Monday, May 27, 2019

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

I’ve been waiting for years for a new book from Jhumpa Lahiri, but somehow missed her latest novel, The Lowland, published in 2013. Like her other three books, this is a masterful piece of writing—lyrical and lovely, but telling a very somber story. 

Two brothers Subhash and Udayan are just fifteen months apart, and their bond is incredibly strong. Although Subhash is the older of the two, Udayan is the more daring and much more likely to lead them into mischief. Subhash “…was uncertain whether he was more frustrated by Udayan’s daring, or with himself for a his lack of it…But he had no sense of himself without Udayan. From his earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there.”

Both brothers do well in school and have real talents for math and science. But their primary interest is in politics, and especially in the communist parties that battle with one another over whom to follow, and which has the truer line.

 Much of the lowland they live in is covered with water during great parts of the year.
The English started clearing the waterlogged jungle, laying down streets. In 1770, beyond the southern limits of Calcutta, they established a suburb whose first population was more European than Indian. A place where spotted deer roamed, and kingfishers darted across the horizon.
Both brothers are admitted to college and plan to attend graduate school once they graduate. But as it turns out, only Subhash goes on to graduate school in America. Udayan loses interest in continued academic training, and remains behind in India becoming more and more involved in revolutionary politics. The novel jumps back and forth between Rhode Island and India, and as in her earlier collection of short stories, Lahiri describes in great detail the difficulties in straddling countries and cultures. Neither brother is married, though both expect that eventually their parents will arrange marriages. Udayan begins to see the sister of a student friend, and when she, Gauri, becomes pregnant, they marry and move into his parent’s house—a house they keep enlarging so it will accommodate their sons’ wives and eventual grandchildren. 

Without telling too much more of the story (which Lahiri spins out slowly and patiently), Udayan is eventually killed by the police, and Subhash returns briefly to India. Although Gauri is allowed to stay in the home of her in-laws, they ignore her once Udayan is killed. Subhash wants to get to know his sister-in-law, but his parents discourage any real contact. He buys a shawl for his mother and decides to get on for Gauri as well. 
He gave his mother the shawl he’d bought for her. Then he showed her the one for Gauri.
I’d like to give her this. 
You should  know better, she said. Stop trying to befriend her.
You’ve taken away her colored clothes, the fish and meat from her plate.
These are our customs, his mother said.
Eventually, Subhash decides he needs to get Gauri out of the hostile environment of his home, and the only way he can do that is to marry her. Gauri is a brilliant student, and although she cares for little once her husband is dead, she still has a powerful urge to learn, and she consents to go back to America as Subhash’s wife and they decide they will simply treat the baby she is carrying as their own. No decision is made as to when, or even if, the child will be told the truth.

The remainder of the novel is primarily the story of Gauri, Subhash, and their daughter Bella, whom Subhash adores and from whom Bella get most of her nurturing. Subhash takes Bella for a visit to India, but Gauri remains behind committed to her studies and to teaching philosophy courses. For many and complicated reasons, Gauri decides that her husband and daughter are better off without her, and she takes a teaching job across the country in California.

While the description of family life, of what counts as love, what counts as loyalty and what betrayal is the crowning achievement of the novel, there is so much that Lahiri tells the reader about India, its past, its many wars and political unrest. As the author notes, very little of this history gets covered in American press, and most of us know very little about the complexity of the country. That is certainly true of this reader.

I found this to be a beautiful novel, full of heartache for sure, but also full of love and commitment. The relationship between Bella and Subhash is wonderfully described, as are the reasons that Gauri leaves them. 

I will remember this book for a long time, and it also led me to two even newer works of hers—a non-fiction autobiographical book, In Other Words which she wrote in Italian, and refused to translate into English, though she allowed a friend to do it. And a very small book (really an essay) entitled The Clothing of Books, which is really a book about dust jacket designs for hardback books and cover designs for paperbacks  and how little control authors have over such things.

I believe Lahiri to be one of the finest authors alive, and I recommend all of her work to you.

No comments:

Post a Comment