Irony of Justice in Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss

Article Posted in: Research Articles


Paper by Dr. Swarna Prabhat

Published in Ashvamegh Issue I, February 2015


While law may be a word of restricted connotation, justice is not so. It certainly relates to the legal realm, but it is equally related to affairs that are personal, social and moral. In fact, anything that pertains to correctness has something to do with justice.

Writers in all languages have always been appreciated for their partisanship to justice. There is the concept of poetic justice meaning distribution of justice on the part of writer to the erring/non-erring characters. The legal problem at the heart of The Merchant of Venice is too well known to be repeated. But it must be added that in that play also, justice relates not only to Antonio-Shylock case but equally to Bassanio-Portia case. It is in the interest of fairness that Portia does not provide any clue to Bassanio regarding the casket and it is quite just then for Bassanio to make a correct choice, considering his sincere concern for Portia.

The Elizabethans appreciated Portia’s appeal for harmonizing mercy with justice in the Biblical light. But they also appreciated the purely technical issues involving law that were dealt with a few years later by Ben Jonson in The Alchemist and Volpone.

In Indian English writing, legal questions were taken up in The Guide more as an exception than as common reading. Writers have generally avoided issues that require technical solutions. In The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai, however, admirably confronts the issue of justice. Justice is, in the novel, not an issue related to a specific legal problem – it is used as a basic motif to cover various themes in the novel – the shattered life of the retired justice, the act of violence committed by the Nepalese youth in the house of the justice under instigation of Gyan, the various violent acts of the Nepalese insurgents and, above all, the relationship between the young lovers, Sai and Gyan.


J.P Patel, the retired justice, has a history – he was a bright boy of lower middle class family and could become a member of the ICS only because of his industry and the scholarship that he could secure. But his stay in England was disastrous as it put him into a cultural conflict from which he could not recover for the whole of his life. He could not transform himself into an English man; but he could pick up elements of westernization in food, dress, personal habits and even mental make-up. But in spite of the best copying of the western habits he could not get approbation from either his Indian friends in London or from the British young men. Very simply Kiran Desai puts it this way-

He envied the English. He loathed Indians. He worked at being English with the passion of hatred and for what he could become; he would be despised by absolutely everyone, English and Indians, both. (119)

On his return from England, he is haunted by the ghost of his marriage, which was solemnized because of the need of dowry on his father’s part and of the ambition of his father-in-law who wanted to marry his daughter to a boy going abroad for higher studies. The first sight of Nimi, his wife, out of his mind-

What would he do with her?

He had forgotten he had a wife. Well, he knew, of course, but she had drifted away like everything in his past, a sense of facts that no longer had relevance. (166)

The important point is that the story of the justice is not presented in chronological manner. It is spread in the novel at odd points, coinciding with the reflective moods of J.P Patel who is reviewing his past life after the violent incidents in Kalimpong, arriving from Nepalese inter-agency. This reflection is like the soliloquy of a Shakespearean hero who, in a patient mood, tries to assess his position. Mr. Patel is also led to think of his horrible part after his authority has been challenged by the Nepali insurgents ransacking his horse. In this life of retirement with practically no engagement, he has enough time on his hands to think of what is happening now and what happened in the past. The torture that he inflicted on his wife comes back to him in one such movement only to stifle or block his mind instead of stimulating him for a heroic or even a small generous action that a Shakespearean hero performs.

It is not apparent to the reader that Kiran Desai portrays this latter life of Mr Patel as a logical sequel to his own actions in youth. The indignity that he suffers at the hands of the Nepalese youth is a turning of the Karmic wheel, a very natural consequence of his Karma. Injustice to Nimi recoils on him and the ends of justice are being served dramatically.


The Nepalese insurgency may be seen only as a backdrop of the novel, one of the many incidents of violence that has become a sign of the shrinking democratic fabric of India. From the partition of India along communal lines to the reorganisation of states and to the raging demands for regional authority in several states in recent times the story of India is not of harmony and peace, but of collapse of law and order. In such circumstances,citizens are living in a state of terror, unsure of the security of their lives and properly from political outfits that advocate sanguine any means to attain their ends.

Kiran Desai does not openly comment on the legitimacy of the demands of Gorkhaland. But she has meticulously documented the growth of the movement of which one stage was like the following-

Recently a series of strikes and processions had indicated growing political discontent. And now a three- day strike and a raasta roko roadblock endeavour were postponed because of the weather. What was the point of preventing rations from getting through if they weren’t getting through anyway? How to force offices to close when they were going to remain closed? How to shut down streets when the streets had gone? Even the main road into Kalimpong from Teesta Bazar had Dimply slipped off the incline and lay in pieces down in the gorge below?(107)

Listed above are the steps taken by the supporters of Gorkhaland to add momentum to their movement.But Desai also observes what a farcical move is this to shut everything when nothing exists in fact. The only effective thing is the prevention of supply of rations; but even this is ironical as the common people have not been getting enough food already.

