I’m having a hard time finding what to say about this novel. The blurbs are so glowing that I feel like a dummy for not really liking it. And I’m also at this point not sure why because I read the first 100 pages and loved it, but somehow once the rhythm of the novel was established, it became predictable. The characters became predictable and the action less and less interesting.
The setting is the town of Kalimpong in the Darjeeling district of India, near the borders of Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim. The Himalayan peak, Mount Kanchenjunga, soars over the area—and the novel. The historical focus is the rebellion of the Nepalese who believe the territory actually belongs to them and launch a takeover and occupation of the area which forces all the non-Nepalese to understand what it’s like to be the underdog. And maybe being the underdog is the major theme of the novel.
The characters are marvelous and clearly account for the power of the novel. Desai not only has the characters interact in the present but traces their pasts to help the reader understand their presents. There’s the grandfather who came from humble origins and was smart enough to get sent to England to be educated and who came back on the eve of independence to become one of the Indians pushed ahead in the Civil Service with the departure of the English. He is a judge. His experience in England though causes him to find the Indians inferior in every way. He hates the English for looking down on dark-skinned people but he hates the Indians who are not as “English” as he is—he takes this out on the wife he married before he want to England and who interferes with his powder puff—clearly used to make his skin lighter. There’s the cook who sends his son to America and Biju, the son, who scrounges from one restaurant kitchen to another in NYC, hating it and not getting ahead. There’s Sai, the judge’s granddaughter, orphaned when her parents—her father is a budding astronaut—are killed in a Moscow traffic accident, who goes to live with the judge. And her boyfriend who’s Nepalese…. A host of minor characters are beautifully drawn.
The plot is fairly predictable, the themes are gigantic—racial and ethnic prejudices that form a mesh around the characters—nothing so simple as one difference in race or color or religion and the violence, both personal and political that results.