Desai’s somber second novel (a marked contrast to her highly acclaimed comic fable Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, 1998) looks at cultural dislocation as experienced by an unhappy Indian ménage.
In a once-sturdy house in Kalimpong, in the spectacular Himalayan foothills, live an old judge, his dog and his 17-year-old granddaughter Sai; in a nearby shack is the household’s linchpin, the wretchedly underpaid cook. The judge and Sai are “estranged Indians” who converse in English, knowing little Hindi. The judge’s estrangement began as a student in England. He envied the English and despised Indians, slathering powder over his too-brown skin, rejecting his peasant father; back in India, he could be hideously cruel to his wife, indirectly causing her death. He tolerates Sai (her Westernized parents were killed in an accident in the Soviet Union), but true love is reserved for his dog, Mutt. The year is 1985, and some young Nepali-Indian militants (“unleashed Bruce Lee fans”) are fighting for their own state; they invade the judge’s home and steal his rifles, after being tipped off by Sai’s tutor Gyan, torn between his newfound ethnic loyalties and his delicate courtship of Sai. Meanwhile, in New York, the cook’s son Biju, an illegal, is doing menial restaurant work; the cook, who clings to old superstitions while dreaming of electric toasters, had pushed him to emigrate. Desai employs a kaleidoscopic technique to illuminate fractured lives in Kalimpong, Manhattan and India, past and present. She finds a comic bounce in Biju’s troubles even as Kalimpong turns grimmer; young rebels die, the police torture the innocent, Sai and Gyan’s romance dissolves into recriminations and Mutt is stolen. We are left with two images of love: the hateful judge, now heartbroken, beseeching a chaotic world for help in retrieving Mutt, and the returning Biju, loyal son, loyal Indian, hurtling into his father’s arms.
Less a compelling narrative than a rich stew of ironies and contradictions. Desai’s eye for the ridiculous is as keen as ever.