Balli Kaur Jaswal is a Singaporean novelist, who grew up in countries such as Japan, Russia, Philippines, Australia and the US. Her first novel Inheritance, written in 2013 won her the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist Award in 2014. Harper Collins re-published Inheritance in 2020, complete with an attractive new cover. Jaswal is an author celebrated for the way she deals with intrinsic complexes of the Sikh diaspora in the most fluent and flowing language. Inheritance does complete justice to mastering the simplicity of dealing with complex issues like shame, homosexuality and bipolar disorder. It is a slow burn, but a must read. The novel takes you on a journey through two decades of the making of Singapore through the story of a Sikh family caught in the whirlwind of honouring its past and constructing its future.
Inheritance is a neatly divided novel that announces the decade before relaying political developments of the time. It opens in 1971, when Amrit, the daughter of the Sikh family, elopes only to return as a different person altogether. The theme of eloping is prominent in the first part of the novel. With Narain leaving for the US in the hope of returning a transformed man, or at least a ‘man’ and Amrit transgressing conventional societal boundaries, elopement is dealt by the author beautifully in Inheritance. The novel is not a commentary of events but an internal sight to the characters and their thoughts. With every chapter titled the name of the character it dwells into; Inheritance delves holistically into every single event and proceeds to voice the insecurities of every character so beautifully that the reader gets entangled in their lives.
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The title of the novel is such a precise selection that it plays throughout the novel and binds it. For the diaspora, inheritance is a memory and a right. For them, inheritance is the privilege of the new nation they live in and the memory of the nation they belong to. However, the novel seems to revolve in Singaporean lanes so much so that it forgets the Indian nostalgia. It is remembered only through the sum of the money inherited by Harbeer. Inheritance is the burden that Gurdev carries for his three daughters, inheritance is the bipolar disorder that secretly plagues the family, inheritance is the shame of Narain’s homosexuality and inheritance is the development of Singapore that the family witnesses together.
Jaswal masters the art of Malay slangs and incorporating different dialects in the dialogue of characters. She employs a different language for each character and even their thoughts. She weaves captivating imageries through the precise description of even the smell of Singapore becoming artificial. She takes her readers through the dark Singapore streets to the brutal police laws levied on the innocent bystanders of development. Her words witness and sing the saga of characters living through the humdrum of Singapore in Inheritance. The way she expresses Amrit’s anxiety is phenomenal. Her words depict the fluorescent artificial-ness of Singapore until the second part which slightly lags and breaks the flow of Inheritance. To her credit, it almost feels like life itself, inorganic in its perception.
The author sculpts anxiety, mood disorders and hallucinations so perfectly that the reader almost lives it himself. The loss of a mother and the stumbling of a family to exist around the loss is remarkably witnessed in the novel. It delves into the fractures of the mind and society. Inheritance makes its reader anxious, nervous and informed at the same time. Jaswal tip-toes around Amrit’s mental condition, but never proclaims the diagnosis. Her handling of the Sikh diaspora is unlike the rest I have ever read. It is hopeful and dark simultaneously, but hardly nostalgic. The memory that lingers in this family is that of the mother rather than their mother nation. The metaphorical nostalgia is an authorial accomplishment of Jaswal.
Inheritance is meant to be savoured and not devoured. It is to be read and felt through every phoneme. It does not promise to be perfect, but only as imperfect as the characters it tells about. Jaswal masters the art of sympathetically raising politically sensitive issues. It showcases how individual freedom is constructed in the backdrop of a nation that aims to polish its image. The examples of academic expectations, anti-homosexuality laws, state-planned marriages and abolition of chewing gums create an environment of suffocation. While Jaswal does justice to raise these issues through the lives of her characters, she fails to tie all the threads together. A character named Karan dominates the initial chapters but is forgotten by the end. Some lives reach a conclusion, and others are left lurking. It is almost as if these other characters were meant to be side plots.
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Inheritance is like a fine psychological cinema; it burns through the mind at its own pace but the after-taste stays with the audience. It is not an exceptional piece of literature, but a fresh perspective on all things taboo. It moves beyond its words and soon takes a life of itself. Jaswal is an author who challenges her reader’s intellect. It is not a story that could be read in leisure, it demands attention and requires to be felt. The central characters of Inheritance are constructed beautifully, described with the minutest detail given to their choice of footwear to their hair and the lines forming around their smiles. Amongst the best books I have read this year, I strongly recommend Inheritance to every reader interested in reading something fresh. The final chapter of the novel is the ideal amalgamation of fiction and non-fiction and leaves the reader with the expectation of a sequel.