju, who had gone to the States to find a job. The cook missed his son and wished he were there to stand with him. The police did not favor people from the servant class, often believing that if a crime had taken place, it probably was committed by a servant. So they listened to the cook's story with suspicion. Though the police questioned the cook severely, in the end, they promised to come by the house later that day and further investigate the robbery. After all, theft of guns implied a greater cause of concern for all the villagers.
Chapters 3-5 Summary
Biju, the cook's son, was living in New York City, working at various restaurants and cafes. He often wrote home to his father, the news in his letters basically the same except for the names of the restaurants. After work, the other Indian men with whom Biju was employed often sought out prostitutes. Biju always made excuses for not joining them. He would tell them the weather was too hot. Other times, he told them it was too cold. He also warned the men that the prostitutes were dirty and could give them diseases. The men, much older than Biju, who was only nineteen, told him that they did not care. One day, the manager where Biju worked told him and the other men that he had to let them go. He had been warned that there was to be a crackdown on illegal immigrants. The loss of this job was little different from any of the others that Biju had witnessed through the year.
Biju's father answered his son's letters, making the correspondence simple and short, not wanting to betray his lack of education. The cook warned his son not to lend anyone money and to be careful whom he chose for friends. If the boy had any questions, he should ask Nandu, another man from their village who had emigrated to New York.
The cook and Sai explored the world on an inflatable globe that they had sent for from an ad they found in a National Geographic magazine. They marked where Biju lived and compared it to where they were. Sai explained to the cook why, when it was morning in India, it was night in New York. The cook thought it was strange that the sun should shine first on India and then America each day, making India appear too much more important than the States for an hour that India did not deserve.
Sai's attachment to the cook had begun the first day she arrived at her grandfather's home. She had previously been living at the boarding school, St. Augustine's, in Dehra Dun. The day she arrived by taxi at the house, it was the...
(The entire section is 561 words.)
Chapters 6-8 Summary
When Sai first arrived at her grandfather's house, the cook asked if she had come from England. When Sai said no, the cook then asked if she had been previously living in the United States. Again Sai said no, which disappointed the cook. Sai had been living in India, she told the cook. When the cook asked where her parents were, Sai said that they were dead.
Sai's father had been training to become a Russian astronaut. After being accepted into the program, her father had moved with his wife to Russia so he could further his training. When Sai was six, her parents sent her to the convent school, the same one at which her mother had been educated. Sai had not seen her parents for two years when she learned of their...
(The entire section is 501 words.)
Chapters 9-10 Summary
As Sai tells the sisters about the group of men who robbed her grandfather's house, the sisters become concerned about their own welfare. They are elderly women living alone with only a night guard to watch over them and their possessions. The guard, named Budhoo, is a retired Nepali military man. He has been very loyal over the years, and in the past, the women have felt safe under his protection. However, if there should be a revolution of the Nepali people, would this man remain faithful to them?
The sisters had accumulated wealth over the years. They had precious objects they had bought from England. Their garden was the only one in the area that grew such delicacies as broccoli and pears. Their food storage was...
(The entire section is 501 words.)
Chapters 11-12 Summary
After dropping Sai at Noni's house, the cook traveled on to the village, where he sold his homemade liquor to a local businessman. This was how the cook supplemented his income, which had not changed in several years. Sai's grandfather saw no need to increase the cook's wages. Wanting to buy things for his son and for himself, the cook had begun making his homemade brew out of fermented millet, using the extra money to buy his son clothes. What the cook really wanted was to buy the shiny things that he had heard of, ovens and television sets, for instance.
Other servants in the village had no need of supplementing their wages. They were well taken care of and took enormous pride in this fact. The cook, not wanting to be...
(The entire section is 512 words.)
Chapters 13-15 Summary
Sai reluctantly met her math and science tutor, a college student named Gyan. In the beginning, she tried to ignore him. The cook, not wanting to intrude but desiring to keep an eye on them, sat on a stool outside the dining room. The cook approved of the tutor and his careful tone of voice as he explained the mathematical problems and helped with the answers. What the cook could not see, or did not notice, was the chemistry that was building between Sai and Gyan. The tutor left quickly each day because of the powerful effect that Sai had on him. Sai stared in the mirror afterward, wondering how she appeared to Gyan. Meanwhile, the cook made declarations about Gyan that Sai found silly. The cook thought it strange that Gyan was...
