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Kiran Desai's tragicomic novel The Inheritance of Loss spans two continents and three generations. The story cuts between New York and India, contrasting the menial jobs and meager conditions of immigrant life in the city with the political unrest engulfing an isolated Himalayan hill town.
Fiction is a family business for Desai. Her mother, the novelist Anita Desai, was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize three times. But last year, it was the daughter who finally claimed Britain's most prestigious literary award. The judges hailed her novel as a "radiant, funny and moving family saga" and praised the writing for its "humane breadth and wisdom, comic tenderness and powerful political acuteness." At 35, Desai was the youngest woman ever to win. Seven years in the making, The Inheritance of Loss is her second book. Desai's first novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, is also set in the Himalayas.
Like some of her characters, Desai has a foot in two countries. Raised in India, England, and the United States, she now divides her time between Brooklyn and New Delhi. But the influence on her writing is more one-sided. As she told The Guardian last year, "I realize that I see everything through the lens of being Indian."
This reading ofThe Inheritance of Losstook place in April of 2007 at thePolitics and Prosebookstore in Washington, D.C.
Saeed Saeed caught a mouse at the Queen of Tarts, kicked it up with his shoe, dribbled it, tried to exchange it with Biju, who ran away, tossed it up, and as it came down, kicked it squeaking up again, laughing, "So it is you who has been eating the bread, eh, it is you eating the sugar?" It went hysterically up until it came down dead. Fun over. Back to work.
In Kalimpong, the cook was writing on an airmail form. He wrote in Hindi and then copied out the address in awkward English letters.
He was being besieged by requests for help. The more they asked the more they came the more they asked-Lamsang, Mr. Lobsang Phuntsok, Oni, Mr. Shezoon of the Lepcha Quarterly, Kesang, the hospital cleaner, the lab technician responsible for the tapeworm in formaldehyde, the man who plugged the holes in rusting pots, everyone with sons in the queue ready to be sent. They brought him chickens as gifts, little packets of nuts or raisins, offered him a drink at Ex-Army Thapa's Canteen, and he was beginning to feel as if he were a politician, a bestower of favors, a receiver of thanks.
The more pampered you are the more pampered you will be the more presents you receive the more presents you will get the more presents you receive the more you are admired the more you will be admired the more you are admired the more presents you will get the more pampered you will be-
"Bhai, dekho, aesa hai . . ." he would begin to lecture them. "Look, you have to have some luck, it is almost impossible to get a visa. . . ." It was superhumanly difficult, but he would write to his son. "Let's see, let's see, perhaps you will get lucky. . . ."
"Biju beta," he wrote, "you have been fortunate enough to get there, please do something for the others. . . ."
Then he applied a homemade mucilage of flour and water to glue down the sides of the airmail forms, sent them finning their way over the Atlantic, a whole shoal of letters. . . .
They would never know how many of them went astray in all the rickety connections made along the way, between the temperamental postman in the pouring rain, the temperamental van across the landslides on the way to Siliguri, the lightning and thunder, the befogged airport, the journey from Calcutta all the way to the post office on 125th Street in Harlem that was barricaded like an Israeli army outpost in Gaza. The mailman abandoned the letters atop the boxes of legal residents, and sometimes the letters fell, were trampled, and tracked back outdoors.
But enough came through that Biju felt he might drown.
"Very bright boy, family very poor, please look after him, he already has a visa, will be arriving. . . . Please find a job for Poresh. In fact, even his brother is ready to go. Help them. Sanjeeb Thom Karma Ponchu, and remember Budhoo, watchman at Mon Ami, his son. . . ."
"I know, man, I know how you feel," Saeed said.
Saeed Saeed's mother was dispensing his phone number and address freely to half of Stone Town. They arrived at the airport with one dollar in their pocket and his phone number, seeking admittance to an apartment that was bursting with men already, every scrap rented out: Rashid Ahmed Jaffer Abdullah Hassan Musa Lutfi Ali and a whole lot of others sharing beds in shifts.
"More tribes, more tribes. I wake up, go to the window, and there-MORE TRIBES. Every time I look-ANOTHER TRIBE. Everybody saying, 'Oh, no visas anymore, they are getting very strict, it so hard,' and in the meantime everybody who apply, EVERYBODY is getting a visa. Why they do this to me? That American Embassy in Dar-WHY??!! Nobody would give that Dooli a visa. Nobody. One look and you would say OK, something wrong here- but they give it to him!"
