The Inheritance of Loss is set in the town of Kalimpong, in the district of Darjeeling, Indian, during the ethic uprisings that took place between 1986 to 1988, with a subplot set in New York.
The book examines cultural identity on the Nepalese-Indian border, in the post-colonial context, and in terms of being an Indian immigrant in New York City. Each setting and each character's experience is described in a wealth of detail that brings the richness and the impoverishment to life. The story is told with great gentleness, celebrating human pride along with the foibles, hopes, prejudices and resilience.
Each character is blind, imperfect, and judgmental, seeking to make the world into the place they want it to be, but confronted with reality that thwarts their aspirations. Loves and hopes are dashed, or else achieved only to discover that the goal, so hard won, is disappointing. Despite their fatal flaws, each character is portrayed with tenderness, from the bitter old judge who once yearned to accomplish something more, to the ignorant peasant boys caught up in the brutality of revolution under the banner of justice. Ideals go astray; aspirations turn out to be misguided, "learning, as everyone does in this country, that old hatreds are endlessly retrievable." (p.177)
Immigration, discrimination, and identity are the main themes, examined in terms of colonial and self-rule, clashes between ethnic groups, the ability of foreigners to adapt or not to a new land. As characters yearn for purity, the romanticism of old times, or the allure of comforts according to their notion of civilization and modernism, the reality unflinchingly reveals both the truth and the fallacies of these beliefs.
Each main character is carefully developed as an individual with feelings, needs, wants and context, before being thrust into the maelstrom of social and historical imperatives.
The story is told with bittersweet humor, as some characters are fighting to be who they are, while others are fighting to be who they are not.