The characters in Desai’s novel have diverse economic backgrounds, from the judge’s wealth to the poverty of the cook. In The Inheritance of Loss, the gulf between those with extreme privilege and those living in poverty is generally shown to be a direct consequence of the legacy of colonialism. Though privilege comes in many forms, Desai illustrates the vicious and self-reinforcing cycle of class privilege by showing how those who have privilege continue to gain wealth and social standing, while those without such privilege live in poverty that only deepens their disadvantaged position. Colonialism reinforces the existing rigid class structure in India by enabling those with existing privilege and disadvantaging those without it, all while falsely claiming a meritocratic attitude towards poverty and privilege.
The central cultural and economic struggle in the novel is experienced by the Nepali people living in India. Gyan and his family represent the typical experience of those who had been displaced and experience a cycle of poverty because of their position in the caste hierarchy. In 1947, the protestors explain, the British granted India freedom and also formed the Muslim nation of Pakistan but did not create an arrangement for the Nepalis in India. Though they represent eighty percent of the population in Kalimpong, they have neither schools nor hospitals that are Nepali-run, and jobs are not given to Nepalis. They are laborers often working as servants. Even though they constitute the majority, the wealth is not in their hands, and so they remain relatively powerless because no one will afford them opportunities. On a more individual level, Gyan is ashamed of his home, which is somewhat modern but very close to ruin. Desai comments that this is not “picturesque poverty” but something even more dismal. Because of this, Gyan is ashamed of being with Sai and bringing her back to his home, which creates a rift between them. She calls him a hypocrite because he enjoys cheese and chocolate at her house but condemns these foods when he’s with the Nepalis because he is unable to afford them. What she doesn’t realize, however, is that he is condemning the fact that some live in luxury while others are extremely poor.
Though the judge himself had not come from a particularly wealthy family, the opportunity to attend school in Britain creates a cycle of more and more wealth and opportunity for his future generations. After going to school in Cambridge, the judge passes the British exams needed to be admitted to the Indian Civil Service and join the government’s judiciary body. Because of this, the judge’s salary increases from ten pounds a month to three hundred pounds a year. He and another Indian friend together resolve to put their Indian-ness behind them, and they avoid the other Indian students. Because they start to associate Indians with poverty, they divide themselves even further from their culture. When the judge’s daughter (with whom he had very little contact) and her husband move to Moscow, her daughter Sai is then sent to a convent and grows up “Anglicised” as well. Sai describes how she only learned how to make tea in the English way; she had never learned the Indian way. When she leaves the convent, she talks about some of the lessons she had implicitly learned: cake is better than laddoos (a type of Indian confection); silverware is better than using one’s hands; worshipping Jesus is better than worshipping a phallic symbol; English is better than Hindi. But she only learns these lessons because the judge is able to pay for her to attend school at the convent. When Sai is on the train to Cho Oyu (the judge’s home), the nun accompanying her criticizes the people who defecate on the train tracks. Thus, not only are they too poor to have a system of plumbing, but they are then criticized for trying to go to the bathroom—a basic human necessity.
Biju provides another, similar perspective on poverty and privilege as experienced by immigrants journeying to America, noting that those with fortune continue to gain fortune, and those who are poor continue to be luckless. At the immigration desk, Biju observes how the more desperate the people are, the more likely they are to be turned away by the embassy officials. On the other hand, those who are rich enough to travel can prove that they will not stay in America illegally because their passports show that they have already been abroad. Stamps from places such as England, Switzerland, America, and New Zealand and corresponding return dates prove that they reliably return to India. Therefore, the more traveled a person is, the more likely it is that they will be allowed to travel again. And in New York, even with aspirations of social mobility, being an undocumented immigrant means being relegated to a “shadow class,” because people must often keep moving, finding new addresses, jobs, and names. This happens to Biju as well: after he secures a job, it often comes under threat when there are green card checks, or when people complain because he smells. Thus, the social mobility America promises is not extended to those who are the poorest. When Biju returns to India, discouraged by this “shadow” life, the bags of everyone on the airplane are lost. The airline states it will only give compensation to nonresident Indians and foreigners, not the resident Indians. The resident Indian passengers complain about this injustice—those from rich countries and those who are wealthy enough to live outside of India are treated better than those who live within it. Biju then remarks on the nonresident Indians’ good manners as they stand in line for their compensation, thereby “proving” how much they deserved that good fortune.
In both locales—India and America alike—poverty and privilege are each treated as earned and deserved. Though this belief system is an extension of the caste system that India had prior to colonization, this system is also reinforced by colonization and meritocratic myths of capitalism. Those who are most able to afford and adopt British culture are rewarded for their assimilation, and are then assumed to be deserving of that reward. This idea also carries into America, as people immigrate in search of opportunity, but are largely denied it unless they are already wealthy. Those who are most able to afford to be there are accepted into the country most readily—a direct contradiction to the mythology of opportunity and social mobility in America which brings so many immigrants there in the first place.
Poverty vs. Privilege ThemeTracker
Poverty vs. Privilege Quotes in The Inheritance of Loss
His lines had been honed over centuries, passed down through generations, for poor people needed certain lines; the script was always the same, and they had no option but to beg for mercy. The cook knew instinctively how to cry.
An accident, they said, and there was nobody to blame—it was just fate in the way fate has of providing the destitute with a greater quota of accidents for which nobody can be blamed.
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.
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—
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. […] The emptiness Biju felt returned to him over and over, until eventually he made sure not to let friendships sink deep anymore.
It was a masculine atmosphere and Gyan felt a moment of shame remembering his tea parties with Sai on the veranda, the cheese toast, queen cakes from the baker, and even worse, the small warm space they inhabited together, the nursery talk—
It suddenly seemed against the requirements of his adulthood.
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.
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.”
There were houses like this everywhere, of course, common to those who had struggled to the far edge of the middle class—just to the edge, only just, holding on desperately—but were at every moment being undone, the house slipping back, not into the picturesque poverty that tourists liked to photograph but into something truly dismal—modernity proffered in its meanest form, brand-new one day, in ruin the next.
He felt everything shifting and clicking into place around him, felt himself slowly shrink back to size, the enormous anxiety of being a foreigner ebbing—that unbearable arrogance and shame of the immigrant.