Saeed cooked cow peas and kingfish from the Price Chopper to cheer himself up, and plantains in sugar and coconut milk. This goo mixture smelling of hope so ripe, he slathered on French bread and offered to the others.
The sweetest fruit in all of Stone Town grew in the graveyard, and the finest bananas grew from the grandfather's grave of that same wayward Dooli whom the American Embassy in Dar es Salaam had so severely misjudged as to give him a visa-so Saeed was telling them when he glanced out of the window-
And in a second he was under the counter.
"Oh myeeee God!" Whispering. "Tribes, man, it's the tribes. Please God. Tell them I don't work here. How they get this address! My mother! I told her, 'No more!' Please! Omar, Go! Go! Go tell them to leave."
Outside the bakery stood a group of men, looking weary as if they'd been traveling several lifetimes, scratching their heads and staring at the Queen of Tarts.
"Why do you help?" asked Omar. "I stopped helping and now they all know I won't help and nobody comes to me."
"This is not the time to give a lecture."
Omar went out. "Who? Saaeed? No, no. What name? Soyad? No, no one of that name. Just me, Kavafya, and Biju."
"But he work here. His mother tell us."
"No. No. You all get moving. Nobody here who you want to see and if you make trouble WE get into trouble so now I ask you nicely, GO."
"Very good," said Saeed, "thank you. They have gone?"
"What are they doing?"
"They are still standing and looking," said Biju feeling brave and excited by someone else's misfortune. He was almost hopping.
The men were shaking their heads unwilling to believe what they'd heard.
Biju went out and came back in. "They say they will try your home address now." He felt a measure of pride in delivering this vital news. Realized he missed playing this sort of role that was common in India. One's involvement in other peoples' lives gave one numerous small opportunities for importance.
"They will come back. I know them. They will try many more times, or one will stay and the others will go. Close the door, close the window. . . ."
"We can't close the shop. Too hot, can't close the window."
"No. What if Mr. Bocher visit us?" He was the owner who dropped by at odd moments hoping to surprise them doing something against the rules.
"No sweati, bossi," Saeed would tell him. "We do everything you tell us just like you tell us. . . ."
"It's my life we're talking about, man, not little hot here and little hot there, boss or no boss. . . ."
They closed the window and the door, and from the floor he telephoned his apartment, "Hey Ahmed, don't answer the phone, man, that Dooli and all them boys have come from the airport! Lock up, stay down, don't stand, and don't go near the window."
"Hah! Why they give them a visa? How they buy the ticket!" They could hear the voice at the other end. Then it vanished into Swahili in a potent dungform, a rich, steaming animal evacuation.
The phone rang in the bakery.
"Don't answer," he said to Biju who was reaching for it.
When the answering machine came on, it went off.
"The tribes! They always scared of the answering machine!"
It rang again and then again. Tring tring tring tring. Answering machine. Phone down.
Again: tring tring.
"Saeed, you have to talk to them." Biju's heart was suddenly pulsing with the anguish of the ringing. It could be the boss, it could be India on the line, his father his father-
Dead? Dying? Diseased?
Kavafya picked it up and a voice projected into the room raw and insistent with panic. "Emergency! Emergency! We are coming from airport. Emergency Emergency, Saaeed S-aa-eed?"
He put it down and unplugged it.
Saeed: "Those boys, let them in, they will never leave. They are desperate. Desperate. Once you let them in, once you hear their story, you can't say no, you know their aunty, you know their cousin, you have to help the whole family, and once they begin, they will take everything. You can't say this is my food, like Americans, and only I will eat it. Ask Thea"-she was the latest pooky pooky interest in the bakery-"where she live with three friends, everyone go shopping separately, separately they cook their dinner, together they eat their separate food. The fridge they divide up, and into their own place-their own place!-they put what is left in a separate box. One of the roommates, she put her name on the box so it say who it belong to!" His finger went up in uncharacteristic sternness. "In Zanzibar what one person have he have to share with everyone, that is good, that is the right way-
"But then everyone have nothing, man! That is why I leave Zanzibar."
Biju's sympathy for Saeed leaked into sympathy for himself, then Saeed's shame into his own shame that he would never help all those people praying for his help, waiting daily, hourly, for his response. He, too, had arrived at the airport with a few dollar bills bought on the Kathmandu black market in his pocket and an address for his father's friend, Nandu, who lived with twenty-two taxi drivers in Queens. Nandu had also not answered the phone and had tried to hide when Biju arrived on his doorstep, and then when he thought Biju had left, had opened the door and to his distress found Biju still standing there two hours later.
