Read in a 2007 Penguin edition.
Kiran Desai’s novel is in many ways a very traditional exploration of modern India, but a dramatic contrast to White Tiger. The book is set in the 1980s in the shadows of the Himalayas, and follows the affairs of a small prosperous household – a retired judge, his cook, and his teenage granddaughter.
This is not a plot-driven book. From the time of the opening chapters to the novel’s conclusion only a small amount of time has passed, and there has been little incident. Most of the narrative is devoted to following the characters’ back stories – how the judge went to university in England, how his granddaughter’s parents died in Russia, and so on. Most of this is extraordinarily predictable – everything plays out just as we expect, with little happening and minor dramas being created out of minor events such as the loss of a dog. The more dramatic events of the time are shown but appear largely incidental. In any event the time structure of the narrative has already shown us that no-one central to the story will be affected.
Although the setting allows for some exploration of the politics of northern India, and in particular the struggle for independence of the Gurkhas, this largely feels like window dressing for the centre of the novel, the lives of the main characters and the cast of eccentrics that circles them. The book really only comes to life when it jumps across to follow the cook’s son struggling to make a life for himself in New York. I wasn’t surprised to subsequently read that this is the author’s current home.
This has all been done before, and better, most obviously by Rushdie. The contrast with White Tiger though is interesting. Here the portrayal of India remains convincingly honest; the police are corrupt, there is crushing poverty, which robs people of their dignity, tourists are crass and insensitive – but at the same time the country has its beauty and the people have their charm, even when you have to struggle to find it. The book is well written, and the descriptive prose is very well done. For me this was not enough, and while this novel was head and shoulders above White Tiger, it nevertheless disappointed. Incidentally I found the title pompous and patronising – yes everyone has experienced loss of some kind of another, and it has had an affect on their situation and personality, and yes there is an obvious read across to India itself, but the same could be said of just about anyone and any country.