Sunday, 29 September 2013

BOOKS: A Reflection on Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland

“Isolation offered its own form of companionship: the reliable silence of her rooms, the steadfast tranquility of the evenings. The promise that she would find things where she put them, that there would be no interruption, no surprise. It greeted her at the end of each day and lay still with her at night.”

This is Gauri's life. A professor of philosophy in California. Successful, alone. But before this life, somewhere in New England, she was a mother, an unhappy wife. And before that life, in India, she was the young idealist who, for the love of a man, became an accomplice to murder.

It is easy to hate Gauri. Having been given a second chance at life in the US. How could she be so selfish to leave her child and husband in pursuit of her dreams.?How could a mother leave a daughter so easily? And could she be so coldhearted as to repay her husband's kindness by disappearing?

And so goes the plot for the second part The Lowland. I am a Jhumpa Lahiri reader from way back, so this is not really a book review but a reflection sparked by the book. I think of Ms. Lahiri's short stories as truly mesmerizing pieces whose short but shimmering plots stay with me for years. But her first novel, The Namesake, which came out a few years ago, was a disappointment. There was a disjoint in that novel. It became short flashes of beautiful writing and distressed characters that never came together fully.

Fortunately, The Lowland, her second attempt at penning novels, was a more rewarding read. It is in fact like reading two novels. The first part is set in India and is about two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, growing up in a small town in Calcutta. Both are academically brilliant, but Udayan uses his gifts to join a radical communist movement, while the older, more responsible and duller Subhash works on his studies and gets a study grant to the United States.

The second part is set in a seaside town in New England, where Subhash is based. The catalyst for the second part is the violent death of Udayan, who leaves behind a pregnant wife, Gauri. The older brother, for reasons still not fully explained, proposes and then marries Gauri and brings her to the US to allow her to start a new life. Except that the new life Gauri wanted was really a life without a daughter and a husband, and so one day she disappears out of Subhash and her daughter Bela's life.

Jhumpa Lahiri's writing is lyrical yet sparse. And her plots might not appeal to those who are used to fast paced thriller or cliffhanger novels. This book is the kind that one reads for the insights to the characters' inner lives. It is the kind that one reads in silence, with a glass of aperitif and quiet contemplation as the novel will inevitably lead the reader to a door, where we sigh to reflect on the puzzles of our own imperfect lives.

Jhumpa Lahiri's protagonists, Subhash and Gauri are successful in that they have achieved the american dream of stable, professional lives. But beneath these blankets of security is their own wonderment on how incomplete, how fractured their lives are. How there is always something, the past, a painful truth, that draws them to the fringes of sadness.

Still, towards the tail end of the novel, Lahiri offers hope. Subhash, the dutiful brother, the husband who was left behind, finds happiness with Bela's high school teacher and discovers stable, romantic love in his seventies. And Bela, who have shunned any good relations with her mother, gives Gauri hope in a letter:

Meghna asks about you. Maybe she senses something…It's too soon to tell her the story now. But one day I'll explain to her who you are, and what you did. My daughter will know the truth about you. Nothing more, nothing less. If then, she still wants you, and to have a relationship with you, I'm willing to facilitate that.

***The Lowland is shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. The winner will be announced on Oct.15 2013.

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