Saturday, May 17, 2014

I am who I am, she would say, I live as I do because of you.

The LowlandThe Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rooted in the political history of India in the 1960s, Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland is a powerful story about the impact of the Naxalite movement on future generations and family relationships.

Subhash and Udayan are two brothers growing up in Calcutta in the 1960s, a time when the Naxalite movement was heralding immense social and political change. Although both brothers are near-identical and inseparable in childhood, the rebellious Udayan becomes politically involved with the Naxalites while the cautious Subhash decides to pursue his studies in the States as both enter adulthood.

All changes when Udayan is assassinated for challenging the government. Subhash weds Udayan's pregnant wife, Guari, to help the both of them seek a more stable life in America. The child, Bela, grows up unaware of her origins. All characters adapt to their new lives post-Naxalism in the shadow of their shared past.

Yet Udayan does not dissolve from the story after his death; his presence continues to pervade the lives of the kin he leaves behind. Guari's fear of the child being born a son, a mirror of its father, reflects Udayan's undercurrent throughout the novel; likewise, Bela's adolescent inclination towards nomadic lifestyle also seems to echo that of her late father.

A strong sense of time and repetition is compellingly conveyed throughout the novel. The structure is well-conceived and allows the content it carries to transcend time and distance, from the lowlands of India to the 'land of the free' in America. In this way, the ending - which brings readers back to the root of the conflict - is a fitting conclusion. It reminds us - not that Lahiri makes it necessary - the core of every detail that has passed before.

The novel encompasses also rooted cultural beliefs, exhibited especially in the Calcutta home-base where Udayan's mother conforms to strict rituals to honor her deceased son. Lahiri's acute portrayal of the Saris and the customs of the Indian people also adds to this effect, indeed binding the novel together the way Arundhati Roy does in The God of Small things. Both writers present familial themes that are universal and timeless - yet the cultural and historical backdrop that serves as their starting point endows their novels with an irreplaceable, and very magnetic, sense of specificity.

Nonetheless, Lahiri offers us a streak of the modern, perhaps most tellingly exposed through Guari's relationship with Lorna and Guari's adaption into American life. Mugs of Coffee, sweats - certainly not elements of the lifestyle that her mother-in-law would allow. Guari is a complex character; the first time readers are aware of her, she is but a photograph, an enigma. By the end, Lahiri has given her a form and purpose. Out of all characters in the novel, perhaps Guari is the one who has taken the broadest leap away from the horror of the lowlands into her version of the future.

Despite such progress, however, and regardless of the 'growth' the characters experience as time takes them farther away from Udayan's death in the lowlands, their grudges, development and decisions are all shaped by their common history.

Such a pervasive influence, which captures the core of Indian society at the time as it does the essence of the characters' familial conflicts, is what makes The Lowlands a compelling read.

Lahiri writes with clarity and perceptiveness. She has the astonishing power of drawing readers into the childhood hearts of Udayan and Subhash in the first pages, and to seemingly out of nowhere draw up Bela, for whom readers instantly sympathize. I remember Vikas Swarup once saying that Indian literature was the next big thing - I wasn't sure what he meant then, but reading The God of Small Things and The Lowlands certainly changes my perspective.
“Most people trusted in the future, assuming that their preferred version of it would unfold.”

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