Throughout the novel, various characters express feelings of humiliation. Most of the time, these feelings are caused by the actions of someone else in a more powerful position. Though power and humiliation are not necessarily opposites, The Inheritance of Loss illuminates a correlation between the two as Desai paints a portrait of a society wherein humiliation is used as a tool by some to retain power over others.
The novel begins as young boys from the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) come to Cho Oyu (the judge and Sai’s house) in order to steal their guns. Their means of doing so is by proving their power over the judge, Sai, and the cook by threatening and humiliating them. The judge understands that the boys are more dangerous because of their age, as they have an insecure need to feel superior. When they take his guns, they also force the judge to set the table for them like a servant. They taunt him by saying that he can’t do anything on his own, demonstrating a need to feel proud through the denigration of others. Their treatment of the cook, who is a servant, is no better. He hides under a table and is made to beg for his life, asking not to be killed because he is only a poor man. They finish by forcing the judge, Sai, and the cook to say “I am a fool” and “Jai Gorkha,” meaning “Long live Ghorkaland,” the separate state that Nepalis demand in India. Thus, not only are the residents of Cho Oyu personally humiliated, but they are forced to denounce their pride in their country in order to lift up another state for the benefit of vigilante children.
The judge’s interactions with his wife, Nimi (which take place in flashbacks) demonstrate the push and pull of power within a marriage. In these interactions, the judge uses humiliation as a means of revenge for Nimi’s ignorance and mistakes as well as to maintain dominance in the relationship. When Nimi takes the judge’s powder puff, he is humiliated by his family because he is so distraught looking for it. When he discovers that his wife was the one who took it, he demeans her and rapes her. He grows to enjoy being cruel to her, as it buoys his own pride. If she cannot name a food on her plate in English, it is taken away from her. One day, after the judge returns from a tour, the district commissioner for the Indian Civil Service informs him that Nimi had taken part in the Nehru welcoming committee for the anti-colonialist Indian National Congress Party. Though she had done so unwittingly, the judge is mortified, because he supports colonial Britain, and in turn he humiliates Nimi through verbal and physical abuse before sending her back to her home, dishonoring her family.
The town government also has its fair share of corruption and need to assert power over others, which can be seen in its police force. The police’s many acts of brutality show that even (and perhaps especially) the most powerful members of society feel the need to use violent humiliation as a tactic in order to retain their status. When the cook goes to inform the police of the robbery at Cho Oyu, they treat him harshly and brutally even though he has been the victim of the crime, because he is far beneath them as a servant. When they go to Cho Oyu they suspect him of the crime and search his hut, exposing his poverty. After the robbery, the police pick up a drunk for the crime solely out of boredom. They beat him, and the more he screams the harder they beat him. Blood streams down his face, his teeth are knocked out, he is kicked until his ribs break, and the police blind him. When the GNLF begin a protest to burn the Indo-Nepali Treaty of 1950, an unknown group of people begins throwing rocks onto the protestors. In the confusion, the police and the protestors begin to bash each other with sticks and rocks, until the police open fire on the protestors. Thirteen local boys are killed, and several police are killed in return. They are locked out of the police station by their own men, and run to Lola and Noni’s house to be sheltered from the mob.
In a society in which so much is defined by social status, humiliation can often feel like an even greater violation than physical violence. Because reducing someone to less than their perceived social stature is a great offense, it becomes an effective tool in bolstering one’s own status. But this tactic is also shown to be symptomatic of the human desire for power in its cruelest manifestations, as many of the victims of this humiliation are already destitute. Desai thus demonstrates that those who use humiliation as a means of strengthening their power do so in cowardice, as they can only target the most vulnerable members of society.
Power and Humiliation ThemeTracker
Power and Humiliation 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.
They surveyed the downfall of wealth with satisfaction, and one of the policemen kicked a shaky apparatus of pipes leading from the jhora stream, bandaged here and there with sopping rags.