The Inheritance of Loss takes place in the 1980s between two worlds: the austere, upper class home of the judge and Sai at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas, and an assortment of New York City restaurants where Biju works. With India still just beginning to establish itself as an independent nation less than 40 years after the end of British colonial rule, and New York continuing to experience waves of immigration, the book explores the effects of colonialism and globalization. Desai’s novel contains a great deal of cynicism about globalization, treating it as a harmful consequence of colonialism as well as showing that it negatively impacts all the book’s characters, both economically and personally, regardless of social standing.
For the judge, who experienced colonization firsthand in his youth and owed his career to the British, globalization results in a loss of identity and an extreme feeling of self-hatred. When the judge is nineteen he studies at Cambridge in order to join the civil service. However, he finds that he quickly becomes isolated because even the lowest members of English society turn their noses up at him and complain that he stinks of curry. In response to this, he begins to reject his Indian identity. His studies and exams focus solely on British cultural staples, like trains and British poets. When he passes these exams and achieves his judgeship in the Indian Civil Service, he is showered with more and more praise, and is treated like a “man of dignity.” He begins to envy the English and loathe Indians. Yet even on the train back to India, he sits alone reading “How to Speak Hindustani,” because he is still ill at ease with the English, but doesn’t speak the language where he is being posted as a judge. Globalization is shown to be particularly harmful for Indian people in positions like the judge’s because it pushes them to idealize a culture into which they are never fully accepted, and one which exploits their own people. After the judge’s education and career is over, and after India gains independence, he moves to the house at Kanchenjunga (which had been built by a Scotsman) because of its isolation. Desai writes that “the judge could live here, in this shell, this skull, with the solace of being a foreigner in his own country, for this time he would not learn the language.” His complete separation from both British and Indian cultures shows the lasting and deeply harmful effects of colonization, even after it is no longer in effect.
Years after the judge moves to Kanchenjunga, his granddaughter Sai moves in with him. She and their upper-class neighbors around Kanchenjunga believe that their foreign imports, like Swiss cheese, Italian opera music, and Russian paintings, are simply a way for them to express themselves in the modern, globalized era. They don’t realize, however, that these preferences come from a deep-seated cultural elitism imposed by the British, which eventually harms them as well. Lola, Noni, Sai, and the judge’s neighbors all speak English and watch the BBC. They have paintings by Russian aristocrats and an entire collection of Jane Austen books. They become fascinated by the fact that chicken tikka masala has replaced fish and chips as the number one takeaway dinner in Britain, finding it humorous that the British would prefer tikka masala. Their laughter demonstrates their bias: they seem to take it for granted that British food is better than Indian food. By repeatedly elevating all forms of Western culture above their own, they implicitly denigrate their own cultural heritage as Indians. Eventually, due to the strikes in town brought on by Nepali protests, Lola and Noni are forced to fight to maintain their quality of life. However, they begin to stand out more and more for their wealth, and thus become afraid of what others might do to them or their homes. The things they had previously seen as the harmless trappings of a cosmopolitan life—Trollope, the BBC, Christmas—suddenly make them a target for robberies. Gradually, Nepalis begin to move onto their land in huts. In this way, their British imports become liabilities for them, as others begin to see them as signs of cultural elitism and economic exploitation.
Biju’s storyline provides an alternative perspective on globalization through the lens of foreigners arriving in New York City. Biju understands that while foreign cultures and cuisines may be fetishized and highly valued in cosmopolitan cities like New York, actual immigrants continue to be undervalued. In each of the restaurants in which Biju works, the food is appreciated more than the workers themselves, particularly when the food is from Western countries, and the people are from Eastern (or African) countries. Customers at the French bistro are satisfied with the food until they realize that it is being prepared by Algerians, Senegalese, and Moroccans. Thus, globalization can devalue the people from certain countries, particularly those, it seems, that have previously been colonized. Biju himself then begins to realize the hypocrisy of his own actions toward others, in both India and America. Many people in India hold prejudice against Pakistanis as well as black people, and Biju comes to see the irony of the admiration he had felt toward white people, even though they “arguably had done India great harm.” On the other hand, he showed prejudice toward many others in America (such as Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese people), though they had never done a single harmful thing to India. Thus, even though these cultures have a shared history of oppression under colonial rule, they hold similar prejudices against each other. Biju’s storyline points to the ways in which one of the legacies of colonialism is that the people who were once its subjects often internalize the colonizer’s hatred of non-whites and non-Westerners in a globalized world.
Because The Inheritance of Loss spans a large amount of time and two continents, it is able to show the effects of colonization firsthand and the ensuing harm wrought by globalization. Whether it reveals subconscious prejudices, leads to a rejection of one’s own culture, or engenders feelings of self-hatred, globalization visibly perpetuates the oppressive legacy of colonialism. Because it is perpetuated even by those to whom it is harmful, it becomes a particularly insidious form of oppression—a form which, the novel argues, seems impossible to erase in the world as it currently exists.
Colonialism and Globalization ThemeTracker
Colonialism and Globalization Quotes in The Inheritance of Loss
Still, they considered themselves lucky to have found each other, each one empty with the same loneliness, each one fascinating as a foreigner to the other, but both educated with an eye to the West, and so they could sing together quite tunefully while strumming a guitar. They felt free and brave, part of a modern nation in a modern world.
The judge could live here, in this shell, this skull, with the solace of being a foreigner in his own country, for this time he would not learn the language.
This underneath, and on top a flat creed: cake was better than laddoos, fork spoon knife better than hands, sipping the blood of Christ and consuming a wafer of his body was more civilized than garlanding a phallic symbol with marigolds. English was better than Hindi.
This habit of hate had accompanied Biju, and he found that he possessed an awe of white people, who arguably had done India great harm, and a lack of generosity regarding almost everyone else, who had never done a single harmful thing to India.
The dowry bids poured in and his father began an exhilarated weighing and tallying: ugly face—a little more gold, a pale skin—a little less. A dark and ugly daughter of a rich man seemed their best bet.
“Don’t work too hard.”
“One must, Mrs. Rice.”
He had learned to take refuge in the third person and to keep everyone at bay, to keep even himself away from himself like the Queen.
One should not give up one’s religion, the principles of one’s parents and their parents before them. No, no matter what. […] Those who could see a difference between a holy cow and an unholy cow would win. Those who couldn’t see it would lose.
Don't you have any pride? Trying to be so Westernized. They don't want you!!!! Go there and see if they will welcome you with open arms. You will be trying to clean their toilets and even then they won't want you.
But the child shouldn't be blamed for a father's crime, she tried to reason with herself, then. But should the child therefore also enjoy the father's illicit gain?
There was no system to soothe the unfairness of things; justice was without scope […] For crimes that took place in the monstrous dealings between nations, for crimes that took place in those intimate spaces between two people without a witness, for these crimes the guilty would never pay. There was no religion and no government that would relieve the hell.
He thought of how the English government and its civil servants had sailed away throwing their topis overboard, leaving behind only those ridiculous Indians who couldn’t rid themselves of what they had broken their souls to learn.
The man with the white curly wig and a dark face covered in powder, bringing down his hammer, always against the native, in a world that was still colonial.
They rushed out: “This is our land!”
“It is not your land. It is free land,” they countered, putting down the sentence, flatly, rudely.
“It is our land.”
“It is unoccupied land.”