Are there examples of feminism in The Inheritance of Loss?

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teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The feminist perspective in The Inheritance of Loss is highlighted in its portrayal of women's subaltern position in Indian society.

The gendered subaltern.

Feminist literature illuminates the stark experiences of women who have been denied agency in every aspect of their lives. They are without options, as their lives are circumscribed by tradition and culture. In the story, Kiran Desai illustrates the reality of female oppression through the character of Bela Patel, Judge Jemubhai Patel's hapless wife.

In the beginning, the judge is fascinated with his young, under-aged wife. Bela is only fourteen when she is married off to Jemubhai, and so terrified that she begs to be spared the wedding night. Through Bela, Desai highlights the plight of young, Indian girls who are expected to comply with the long-held tradition of early marriage.

What is it like to be a child-bride?

Child marriage is big business in India, with the bride's family responsible for the dowries the bride must bring to her groom's family. Sadly, the size of some dowries can financially cripple an already impoverished family. In Nimi's case, her dowry included 'cash, gold, emeralds from Venezuela, rubies from Burma, uncut kundun diamonds, a watch on a watch-chain, lengths of woolen cloth...'  On the day the couple marry, Bela's name is unilaterally changed by the groom's family, and she is renamed Nimi. Here, Desai highlights the suppression of a woman's life-long, personal identity; this practice also foreshadows Nimi's own marginalization in her marriage.

In due time, Jemubhai leaves for England, where he will train to become an ICS (Indian Civil Service) officer; he leaves his lonely, young wife behind and conveniently forgets about her existence. When he returns to India, he is feted with honors by his village. After all, he is the first son in his community who has managed to win such an honor. Jemubhai keeps the English ways he has learned in England and proceeds to terrorize his Indian-born wife upon his return. He even takes to powdering his face in order to appear lighter-skinned.

Nimi, fascinated by her husband's treasured powder puff, appropriates the pink and white puff for her own use. When Jemubhai discovers this, he becomes enraged. Already embarrassed by his family's ridicule of his foppish, English ways, he attacks his wife in their bedroom. Far from disapproving of Jemubhai's behavior, his relatives proceed to lock the couple in. The goal is for the husband to tame his spirited wife. Jemubhai violently rapes his wife, and spends all his frustrations on her, 'glad he could disguise his inexpertness, his crudity, with hatred and fury...He would teach her the same lessons of loneliness and shame he had learned himself.'

As time continues, Jemubhai's treatment of his wife deteriorates. He deprives her of food if she cannot name any particular food item in English. When he goes on tours, he leaves Nimi behind. With every cruel retort, he reduces the once beautiful young woman to a pitiful caricature of herself; her toiletry and beauty items are summarily discarded, and she is ordered to take off her traditional Indian jewelry because they don't conform to her husband's new, English tastes. As a result of his physical and emotional abuse, Nimi withdraws into herself:

She had fallen out of life altogether. Weeks went by, and she spoke to nobody, the servants thumped their own leftovers on the table for her to eat, stole the supplies without fear, allowed the house to grow filthy without guilt until the day before Jemubhai's arrival when suddenly it was brought to luster again...

Due to the stress, Nimi develops pustules on her face, which prompts Jemubhai to further denigrate her waning beauty. Nimi comes to realize the hopelessness of her existence.

The quieter she was , the louder he shouted, and if she protested, it was worse. She soon realized that whatever she did or didn't do, the outcome was much the same.

Later, the text strongly suggests that the judge paid bribes to have Nimi's murder look like an accident. When the news comes that a 'woman had caught fire over a stove,' the judge 'chose to believe it was an accident.' After all, 'Ashes have no weight, they tell no secrets, they rise too lightly for guilt...'

Desai's feminist perspective also highlights alternatives to the kind of fate Nimi endures. In the story, Noni, a spinster, tells Sai, Jemubhai's grand-daughter, that if she hopes to escape the fate of so many before her, she must choose her life for herself.

"Listen to me...if you get a chance in life, take it...You must do it on your own, Sai."

Towards the end of the novel, we find Sai deciding to do just this, as she begins to envision the possibilities the world can accord her. As evidenced in the novel, Desai's feminist voice rings clearly, and she speaks for those who cannot speak for themselves.

kimcmyatt | Student

Although Sai is a strong intelligent female, it prompted other feelings in her when the three boys came to steal the rifles from the judge, then inviting themselves to tea. Responding to their actions she obviously could not help but realize her vulnerability as a girl in this situation. "She felt intensely, fearfully female."

Read the study guide:
The Inheritance of Loss

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