(The entire section is 516 words.)
Chapters 16-17 Summary
Sai asked the cook to tell her about her grandmother. Her first question was whether her grandparents had been in love. The cook told her that it was the death of Sai's grandmother that made her grandfather such a seemingly coldhearted man. Sai's grandmother was a great lady, the cook said. She never spoke an angry word to the servants. Sai's grandfather loved his wife dearly. He loved her so much that it was hard for others around them to understand their passion.
Sai had trouble believing the cook. She asked whether he was sure of what he was saying. The cook reiterated his opinions. He said that her grandfather loved her grandmother so much that he could not even show it. The cook believed that it was the greatest...
(The entire section is 651 words.)
Chapters 18-19 Summary
The monsoon season came to India, causing the judge's house to badly leak. The monsoon season in this part of the country meant up to four or even five months of heavy downpours, sometimes in the form of hail. The rain halted the budding revolution, which had transformed into strikes. There was no sense protesting against the government or businesses when neither was open. Everyone was staying home. Roads were washed out by the rains, so passage from one place to the next was all but impossible. Only foolish people went out in the storms, as Gyan did.
Gyan told himself that he was worried about his tuition and did not want to miss one of his tutoring sessions. He also did not want Sai to fall behind in her studies. At...
(The entire section is 643 words.)
Chapters 20-22 Summary
Sai and Gyan's relationship was growing more personal. They compared their bodies to one another: They measured their collar bones, checked the length of their eyelashes, noted who had the longer neck. In this way, they played at courtship, teasing each other. One day, Gyan asked Sai to kiss him. Sai attempted to hold out, but she was not strong enough to forbid his kiss for long. Finally they matched one another's lips. A week later, they had lost all bashfulness and spent much of their scheduled lesson time kissing.
Gyan and Sai were so involved in their budding relationship that they paid little notice to what was happening around them. The fever of the Nepali rebels was again rising. Militant slogans were posted...
(The entire section is 551 words.)
Chapters 23-25 Summary
After Sai had told Gyan a little of her family's history, Gyan also opened up about his past. In the 1800s, Gyan's family left Nepal and arrived in India to work on a tea plantation. His family had owned a buffalo that was noted for giving very nourishing milk. A general in the English Army, admiring the build of Gyan's great-grandfather, who had grown strong on the buffalo milk, had offered the muscular man a position. From then on, generation after generation of Gyan's ancestors pledged allegiance to the British forces. This remained true up to Gyan's father, who had chosen education over military service. Like his father, Gyan had also been educated. When Sai pressured Gyan to tell her more, especially of his father, Gyan...
(The entire section is 473 words.)
Chapters 26-28 Summary
Gyan was in the village, buying rice, when he was swept up in a crowd of young men, some of them student-friends of his. The men were protesting. They were of Nepali descent and were tired of and frustrated with being treated like third-class citizens. They claimed that they had fought for India and for England for several generations, but they had not been compensated for their sacrifices and hard work. They were continually denied jobs and positions in the government merely because of their Nepali blood. Because of this, they no longer wanted to beg for help. Instead, they wanted their own territory, their own part of India.
As Gyan was drawn into their midst, he first questioned whether the young men were serious...
(The entire section is 623 words.)
Chapters 29-30 Summary
Though Sai and Gyan saw each other again, and kissed and made up, their relationship had changed. Sai could not understand Gyan's anger nor his criticism of her manners and customs. Gyan was angry at himself for being tempted by Sai's charms. Eventually, Gyan decided that Sai was a pleasure enjoyed but a thing of the past. It was time for him to grow up. He would have to let her go. It was while he was in this state of mind that he, one night while drinking with some of his male friends, told them of the guns at Sai's house. It was from Gyan's description of the foods stored at the house that the young men decided to go to the judge's place and rob it of all the things they could use for their revolution. Gyan had lost all hope for...
(The entire section is 624 words.)
Chapters 31-32 Summary
The tension in the village and surrounding area is mounting. The rebels are orchestrating work stoppages and blocking roads to control who could go in and out of the area. All national celebrations are forbidden. Boycotts of elections are ordered. In addition, the rebels refuse to pay taxes or repay loans. Even the Indo-Nepali treaty, which had been signed in 1950, is burned as a symbolic gesture of the Nepali rebels who believe that the treaty has done them no good.