"No jobs here anymore," he said. "If I were a young man I would go back to India, more opportunities there now, too late for me to make a change, but you should listen to what I'm saying. Everyone says you have to stay, this is where you'll make a good life, but much better for you to go back."
Nandu met someone at his work who told him of the basement in Harlem and ever since he had deposited Biju there, Biju had never seen him again.
He had been abandoned among foreigners: Jacinto the superintendent, the homeless man, a stiff bow-legged coke runner, who walked as if his balls were too big for normal walking, with his stiff yellow bow-legged dog, who also walked as if his balls were too big for normal walking. In the summer, families moved out of cramped quarters and sat on the sidewalk with boom boxes; women of great weight and heft appeared in shorts with shaven legs, stippled with tiny black dots, and groups of deflated men sat at cards on boards balanced atop garbage cans, swigged their beer from bottles held in brown paper bags. They nodded kindly at him, sometimes they even offered him a beer, but Biju did not know what to say to them, even his tiny brief "Hello" came out wrong: too softly, so they did not hear, or just as they had turned away.
The green card the green card. The. . . .
Without it he couldn't leave. To leave he wanted a green card. This was the absurdity. How he desired the triumphant After The Green Card Return Home, thirsted for it-to be able to buy a ticket with the air of someone who could return if he wished, or not, if he didn't wish. . . . He watched the legalized foreigners with envy as they shopped at discount baggage stores for the miraculous, expandable third-world suitcase, accordion-pleated, filled with pockets and zippers to unhook further crannies, the whole structure unfolding into a giant space that could fit in enough to set up an entire life in another country.
Then, of course, there were those who lived and died illegal in America and never saw their families, not for ten years, twenty, thirty, never again.
How did one do it? At the Queen of Tarts, they watched the TV shows on Sunday mornings on the Indian channel that showcased an immigration lawyer fielding questions.
A taxi driver appeared on the screen: watching bootleg copies of American movies he had been inspired to come to America, but how to move into the mainstream? He was illegal, his taxi was illegal, the yellow paint was illegal, his whole family was here, and all the men in his village were here, perfectly infiltrated and working within the cab system of the city. But how to get their papers? Would any viewer out there wish to marry him? Even a disabled or mentally retarded green card holder would be fine-
It was, of course, Saeed Saeed who found out about the van and took Omar, Kavafya, and Biju to Washington Heights, and there they waited on a street corner. All the shops had grills, even the little chewing gum and cigarette places. The pharmacies and liquor stores had buzzers; he saw people ringing, gaining admittance into a cage set into the shop from where you could survey the shelves and point to what you wanted, and after money had been placed in the revolving tray set into a little hole carved out of the grill and bullet-proof glass, purchased objects would be sent grudgingly around. Even in the Jamaican patty place, the lady, the patties, the callaloo and rotis, the Drinks Nice Every Time-sat behind a high-security barricade.
Still, it was jolly. Many people thronged by. Outside the Church of Zion, a preacher baptized a whole line of people in the spray of a fire hydrant. A man emerged in a Florida hibiscus shorts-and-shirt combo, thin knobby knees, crinkly pomaded hair, little square Charlie Chaplin-Hitler mustache, carrying a tape player, "Guantanamera . . . guajira Guantanamera. . . ." A pair of saucy women hailed him from the windows: "Oooo BABY! Look at them l e g s! Ooooooooo weeee! You free tonight?"
Another lady was giving advice to a younger woman who accompanied her: "Life is short, sweetheart-Put him out with the garbage! You are young, you should be happy! Poot! heem! out! weeth! de! gar-baje!"
Saeed was at home here. He lived two streets up and many people hailed him on the street.
A boy with a gold chain as fat as a bathtub attachment, his prosperity flashing out, slapped Saeed on the back. . . .
"What does he do?" Biju asked about the boy.
Saeed laughed. "Hustling."
To further chili-pepper the occasion, Saeed regaled them with a story of how he had been helping one of the tribes move; and a car stopped while they were struggling with boxes of patched clothes, an alarm clock, shoes, a blackened pot all the way from Zanzibar thrown into the suitcase by a tearful mother-and a gun came out of the car window and a voice said: "Put it in the back, boys." The trunk opened, and "That's all?" the voice behind the gun said in disgust. Then the car had driven off.
They waited at the corner, sweating away, my God, my God. . . . Finally a battered van came by and they paid into the cracked open door, handed over their photographs taken according to INS requirements showing a single bared ear and a three-quarter profile, and were thumbprinted through the crack. Two weeks later, they waited once more-
and. . . . The van did not come back again. The cost of this endeavor once again emptied Biju's savings envelope.
