‘Gorkhaland‘ refers to a proposed independent state comprising of a part of West Bengal in North-eastern India and landlocked between Nepal to its west, Bhutan to its east, and the Himalayan mountain ranges to its north.
Since colonial times, this area has consisted of ethnolinguistic peoples from all three of these present-day countries. When India gained her Independence from the British in 1947, a formalized demand was put forward to create ‘Gorkhasthan’, comprising of Darjeeling District (in West Bengal), Sikkim (another Indian state) and Nepal. This demand was unmet but the movement continued to grow.
Between 1986 and 1988, India saw one of its largest mass political ‘Gorkhaland’ movements — a violent uprising driven primarily by the ‘Gorkha National Liberation Front’ (GNLF) party. Despite eventually gaining a certain level of success in terms of governance rights across certain areas of the disputed region, the demand for independent statehood continues to the present-day, with political marches, agitations, and strikes by the various pro-Gorkhaland parties (which finally united as the ‘Gorkhaland Joint Action Committee’ in 2013.)
The main action of Kiran Desai’s 2006 Booker-winning novel is set during that 1986-1988 Gorkhaland movement in Kalimpong, which is part of the Darjeeling District and on the banks of the Teesta River. However, the narrative reaches back into colonial times, extends to present-day New York, and jumps and cuts back and forth across both time and geographical boundaries.
The primary characters are an irascible, old, retired Judge (Jemubhai Patel), his teenage, orphaned grand-daughter (Sai), his long-time cook, the cook’s son (Biju) and a Nepali student-teacher (Gyan). There is also an assortment of quaint neighbors and friends: spinsterly Anglophile sisters (Lola and Noni), another Anglicized Indian gentleman (Uncle Potty), a Swiss priest (Father Booty), and so on. And, while the narrative shifts mainly between two points of view — Sai’s in Kalimpong and Biju’s in New York — we get to spend some time with almost all of these people to see their points of view also. Desai handles these shifts in narrative very skillfully by ensuring sufficient gaps and transitions. This cannot have been easy, given the sheer amount of editing she had to do (according to an interview in The Hindu, Chennai, India, October 12, 2006, the original manuscript was more than 1,500 pages and had to be pared down).
The Judge, Sai, and the cook live in a decaying, dilapidated colonial house in Kalimpong, inhabiting their isolated internal worlds more than their collective external one. The Judge, dedicated only to his faithful dog, Mutt, finds himself constantly reliving his past as the slightest things set off his memory triggers in Proustian fashion. Sai, coming of age in this remote existence, is trying to deal with both a sense of isolation/abandonment and her first love experience with her Nepali tutor, Gyan. The cook pines and worries for his son, Biju, while being proud of how the latter has finally made it to America. Biju, in America, struggles to find his place in a new world even as he finds that the old caste/class barriers still stand between him and his father’s ambitions. And, finally, Gyan, the Nepali student-teacher, weakened by his new and confusing love for Sai, seeks to find his inner strength by joining the Gorkhaland cause.
Desai tackles many themes at once in this novel: post-colonialism, living between the past and the present, living between cultures and nationalities, the impact of Westernization on a culture in search of its own identity, the loss of identity and how that sense of loss travels through generations, the displacement and assimilation challenges of immigrants, the vast differences across divides created by religions and castes and class, first love, human dignity, etc. These are not new themes for Indian origin writers. But Desai differs from, say, V S Naipaul’s “colonial neuroses” (as one of Desai’s characters in this novel labels Naipaul’s writing) or Jhumpa Lahiri’s nuanced cultural assimilation stories of second and third generation Indian diaspora. In this novel, particularly, she shows a hard, clear-eyed skepticism in the ability of the once-colonized to shake off their long-lasting cultural heritage/legacies even as they try to create their own cultural identities or emigrate to new countries and assimilate new ones.
