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Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss: A Marxist Reading


Arghya Singh

Ph. D.  Research Scholar

Ranchi University

Jharkhand, India




The present paper examines popular Indian diasporic writer Kiran Desai’s Man Booker Prize winning novel The Inheritance of Loss from a Marxist perspective and also offers a critique of how viewing texts and discourses through this lens often obliterating questions of gender, caste, problematic of the nation, and so on while preoccupying itself with issues of economy and production. The paper endeavours to synthesize critical engagement with the story along with engagement with the issues in assigning the tool of Marxist critical inquiry. The paper also examines how far has the privileged position of the author of the novel, Kiran Desai, in the global caste and class system impacted the presentation of specific subjects such as women’s bodies in public spaces, ideas about nation and nationalism etc.


Keywords: Class, Community, Displacement, Globalisation, Identity, Marxist, Migration


Anita Desai in her popular novel The Inheritance of Loss has made an extension of her idea of temporal fixity of the condition of the powerless and underprivileged masses and the tool employed by her effectively is the Marxist philosophy. The very epigraph of Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss bears the Marxist undertone. The epigraph of the novel is taken from the poem “Boast of Quietness” composed by Jorge Luis Borges who was vehemently opposed to Marxism and Communism on the ground that the State must never be more powerful and privileged than the individual. A cursory look of the poem is enough to understand that the poem ensues in interrogating the urban-rural division in which people from cities are presented as highly active and busy. The epigraph can also be gone through as a critique of the metropolis keeping up hegemony over knowledge production and putting down of history, subjugating the narratives and suppressed voices of those on the margins – the subalterns. What Borges presents to us is an elaborate analysis on the infinite and timelessness of the human condition. It gives rise to an utter sense of despair and hopelessness and foreshadows the forces of history repeating themselves to iterate the same motives of domination and power by one community of people over the other, with very little room for the dominated class to set themselves free from this historical cycle and alter their social and material condition, denying them to eternal powerlessness. It is however, noteworthy that such presentation of human existence ends up universalizing the experiences of men – rural, urban, peasant or proletariat – and totally obliterates the realities of men’s lives.


The novel unfolds its action with the introduction of Judge, Sai and Mutt, the judge’s beloved dog inhabiting the living room of Cho Oyu, the bungalow built by a Scotsman and later bought by the judge with the prospect of living like a “foreigner in his own country” (Desai 29). The cook is brought to us somewhere in the dark kitchen in the back, busy with her attempt to light a fire for cooking. Right from the introductory chapter of the novel, Desai concentrates on identifying two of the main characters by their profession – the first on is the judge, Jemubhai Patel, and the other one is the cook, Panna Lal. Interestingly enough, even though this nomenclature found its basis on profession is well kept up throughout the book, the judge is now and then referred to by his given name in several occasions in the story, but the cook’s name makes its appearance only once. The same is also true in the case of the judge’s wife, Bela aka Nimi, whose name hardly finds mention in the whole story. Bela/Nimi struggles to speak. She is a subaltern. We hardly see her speaking except when she challenges the judge’s authority and addresses him a fool, leading to her getting hit and subsequently forsaken by her husband. Here it becomes evident how Desai has ingeniously posited the obscurity with which the powerless fades into the societal surface. In the globalised capitalistic world, the have-nots and the subjugated are actually looked upon as non-entities.


After having been undergone a long series of adventures and misadventures by most of the characters crowding the text, the climax comes to us unaltered in the actual condition of the Judge or the cook, excluding that the Judge loses his precious dog Mutt, and the cook reunites with his son, Biju. However, their position in society hardly changes. Even Biju’s arrival from America brings about no prospect for the cook’s future to ameliorate as Biju is robbed of all his earnings and savings on his way to Kalimpong and is even left unclad on his back. As Desai propagates through one of Sai’s musings, “certain moves made long ago had produced all of them: Sai, judge, Mutt, cook” (199) in climatic order of importance as mentioned in the social strata of class and caste and it seems to them almost impossible to get rid of their fate as destined by the value structure or hierarchy of society.


Almost all the characters Sai, judge, the cook, Gyan, Biju, Noni, Lola, Father Booty, Uncle Potty and even minor characters like Mrs. Sen, the Afghan Princesses, Budhoo the watchman etc. are presented anchorless or without  root in a state of transit between living in a place and being eligible to make claims on it. The GNLF or the Gorkha National Liberation Front movement that works as the backdrop of the book also is drawn on issues of ownership of, and belonging to, a land. Sai is presented as a foil to the GNLF agitators as a cosmopolitan citizen of the world, whereas her imaginative and literary wanderings show her a universal human subject, although this universe to which Sai is presented to belong is only made up of the West or global North. Her evenings spent with Lola, Noni, Uncle Potty and Father Booty lead her to look upon “how music, alcohol, and friendship together could create a grand civilization” (223). However, it is the common location of class that unites together this community of people and ties them up in camaraderie. As is surfaced all through the book, people who do not experience and share  a common community eventually get distanced, as in the situations of the judge and his former friend Bose, who has confronted disfavor among the powerful elite of former British civil servants and has fallen from grace, thus losing his prestige and pension, thereby falling in the hierarchies of class and wealth; Sai and Gyan who see their relationship stagnating due to the existent class division between them; Sai and the cook understanding the pretentious and tenuousness nature of their friendship since they inhibit markedly hierarchical class positions; Noni and Lola constantly dispiriting their maid Kesang from sharing personal information with them as “it was important to draw the lines properly between classes or it harmed everyone on both sides of the great divide” (67). The minimal dialogue taken place between the judge and the cook is constrained within instructions about the duties of the cook and his responses to the judge on being spoken to. The cook was fourteen years old when he had started to live up with the judge but in spite of being together for decades, the class division between them has kept them distancing, aloof and even impersonal. Class also tells upon the way the cook looks upon his relationship with the judge:


