Saturday, 28 February 2015

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland/ Random House India

Reviews, Vol. I, Issue III
Winner ~ DSC Prize for South Asian Literature (2014)

The Sixties. The colorful and uncannily dangerous Sixties. Nothing can describe the character of the age so aptly (of course, when decontextualized from its immediate referent) than the famous lines from A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”. The countercultural and revolutionary forces effecting, both ways, fundamental changes in life across the globe also swept over India, especially Calcutta (now Kolkata, generally acknowledged as its cultural capital) in that murky Sixties. Here it came in the form of the Naxalite Movement. In 1967, the insurgent Naxalbari, a remote village in the Darjeeling District, tucked into the foothills of Himalayas, set ablaze the dissent’s voice throughout West Bengal, particularly Calcutta. Its lanes bore witness to those ‘bloody’ days of revolution, to how the city’s intellectual hubs- its universities, colleges – fell under its great sway under the leadership of Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal, and how the revolutionaries attempted a mass mobilization against the local authorities in the hope of a better world and what price ultimately they had to pay in the hands of the repressive state forces for such a dream.

Many literary exponents have turned, from different subject positions, to this potent revolutionary field to capture its various shades. While works like Samaresh Majumdar’s Kaalbela and Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others give an almost full length detail of the Naxalite Movement, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland does not only project snippets of the fatalistic movement but also telescopes the repercussions the movement had in personal life, highlighting the political imbricating the personal. Of course, Lahiri, here, continues with her favorite themes of diasporic displacement and alienation in lesser degree, but  this extra dimension of the effect of political in the personal sphere is something both new and radical, setting her work apart not only from the works by the two mentioned but also from her previous ones. It is a saga of love, endured and survived even after the physical bond is severed.

The novel begins with an objective but precise detailing of a lowland, spanning a few acres in Tollygunge (a place in south Calcutta), of Tolly Club so as to initiate the reader into the very much personal lives of two Mitra Brothers – Subhash and Udayan – in a small enclave by this lowland. The narrative, sometimes elliptical, complicated, with shifts more than often from present to past and vice versa, introduces the reader with the childhood days of these two brothers, so much different in their susceptibilities but again complimenting each other as if they are ‘mirror images’: “Sitting over the chessboard they were mirror images: one leg bent, the other splayed out, chins propped on their knees”, the narratorial voice comments. While Subhash is more restraint and cautious; Udayan is a daredevil and adventurous. But one is incomplete without the other. We come to know both the brothers move to different colleges, befriending different pupils there (Subhash to Jadavpur University and Udayan to Calcutta University): Udayan gradually drifts towards leftist ideology and is finally hooked to the roaring tide of the Naxalites, Subhas leaves for America to study marine chemistry. This branching out at different directions shows their inherent differences, but, as mentioned already, their mutual understanding and complementing each other dismantle any reading along the line of archetypal sibling rivalry. However, the narrative occasionally offers glimpses of the partition days, crisscrossing the narratives of their growing up in those after partition days. Again, there is reportage of events from both national and international history, leaving the reader be deluded or read it like more of chronicle initially than anything else.

But that it is not meant to be a chronicle of political facts or a political uprising becomes clear as the story takes a sudden twist, much before the book reaches its middle, in Udayan’s death following this boisterous Mitra lad’s involvement in that Leninist-Marxist Naxalite Movement. From now on, it focuses more on the psychological ebb and flow of its character, of showing how this single event is to affect other characters and events henceforth. Shocked at the news of his brother’s death, Subhash returns home to sooth his parents’ heart but only to find himself unwelcomed, and moved by the fear that widowed Gauri, whom his brother married much against the displeasure of his parents, would face a life of hardship, he marries her again to his parents’ objections. The narrative, henceforth, concentrates more austerely on the repercussions of personal choices on the agents themselves and on their near and dear ones too. Udayan’s political choice has cost him his life, left his parents in irretrievable loss and shock they can never overcome, left Gauri alone, bearing their child in her womb. Now this choice of Subhash bears its own kind of fruits. It alienates him further from his parents. And so far his newly-wedded relationship with Gauri is concerned; it ultimately turns out to be the case of a disjointed couple, ever in search of love to dawn upon. Though Gauri agrees to marry him and moves to Rhode Island, she is a girl more at ease with philosophy, finds liberation under the alien sky, stats pursuing higher studies, ultimately moves to California to lead a pure sequestered life in the academia on her own liking.

The second half of the novel – after Gauri gives birth to Bela– becomes more psychologically incisive and poignant. Here Lahiri’s prose is so controlled, brilliantly precise and at the same time emotionally so exhilarating. The issue of parenthood, her relationship with Bela, with her past, with ghostly presence of Udayan’s memory and more importantly, with Subhash, now her lawful husband – all these are explored compellingly enough to provide us with contours of experiences the characters sometimes hold back verbally. The dark secrets in their hearts, though closed to the other characters, are unspooled before the readers through plain, suggestive, easy-to-understand language. The narrative beautifully captures the trajectory where Subhash, not the biological father of Bela, almost occupies the ‘fatherly space’, executing all those duties a father should do, Gauri, the biological mother seems to be detached, gradually drifting away from Bela, from all parental concerns and rather erecting an insulated home in her academic research. Towards the end where Gauri stands isolated from all, her portrayal not only attracts readers’ pity for what she has done, for her and only her choices, Lahiri, through an astute exteriorization of her thoughts, makes sure she has a ground for her actions/decisions. Though sometimes a reader may feel the portrayal of her character is failing, sometimes inadequate, Lahiri, apart from this objection, cuts a fine figure in matters of characterization: the portrayal of Subhash is dealt with sensibly and deftly.

The lowland with the description of which the novel begins remains a constant recurring motif throughout the story. It works as marker of change in a rapidly changing scenario of a city. But not only has that, it, cutting across the barriers of time and space, become a potent symbol, a haunting presence to the characters. Moreover, on stylistic aspect of the novel, it can be said that the beauty of the text lies in its taut structure, restraint but easy-to-follow language, self-assured prose studded with bridled eloquence, and its suspenseful narratival pattern. The psychological aspect adds a special charm to it. The impersonal style of its narrative may sometimes read like a journalistic view but this detached, matter-of-fact nature brings its own kind of elegance, providing an impartial take on and description of the characters and events. Though sometimes narrative may appear a bit stretched, it is absorbing otherwise. Covering almost four generations of a family, Lahiri’s The Lowland, which has won recently the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature (2014), is, as the back cover of the book says, “a tale of two brothers bound by tragedy, a fiercely brilliant woman haunted by her past, a country torn by revolution, and a love that lasts long past death”. And its finely-pitched absorbing narrative showcases one of the best story-tellers with Midas touch.

Reviewed by Soumen Jana, Assistant Professor of English, Subarnarekha Mahavidyalaya, Gopiballavpur and Research Scholar, Department of English, Vidyasagar University, Paschim Medinipur, West Bengal, India

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