Despite all these actions, Noni and Lola and Sai decide to travel to Darjeeling, a city in the Indian state of West Bengal. They are going there to return their books to the library. Traveling with them are two local men, Father Booty, a Catholic priest,...
(The entire section is 626 words.)
Chapters 33-35 Summary
The narrator reports that six months after Sai, Lola, Noni, Uncle Potty, and Father Booty take their trip to the library in Darjeeling, the National Liberation Front takes over the building. Many years later, in 1988, these same soldiers surrendered all their weapons in this very building. However, on the day Sai is in Darjeeling, the revolution has yet to start, though young men march by several times, shouting their campaign slogans and demanding that the country be given back to the Nepalis. While outside the library on her way back to the car, Sai sees Gyan in the crowd of protesting men. She recognizes him and is about to call out to him when Gyan sees her. Just as Sai is about to shout out to him, Gyan looks at her...
(The entire section is 536 words.)
Chapters 36-38 Summary
The political pressure on the village continues, stretching into longer and longer lasting strikes. The news of the strife is carried to Biju in America via a newspaper, the India Abroad. When he reads of the trouble, Biju worries about his father. He wonders if his father is still alive. He wonders if the rebels could have killed him. The strikes have caused a disruption in the mail, and Biju has not heard from his father in months. By the next day, Biju can no longer stand not knowing his father’s condition, so he telephones his old village in India. Fortunately, he calls a few weeks before the rebels cut all the telephone lines.
There is no phone where the cook lives and works, so Biju calls a place called...
(The entire section is 658 words.)
Chapters 39-41 Summary
After seeing Sai in Darjeeling and pretending not to know her, Gyan comes to the judge’s house one more time. When Sai looks at Gyan, she thinks he seems as if he were chained to the table. Gyan makes Sai feel disgusted with herself for ever loving him. He has become despicable in her eyes. When she asks him why he acted as he did in Darjeeling, Gyan tells Sai he was confused. He uses the excuse that he is only human and sometimes makes mistakes. This does not endear him to her. Instead, it unleashes a torrent of anger. Gyan leaves the house, and Sai feels a sense of incompleteness. She had enjoyed feeling wanted and desired. Now there is nothing but emptiness.
After a few days, she wishes Gyan would come back and...
(The entire section is 770 words.)
Chapters 42-44 Summary
When the revolutionaries come to Gyan’s house the next day to take him to the planned demonstration, Gyan’s grandmother forces Gyan to stay inside the hut. Gyan had pleaded with her to not tell the young men that she had forbidden Gyan any further association with the group; he begged his grandmother to tell the men that he was sick, which is exactly what she did. Although the men demanded that every family be represented in the demonstration with at least one member attending, they leave Gyan alone. Not everyone is so lucky.
At the judge’s house, the cook announces that someone must go to the demonstration or there will be trouble for the family. The judge tells the cook that he must go. Believing that the forced...
(The entire section is 558 words.)
Chapters 45-48 Summary
Biju is on his way back to India. The flight is long and the plane is cramped, with barely any legroom or headroom. Unlike the European flights, airlines from third-world countries (including India is at this time) use terminals at the large airports that isolate passengers heading to the most uncommon locations. People from Biju’s flight, for instance, are ushered off the plane at London’s Heathrow Airport and forced to wait overnight in cramped quarters. Waiting for days for connections is a typical hardship for Indian travelers. There also are no food services available to them.
If this bothers Biju, he does not show it. In the tiny bathroom on the plane, he salutes himself in the mirror. He is starting his life...
(The entire section is 565 words.)
Chapters 49-53 Summary
The judge is lost in sorrow over the loss of his dog. He thinks about the other things and people he has lost. His thoughts flow to his wife and why he sent her away.
In a flashback, the judge recalls his innocent wife, Nimi. One day a distant friend took her to a political gathering. Nimi had no understanding of politics and was unaware of the consequences of her attending a rally that celebrated Nehru’s recent victory as the first prime minister after India won her independence. However, the judge’s supervisor was displeased when word arrived that the judge’s wife had been at the train station to meet Nehru. The supervisor threatened the judge that if anything like this ever happened again, it might cost him his...
(The entire section is 630 words.)