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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Revolution’s Ruined Children

Jhumpa Lahiri’s powerful novel is about a family torn apart by political upheaval.

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti | Published: September 21, 2013 1:03:20 am

Book: The Lowland

Author: Jhumpa Lahiri

Publisher: Random House

Price: Rs 499

Pages: 340

Why aren’t there two of you?” asks Bela of her father Subhash when she’s a child of six or seven. “I have two eyes…Why do I see only one of you?” she insists. The question is the pivot of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Booker-shortlisted novel The Lowland. For indeed,once there were two of them,Subhash and Udayan Mitra,brothers and companions,separated by 15 months,and twin-like in their incompleteness without the other. As they come into their own as adults in the tumultuous era of the Naxal uprising of the late ’60s — the dynamic Udayan complicit in the revolution and the staid Subhash choosing academia in US’s New England — it’s a question that comes to haunt Subhash at every juncture of his life following Udayan’s encounter death: why aren’t there two of you? Or,more specifically,why aren’t you Udayan? From their mother Bijoli,locked away in grief and unequivocal devotion to Udayan’s memory,to Gauri,Udayan’s widow,whom Subhash marries and brings to America to help her escape what was no longer home,to Udayan and Gauri’s daughter,Bela,who he becomes a father to,the novel travels a vast arc of emotional and geographical distance,while negotiating this inheritance of loss.

When it begins,The Lowland’s political context seems a departure from Lahiri’s previous works. The historical has never played a significant role in her writing (except tangentially,such as in the very poignant ‘Hema and Kaushik’ from her previous book of stories,Unaccustomed Earth),but here,there’s a sense of urgency in Lahiri’s measured yet atmospheric delineation of political events and Udayan’s rising interest in it. “When Udayan was at home,odd hours,he turned on the shortwave. Dissatisfied by official reports,he found secret broadcasts from stations in Darjeeling,in Siliguri. He listened to broadcasts from Radio Peking. Once,just as the sun was rising,he succeeded in transporting Mao’s distorted voice,interrupted by bursts of static,addressing the people of China,to Tollygunje.” Despite his brief life,Udayan’s character looms large over the novel and is vaguely reminiscent of Animesh,the protagonist of Bengali writer Samaresh Majumdar’s Uttoradhikar trilogy on the Naxalbari movement (the second volume of which won a Sahitya Akademi award in 1984),only,unlike Animesh,he does not survive the revolution to see the dissolution of a dream.

But with Udayan’s death,the political recedes to the background,and the Mitra family’s life unspools into individual tragedies.“The only thing Udayan had altered was what their family had been.” Subhash and Gauri’s uneasy alliance is splintered by Gauri’s quiet but simmering animosity,till she leaves him and Bela for a life in academia. In the end,the narrative turns towards a more personal resolution — the revelation of her father’s identity to Bela.

In a recent interview,Lahiri speaks about her unease with the term “immigrant fiction.” It’s impossible,nonetheless,to deny a sense of reparation that her writing imparts,just as it is difficult to ignore that her eye for detail comes partly from the inherited imagination of first-generation immigrants to America like her parents. In her vivid descriptions of the changing landscape of Kolkata and Rhode Island and how her characters adapt themselves to new and changed lands and circumstances,Lahiri deals with themes that she has already proven her dexterity with — displacement both at home and outside of it and the shifting nature of escape. In that sense,Lahiri is a miniaturist,distant from the demands of what VS Naipaul called “fitting one civilisation to another”,working with the interior landscapes of her characters,quietly probing,rarely sentimental and never exotic. She gives us characters dredged up from memory,

people we might recognise in ourselves and in strangers,emotions that are both familiar and unfathomable. More than Subhash and Udayan,it’s the contrast between Subhash and Gauri that makes for some of the finest moments in this book. Subhash,rooted to the lands that nurture him — Calcutta that “made” him and Rhode Island that built him — and Gauri,quiet,fiercely intelligent and volatile,belonging nowhere,and with allegiances to none. It is left to Bela then,the daughter she abandons,to decide if there has to be a closure.

Towards the end of the novel,standing at the cusp of the decision to tell Bella about the father whose place he has taken,Subhash thinks of his life with Gauri and Bela: “They were a family of solitaries. They had collided and dispersed… If nothing else,she had inherited that impulse from them.” In the end,Lahiri pares her canvas down to this human impulse,this decision to come together or not,and how it can build or wreck the visions of life we paint for ourselves. In this,Lahiri is a master cartographer,navigating the complex terrain of relationships,overwhelming us,despite her wry tone,with the rawness of felt emotion.

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