Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble.
An’ if I stay there will be double
(from The Clash’s single Should I Stay or Should I Go?)
The Inheritance of Loss won the Man Booker prize in 2006. It opens in the remote Himalayan town of Kalimpong, where a retired judge lives in his dilapidated mansion with his cook, his teenage granddaughter, Sai, and his dog, Mutt.
Everyone appears misplaced, somehow. The Cambridge-educated judge is “a foreigner in his own country.” The cook was “disappointed” to be placed with the judge, “a severe comedown, he thought, from his father, who had served white men only.” The orphan Sai – sent away first by her parents to a Catholic boarding school when they leave to work in Russia, and then, when they die there “under the wheels of foreigners” in a road accident, by the nuns to her estranged grandfather – “could speak no language but English and pidgin Hindi” and belongs nowhere and to no-one.
The judge’s neighbours, sisters Lola and Noni, live in a “rose-covered cottage named Mon Ami,” complete with “Marks and Spencer panties…all of Jane Austen…Wedgewood…BBC news.” Meanwhile in New York, Biju, the cook’s son, sent to America by his father to become “a fine-suited-and-booted-success”, feels “a pang for village life” as he ekes out a living.
Kalimpong’s remoteness affords no protection from the “dissatisfaction in the hills, gathering insurgency, men and guns.” As the revolution gains momentum, the dislocation intensifies: Sai’s tutor/sweetheart, Gyan, a Nepali, leaves her to align himself with the Gorka movement; Swiss Father Booty, who has lived in Kalimpong for 45 years, is forcibly repatriated; Mutt is stolen and sold.
If this makes book sound worthy but dull, it’s the opposite: it’s a funny, tender, bitter-sweet story, where small, private actions come to have huge, political consequences and vice versa.
So, stay or go? Sai vows to leave. Biju overcomes seemingly insurmountable obstacles to return home. At the end Sai, hoping Gyan has come to tell her “I will love you after all,” instead witnesses Biju’s homecoming, him and the cook “leaping at each other.” For a moment “the truth was apparent.”
Perhaps I started with the wrong song. Perhaps I should have chosen All You Need Is Love.
**** One of the best books I’ve read this year