He has been brought up in a society where the English have been those with privilege, wealth and power. Coloured by this, along with his low self-esteem, he feels less successful than his father: “A severe comedown, he thought, from his father, who had served white men only” (63). These feelings of the cook also illustrate the racial aspects of class, and how the issues of race and class are linked together. (Lone, 2008)


Gyan is the math tutor of Sai and has a special love and concern for the village near Kalimpong where he lives. When he has to turn up Sai to teach her, Gyan has to pass a long and arduous journey leaving his lower class location and only then does he makes his entry into the upper class environs of Cho Oyu. Even though, in spite of his education, ambition and pursuit of the profession of teaching which is looked upon as ‘noble’ and worthy of respect, Gyan is accepted in low esteem by the judge due to his lower class position. On the other hand, when Sai sets out to look for Gyan she journeys backwards not only in terms of class location, but also in temporal sense, to a place that is in the past to the time that she occupies. In this way, the class location that people occupy ascertains them in a temporal stasis that is very difficult to step out.


Contrasting these two journeys with Biju’s journey indicates that even after physical mobility, class mobility is not afforded to him. On the other hand, when the judge journeyed to England, he was able to travel upwards in the class hierarchy as a result of that journey. What is interesting in the judge’s case however is that his journey took place in a world that was less globalised and he also had the privilege of a business-minded middle class upward mobile father and a huge dowry from his marriage to Bela/Nimi. This leads one to come into conclusion that class mobility is, in most cases, afforded only to those who already occupy the middle or upper rungs of the economic ladder.


In any Marxist analysis, the framework of examination is by and large predicated upon distinction of class. While a useful and effective tool in the contemporary global capitalistic setting, preoccupation with an investigation of class domination and forces of production furnishes the global canvas mistakenly homogeneous and only focuses on economic frame works, forces of production, and their impacts while wholly disregarding variegated facts of culture, caste, race, gender,  region, religion, ethnicity, and so forth. A Marxist viewpoint of society rising out of a casteless Western epistemological discourse is always permeated with such cognitive violence. While looking upon the global impacts of capitalism and consumerism, the labour of women, be it the market or reproductive labour at home, is wholly ignored in any reading of this novel. Most of the characters functioning ‘feminine’ labour of cooking, cleaning, serving, tending etc. are men, viz., the cook and Biju, and even in spite of being exploited, they are paid financial compensation for that work. One should note here too that men belonging to upper class are not presented doing these works anywhere in the story. The character of Mrs. Sen is brought to us as peddling goods on a motorbike in the market and thereby giving rise to the image of a self-reliant woman who is wholly self-made. This kind of depiction invisibilises, depreciates and devalues the reproductive labour that most of the women have to perform inside the exploitative patriarchal setting within the four walls of domesticity.


Biju’s situation inhibiting as an illegal immigrant in America is but a miniscule portrayal of the vast global labour migration occurring ostensibly because of globalization, in which “one side travels to be a servant and the other side travels to live like a king” (Desai 269). This globalization is nothing but neo-colonialism through which technologically progressed and rich and prosperous nations, previously part of the imperial Empire, seek to stretch their ever-growing markets through skilful practices of market-domination and control. “For the sake of this expansion, these nations create market and labour conditions wherein poor lesser advanced countries – which are former colonies – whose economic and resource deprivation stems from their colonized history, have to either choose to submit to these market conditions or face domination and suppression through economic sanctions and political control” (Kohn, 2014). Globalization thus, apart from being hailed as “the initiator of the world system into that of a “global village” is also theorised to be dismantling the authority of the nation-state and a capitalistic economic system heralded by mega-corporations and trans-national organisations is taking its place”  (Kellner, 2002).


Kiran Desai thus depicts the Nation-State as “a place of refuge and of departure for larger spaces” (Sabo, 2012) without contextually placing its position in the globalised network of capitalism and neo-imperialism. After such a critical observation and reading of the novel through a Marxist lens, the need for an intersectional study in delving into the variegated realities and social practices that supply the fictionalized lives of postcolonial subjects in an increasingly market-driven, globalized world appears very clear. Locating the characters’ inter-personal clashes and journeys initially on class locations foregrounds the working of the market-economy but effectively obliterates the role of gender, caste, citizenship and ethnicity as working factors that moulds and tells upon the lived shared experiences of postcolonial subjects.


Works Cited


Desai, Kiran. The Inheritance of Loss. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006.

Kellner, Douglas. "Theorizing Globalization." Sociological Theory 20.3 (2002): 285-305.

Kohn, Margaret. Spring 2014. 21 October 2016 <<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/colonialism/>>.

Lone, Sissel Marie. "Race, Gender and Class in The Inheritance of Loss and Brick Lane A comparative study." Spring 2008. www.duo.uio.no. 21 October, 2016 <https://www.duo.uio.no/bitstream/handle/10852/25539/Masterxthesis.pdf?sequence=1>.

Sabo, Oana. "Disjunctures and diaspora in Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss." The Journal of Commonwealth Literature (2012).