Some of these themes are demonstrated through the many inter-continental forays described: the much younger Jemubhai going to a then-reigning England for his Cambridge law degree; Sai’s parents going to Russia as part of the post-colonial Indo-Russian Space Program; Biju making it to New York in the present-day to drudge as an illegal immigrant cook in filthy, underground kitchens; Lola visiting her daughter, who works at the BBC in England, through the years; Gyan’s Nepali ancestors tramping all over the world as soldiers for the British and Indian armies; and Saeed Saeed, Biju’s one friend in America, making his way happily from Zanzibar to New York. While each of these journeys is different, only one of them could be considered successful in any way: the non-Indian, Saeed’s. All the rest, weighed down by their ever-present emotional and cultural baggage, allow it to define their individual experiences and deepen their age-old sense of loss. I found it interesting that, during the BBC World Book Club discussion, Desai responded to a question about the immigrant experience by saying that she considered immigration itself to be a creative act. Yet, for her characters in this particular novel, something is destroyed with each of their immigrant experiences.
One might expect the novel to be rather gloomy, burdened by these various sadnesses and all that they are trying to convey. But this is where Desai pulls off two very important feats, which also balance out that hard skepticism that I mentioned earlier.
The first is her ability to seamlessly weave irony and satire into the tragic. While Lola and Noni, the two Anglophile sisters, provide most of the comic relief, we get these softer layers with pretty much all of the characters, rounding out some of their edges. The humor turns most gentle and tender when Desai offers up the shy, tentative forward-retreat dance of young love with Sai’s and Gyan’s early explorations.
The second is her rich, rhythmic prose, which has a living, malleable energy of its own. She takes her time with these passages, conjuring up shadowy, shimmery images of the fantastic Himalayan peaks, describing the roaring, bounding Teesta river, detailing the thriving behaviors of the abundant flora and fauna ecosystem, and illustrating the potent effects of the ever-changing seasons that everything — living or not — is subjected to. Desai’s love for this countryside, where she spent some years of her roaming childhood, comes searing through the pages. Even when she describes the ravaging violence of the Gorkha movement riots, the brutal killings, petty thievery, and thoughtless destruction, there is a vivid immediacy that places us right in the thick of things as they unfold. [A side-note: In case you’re thinking that Kiran Desai is exoticizing India, as she and her mother, another author, Anita Desai, are sometimes accused of, let me disabuse you of that notion. While Kiran Desai’s prose may sound musical, she does not shy away from describing the ugly and the awful. In this book, we come across descriptions of, for example, certain bodily functions. When asked, at the BBC World Book Club discussion, why she chose to provide such details, her response was that it was one of the best ways she knew of getting readers up close and personal with a character.]
For all this, the story ends on an uncertain, unresolved note. Just as, in real life, loose ends are sometimes just that — loose ends. While the latter did not bother me, I did wonder, on finishing the novel, about who Desai meant the readers to feel most sad or sorry for.
Sai, the orphaned and isolated teenager, with her heart sliced to pieces by the hard truths that life had sent her way:
Life wasn’t single in its purpose… or even in its direction… The simplicity of what she’d been taught wouldn’t hold. Never again could she think there was but one narrative and that narrative belonged only to herself, that she might create her own tiny happiness and live safely within it.
Or the Judge, whose own ideals and sense of human dignity had been forever damaged from his lonely and difficult years in England, such that he had never been able to love anything for the rest of his life except for his dog, now lost to him forever:
He couldn’t conceive of punishment great enough for humanity. A man wasn’t equal to an animal, not one particle of him. Human life was stinking, corrupt, and meanwhile, there were beautiful creatures who lived with delicacy on the earth without doing anyone any harm. “We should be dying,” the judge almost wept.
Or Biju, who gave up on his father’s American dream, and was just glad to make it back alive, because:
This way of leaving your family for work had condemned them over several generations to have their hearts always in other places, their minds thinking about people elsewhere; they could never be in a single existence at one time.
Or, finally, Gyan, who tried to hate Sai for what he thought she represented — a subjection to the Westernization that he was not immune to either — and worked desperately and blindly to find some meaning and pride in his own meager existence:
But then, how could you have any self-respect knowing that you didn’t believe in anything exactly? How did you embrace what was yours if you didn’t leave something for it? How did you create a life of meaning and pride?
And, of course, the answer is: all of them. You feel sad for all of them and what they collectively represent: a young nation trying to pull itself together with humanity and dignity, meaning, and pride after the colonial rulers have gone. Still trying, almost 60 years on.