Hearts in search of home

Questions of identity weave throughout this rich, tragicomic second novel by Kiran Desai.

Over the course of many years of both novel-reading and theatergoing I find I have become preoccupied with endings. It seems they're just so very difficult to do.

Overly tidy denouements are hard to pull off because they sacrifice so much of reality. But inconclusive finishes that leave plenty of strings dangling don't really satisfy either - and sometimes lead one to suspect that at a certain point the writer simply ran out of ideas.

That's why I was really curious, as I turned the last page of The Inheritance of Loss, to see how novelist Kiran Desai would handle the conclusion of a narrative up until then so skillfully unfolded.

I was not disappointed. In keeping with the confident touch displayed throughout this rich, beguiling tale, the final scene treats the heart to one last moment of wild, comic joy - even as it satisfies the head by refusing to relinquish the dark reality that is the life of its characters.

Desai, who was born in India but has lived in both England and the United States, has given us two splendid novels. Her first, "Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard," is set in the Himalayas and concerns a black-sheep son who, after losing his job at the post office, climbs into a guava tree and refuses to come back down.

"The Inheritance of Loss," Desai's second work, zips back and forth between Kalimpong, a tiny Himalayan burg, and the streets of New York City.

It is populated by characters who are mostly either exiles, eccentrics, or both. It is a work full of color and comedy, even as it challenges all to face the same heart-wrenching questions that haunt the immigrant: Who am I? Where do I belong?

At the center of the story is Sai, the orphaned teenage granddaughter of a English-educated Indian judge. Since the death of her parents under the wheels of a bus in Moscow (where her father was studying to become an astronaut), Sai has lived with her grandfather at Cho Oyu, a crumbling mansion built years before by a Scotsman pursuing the dream of romance in the Himalayas. (One of the major themes laced through the book is the distances its characters travel as they pursue hopes that inevitably elude them.)

The judge, Jemubhai, seems to have had his heart frozen long ago when he studied at Cambridge University and learned to despise his fellow Indians. The only creature he truly loves now is a purebred dog named Mutt.

Fortunately for Sai, however, the cook at Cho Oyu cherishes her as if she were his own. His actual child, Biju, is living in New York, eking out a bare existence waiting tables and sleeping in a basement (even as his father imagines him to be amassing wealth and prestige).

Inevitably, however, as Sai has grown older, the cook's love has no longer been enough, and now she has turned her attention to her young tutor, Gyan. Gyan, an ethnic Nepalese, loves Sai in return - until he becomes swept up with a group of insurgents agitating for freedom from India and decides he needs to despise her and her bourgeois ways.

Other finely sketched Kalimpong characters include two elderly Anglophile Indian sisters who sip tea and read Jane Austen, safe within the confines of the estate they call Mon Ami, and a Swiss priest named Father Booty who keeps a dairy and dreams of teaching Indians to make cheese.

As the insurgency grows in strength, however, all of these lives will be upended. Those who have known power and privilege will be required to taste life without it, while those who attempt to seize such prizes will discover how difficult they are, both to attain and to maintain. All of the novel's characters eventually come to share Sai's suspicion that life is more often defined by loss than by fulfillment.

And yet, nothing sours the warm heart at the center of this novel. Desai is sometimes compared to Salman Rushdie, and the energy and fecundity of imagination in her works do make them somewhat akin to his. But the tenderness in her novels is all her own.

Desai certainly wants us to explore the pain of the immigrant, and the unfairness of a world in which, as one character puts it, "one side travels to be a servant, and the other side travels to be treated like a king."

But this is not a political diatribe. The epigraph to the novel includes a line from Borges which reads: "My humanity is in feeling we are all voices of the same poverty."

The story that Desai offers us includes a hard look at physical poverty, but that's not the only kind her characters come to recognize. No one in this book easily comes by the sense of belonging that all seem to crave.

India is both the place that Biju (who is Indian) dreams of escaping and where Father Booty (who is not Indian) longs to remain. But once in New York Biju is not immune from nostalgia. He can "feel the pulse of the forest, smell the humid air, the green black lushness; he could imagine all its different textures, the plumage of banana, the stark spear of the cactus, the delicate gesture of ferns."

Longing is perhaps the thing that the characters in this novel do best. They long for home, they long for love, they long for acceptance - yet rarely are they skilled at locating any of the above.

That's not to say that the lives in this story don't include tenderness and occasional moments of cozy pleasure. They do. But perhaps Gyan, the young tutor, says it best when he glimpses - after failing to find a sense of purpose in history and politics - that "happiness has a smaller location."

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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