Omar suggested they console themselves since they were in the neighborhood.
Kavafya said he would join him.
Only thirty-five dollars.
Prices not raised.
Biju blushed to remember what he had said in his hot dog days. "Smell awful . . . black women. . . . Hubshi hubshi."
"It's too hot," he said, "for me to go."
But Saeed didn't have to go to whores.
He was meeting a new pooky pooky.
"What happened to Thea?" asked Biju.
"She has gone for hiking outside the city. I told her, 'AFRICAN MEN don't go to look at leaves!!' Anyway, man, I still have one or two pooky pookies that Thea don't know about."
"You better watch out," said Omar. "White women, they look good when they're young, but wait, they fall apart fast, by forty they look so ugly, hair falling out, lines everywhere, and those spots and those veins, you know what I'm talking about. . . ."
Saeed said, "Ah ah ah ha ha, I know, I know." He understood their jealousy.
At the bakery a customer found an entire mouse baked inside a sunflower loaf. It must have gone after the seeds. . . .
A team of health inspectors arrived. They entered in the style of
U.S. Marines, the FBI, the CIA, the NYPD; burst in: HANDS UP!
They found a burst sewage pipe, a hiccuping black drain, knives stored behind the toilet, rat droppings in the flour, and in a forgotten basin of eggs, single-celled organisms so comfortable they were reproducing on their own without inspiration from another.
The boss, Mr. Bocher, was called.
"The friggin' electricity blew," said Mr. Bocher, "it's hot outside, what the fuck are we supposed to do?"
But the same episode had occurred twice, in the days before Biju, Saeed, Omar, and Kavafya when there had been Karim, Nedim, and Jesus. The Queen of Tarts would be closed in favor of a Russian establishment.
"Fucking Russians! Crazy borscht and shit!" shouted Mr. Bocher in anger, but to no avail, and abruptly, it was all over again. "Fuck you, you fuckers," he yelled at the men who had worked for him.
"Come and visit uptown sometime, Biju man." Saeed quickly found employment at a Banana Republic, where he would sell to urban sophisticates the black turtleneck of the season, in a shop whose name was synonymous with colonial exploitation and the rapacious ruin of the third world.
Biju knew he probably wouldn't see him again. This was what happened, he had learned by now. You lived intensely with others, only to have them disappear overnight, since the shadow class was condemned to movement. The men left for other jobs, towns, got deported, returned home, changed names. Sometimes someone came popping around a corner again, or on the subway, then they vanished again. Adresses, phone numbers did not hold. The emptiness Biju felt returned to him over and over, until eventually he made sure not to let friendships sink deep anymore.
Lying on his basement shelf that night, he thought of his village where he had lived with his grandmother on the money his father sent each month. The village was buried in silver grasses that were taller than a man and made a sound, shuu shuuuu, shu shuuu, as the wind turned them this way and that. Down a dry gully through the grasses, you reached a tributary of the Jamuna where you could watch men traveling downstream on inflated buffalo skins, the creatures' very dead legs, all four, sticking straight up as they sailed along, and where the river scalloped shallow over the stones, they got out and dragged their buffalo skin boats over. Here, at this shallow place, Biju and his grandmother would cross on market trips into town and back, his grandmother with her sari tucked up, sometimes a sack of rice on her head. Fishing eagles hovered above the water, changed their horizontal glide within a single moment, plunged, rose sometimes with a thrashing muscle of silver. A hermit also lived on this bank, positioned like a stork, waiting, oh waiting, for the glint of another, an elusive mystical fish; when it surfaced he must pounce lest it be lost again and never return. . . . On Diwali the holy man lit lamps and put them in the branches of the peepul tree and sent them down the river on rafts with marigolds-how beautiful the sight of those lights bobbing in that young dark. When he had visited his father in Kalimpong, they had sat outside in the evenings and his father had reminisced: "How peaceful our village is. How good the roti tastes there! It is because the atta is ground by hand, not by machine . . . and because it is made on a choolah, better than anything cooked on a gas or a kerosene stove. . . . Fresh roti, fresh butter, fresh milk still warm from the buffalo. . . ." They had stayed up late. They hadn't noticed Sai, then aged thirteen, staring from her bedroom window, jealous of the cook's love for his son. Small red-mouthed bats drinking from the jhora had swept over again and again in a witch flap of black wings.