Retired Indian Civil Service judge "Jemu" Jemubhai has been living a quiet life in Kalimpong, a picaresque rural town nestled at the base of the Himalayas. Secluding himself in his ramshackle gated compound with only his dog, Mutt, and his cook for company, Jemu ponders his past,
spending his days staring at his chessboard, "burning the memory of his beginnings."
When Jemu hears that Sai, his orphaned sixteen-year-old granddaughter, will be coming to stay with him, he treats her arrival
as a godsend; Sai is a Westernized Indian brought up by English nuns. She's a type of "estranged Indian living in India." Surely Sai can only be an asset to Jemu, who sees himself
as unadulteratedly Anglophilic.
Jemu's position of power as a district court judge is long gone, frittered away in years of misanthropy and cynicism. His hopes of redemption, however, are somewhat dashed when Sai falls in love with Gyan, her math tutor. Gyan, born of poverty and proudly Indian - his family's house still made of mud with a thatch roof – feels intimidated by Jemu's very English and superior ways. Gyan is also fed up with the fact that Indian-Nepalese are being treated like the minority in a place where they are the majority.
As a consequence, he rejects Sai's privileged life. Intent to scream victory over oppression, Gyan raises his fist to authority, eventually connecting with a crowd of angry ethnic Nepalese insurrectionists.
Meanwhile, young Biju, the son of Jemu's cook, ekes out an existence as an undocumented worker in New York. Stumbling from one low-paid restaurant job to another, living in seedy squalor with groups of other immigrant men, Biju imagines what life would be like with "a sofa, TV and a bank account." Spurred on by his father, Biju came to the States thinking could achieve the American dream, but the reality is quite different.
It's "a whole world of basement kitchens," living so intensely with others only to have them disappear overnight, one giant "shadow class" of men condemned to movement, who end up leaving for other jobs, towns, are deported and return home or change their names.
Alternating between Biju's struggle to survive in New York and the steadily gathering insurgency of men and guns in the hills of Kalimpong,
Desai portrays a world on the cusp of globalization, desperately trying to cope with a rapid modernization. Her characters are stubborn and arrogant, often refusing to cast off the strictures of colonialism yet continuing to struggle with loss, poverty, and the trappings of their social class.
Biju and his father's once easy relationship has become complicated by distance, the cook mistakenly believing that only Biju can help other young immigrant men survive in the United States. Jemu's nature is to cling urgently to his memories, thinking of the time he and his best friend studied in England, facing the endless racial taunts of classmates.
Sai and Gyan have difficulty negotiating the complications of love, friendship and their polarizing political principles. Gyan ends up judging Sai for her connivance and her loyalty to the social class she
has accidentally been born into.
The Inheritance of Loss is a chaotic, hectic and fully realized slice-of-Indian life. Desai's characters are mired in self-hatred, their Indian heritage often making them feel unnecessarily inferior, forced to live in a country where the English have arguably done great harm, the result of "the colonial enterprise of sticking your flag on what was not yours." Desai's novel is also a cautionary tale of the effects of globalization on individuals and on communities while efficiently illustrating the indissoluble bonds of love and family. It is indeed a love story between a boy and a girl, between a father and his son, and a grandfather and his granddaughter, where empathy and compassion often define the quality of family relationships.
The characters in The Inheritance of Loss are insecure and unmoored, and frequently struggling to survive in the modern world, unsure of whether they will ever see the benefits and profits of globalization. Desai doesn't present any easy answers to the problems of those who are left behind by unstoppable economic growth
- in fact, her world view is quite cynical: "where one side travels to be a servant, and the other side travels to be treated like a King."