Another stage of this movement is a more impressive show of solidarity in public-

But then one day fifty boys, members of the youth wing of the GNLF, gathered to swear an oath at Mahakaldara to fight to the death for the formahon of a homeland, Gorkhaland. Then they marched down the streets of Darjeeling, took a turn around the market and the mall. “Gorkhaland for the Gorkhas; we are the liberation army”. They were watched by pony men and their ponies, by the proprietors of souvenir shops, by the waiters of Glenary’s, the planter’s club, the Gymkhana, and the windower as they waved their unsheathed kukris, sliced the force bladesthrough the tender mist under watery sun. Quitesuddenly, everyone was using the word insurgency.(126)

A perceptive Lola can foresee the next stage of this movement-

These Neps will be after all outsiders now, but especially as Bongs. They’ve been plotting this long awhile. Dream come true. All kinds of atrocities will go on – then they can skip merrily over the border into Nepal very convenient. (127)

And what she perceived came true in a brutal manner to jeopardize their lives-

The Gymkhana club…… was taken over by the Gorkha National Liberation Front, who camped out in the ballroom men with guns rested in the ladies, powder room… the dining room was filled with men in Khaki, posing for pictures, feet on the stuffed head of a leopard, whiskey in hand….

Later evidence proved they also stockpiled guns, drew maps, and plotted the bombing of bridges.(122)

This laborious documentation has a point: it substantiates in a very concrete fashion the political presence on men and women of India; and secondly, it demonstrates how normal life is thrown is thrown out of gear very often by eruption of violence. All civil tries between man and man are snapped – a population is broken into opposing pains of natives outsiders, supporters opponents, friends-enemies.


The only sawing grace in the otherwise copycat personality of Mr. Patel in his decision to allow Sai, his orphan granddaughter, to live with him. And all that in beautiful and tender in this novel comes out in Sai, her affair with Gyan and certainly her absorbed interest in the enchanting landscape of Kalimpong.

In a family characterized by violence and division between man and wife, the mother of Sai was the first blossom of humanity and love. She met Mr. Mistry, her husband, in a public park in Delhi-


They became acquainted in this grass acre…  before a year was up, in the deep cool centre of the tomb, golden indirect light passing from alcove to hushed alcove Mr. Mistry proposed. She thought quickly. This romance had allowed her to escape the sadness of her past…(26)

It is unbelievable but quite pleasant to note that the romance between this couple nearer dies up though ‘they are crushed by local bus wheel’. Sai is an heir to this pure everlasting love. The news of the sudden death of her parents takes away from her any will power that she may have possessed. In a state of complete docility she arrives at Kalimpong to lead her life under the guardianship of her grandfather about whom she knows practically nothing. The grandfather had acted out of sheer compulsion, the sins of which are felt in the old man’s preoccupation with himself alone – with his tea, cake and drinks and Mutt, the dog. Sai’s presence does not soften Patel. Yet he tries as much as is possible to provide her good teaching. He engages Gyan for this purpose on the recommendation of Nomi and Lola.

Alone in her adolescence, without maternal or feminine guidance, Sai makes her acquaintance with the world through National Geographic and basically through the changing contours of Kanchenjunga-

All day, the colours had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths. Briefly visible above the vapour, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering that last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit … every now and then Sai looked up at Kanchenjunga, observedits wizard phosphorescence with a shiver…(1)

Kiran Desai less in have an insight into this gentle wordsworthian upbringing of Sai. The sympathies and the sensibility that she comes to develop by herself are products of only two factors – the knowledge of being alone and the light that comes from being situated in a landscape, which is made up of magnificent sight. Nothing ugly could take root in a mind that savours in solitude the storms, the rains, the sunshine and the moonshine in this snowcapped territory. The cast of Sai’s mind is revealed in the intimacy that she picks up with the cook, learning from him scraps of family history. She enjoys his company and treats him like a fellow human being, not simply as a servant who is bound to obey her.

The tutorial sessions with Gyan lift Sai above the monotony her existence. She becomes self-conscious in the beginning and then her existenceis dissolved simply in love, in the pleasure of sheer companionship with Gyan, opportunities for which come easily. It is no surprise that she who has so far led a life of seclusion and emotional deprivation becomes now entirely dependent on Gyan.

The change in Gyan’s response to Sai after he joins accidentally the mob shouting victory of Gorkhaland is shocking but appears to have sense, given the pull of the circumstances-

For a moment all the different pretences he had indulged in, the shames he had suffered, the future that wouldn’t accept him- all these things joined together to form a truth… 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… (160-161)

From this sudden discovery of his Nepalese roots, Sai becomes to Gyan an object to which he could direct all his anger and sarcasm. The subsequent meetings with convince him further that he cannot form durable relationship with her. And this conviction is manifest in violence that has become part of Kalimpong recently-

“I saw that” pounced Sai. Jumped to seize it from his eyes. But he caught her before she reached him and then threw her aside into the lantana bushes and beat about with a stick. (261)

Sai, for all her desperate love for Gyan, does not take this attack humbly. In just a few years she has acquired a higher sense of dignity and can retaliate quite forcefully-

I’ll go to the police and then let’s see what happens to your family. Gyan will get his eyes pulled out, his head cut off.(262)

The experience of pain in love is not unusual: what integrates this to the central idea of the novel is the issue of justice. Sai has developed a sense of right and wrong and has courage to fight for justice.


It has become fashionable to ignore any hint of value-system in literary works; the writing is supposed to mirror only socio-political realities without giving any preference. But it would not be out of place to note that Kiran Desai has inherited a philosophical outlook from her mother in whose works there is clear exposition or Hindu concepts and ideals. Voices in the City is an account of a broken-up family, its tensions exacerbated by wilful mother who continues an affair with a colonel, but the death of Monisha can excite a vision in the old lady and she can review all the currents of her life quite lucidly-

She no longer needed him nor her other children. She was a woman fulfilled- by the great tragedy of her daughter’s suicide and it was, he saw, what she had always needed to fulfil her: tragedy…she was no longer a woman thwarted… (249)

After the meagre efforts made by Nirode’s mother to take care of the family this thought of hers is farcical, a glorification of the saddest incident in the family. But the feeling of guilt is without any mask here. One can notice her admission of failure and responsibility, once again reminding of a tragic protagonist.

On a similar pattern we have these thoughts and actions of Sai’s granddaughter on the loss of Mutt-

The judge got down on his knees, and he prayed to God, he, Jemubhai Popatlal, the agnostic, who had made a long hard journey to jettison his family prayers…was this faith that he had turned away, was it paying him back?

For sins he had committed that not court in the world could take on. But that fact, he knew, didn’t lessen the weight they played on the scale, didn’t render them nothing… But who could be paying him back? He didn’t believe in angered divinity, in scale of balance. Of course not. The universe wasn’t in the business of justice that had simply been his own human conceit- until he learned better.


Yet he thought of his family that he had abandoned.

He thought of his father, whose strength and hope and love he had fed on, only to turn around to spit on his face. Then he thought of her he had referred his wife, Nimi.


The Inheritance of Loss is a compact composition, some of the lines or parts having a diary like brevity. And the ideas of the novel – of justice in personal and social lives, of the value of kinship and its demands – are worked out through contrasts between justice Patel and Sai and also through the idealized relationship between the cork and Biju, and his son.

Being the son of an illiterate and ill – treated domestic, Biju has been respectful of family norms and caring of his father- traits that stand out sharply in the midst of his life in American Hotels where he surrounded by brutal, callous and money-minded colleagues. What at all is the source of his understanding and moral stance? Kiran Desai does not say much – Biju’s care may be an artistic counterpoint to highlight the weaknesses of Patel’s outlook; but it is quite realistic in the Indian setting in which family relationships command great importance.

By taking up the character of a retired justice whose disregard of the sense of fairness is his relations with his spouse and parents, Kiran Desai less the idea of justice have eschatological significance, covering every area- from his  life to that of Sai and more pointedly to the Gorkha movement, its violent eruption and abrupt end. Justice has not merely a legal connotation –it is a principle of the universe of which human society is only a part. Although mancannot be tried for the violation of this principle by any law court, things that happen to him and the world around him can be interpreted in this light.

Surely, the text can be and has been read in postcolonial terms: the entry of Justice Patel into the ICS marks his doom- career building unfortunately leads to painful alienation from the native culture. Similar is the plight of the English- speaking elite of Kalimpong: from dress to speech to food habits, they are at such a distance that the locales are provoked against them. Gorkhaland movement is the focus of not only political aspiration but also of cultural identity.

What is new in the text is Kiran Desai’s creatively simultaneous handling of postcolonial ideas and Hindus believes in Karma and its consequences. The crisis deepens in the life of Justice Patel because of his conscious rejection of all that is native, and if there is anything positive and human in Sai’s approach it is because of her unconscious, almost intuitive, use of powers of sympathy and understanding, of fairness and determination.


All citations from Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss are from the Penguin Edition, 2006.


  1. Desai, Kiran. The Inheritance of Loss. Delhi: Penguin, 2006.
  2. Desai, Anita. Voices in the City. Delhi: Orient Paperbacks, 2004.

Introduction to the Author:

Dr. Swarna Prabhat Nalanda CollegeDr. Swarna Prabhat is the current head of the English department at Nalanda College. He has a profound thirty-six years of experience in teaching field! However, this is not all! He has always been arduous in the field of education; he has been and is in the Developing Committee of Bihar State Textbook Publishing Corporation (BSTPC). Moreover, he has edited some books for the English Honours course of IGNOU syllabus. In addition, Dr. Prabhat has been the editor of once an important journal of religion – Sumedha.

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