Monday, December 1, 2014

Lahiri's 'The Lowland': A Three-Way Portrait About Human Individuality, Strength and Resilience

Jhumpa Lahiri's second novel and fourth book, 'The Lowland' does not appear to have won all hearts over or run away with numerous awards as her previous books have done (although a finalist for the Booker and also the National Book Award, she did not go home with those honors); yet to me it is her best book thus far.

The characters are unique and the story line suggests that she has been willing to take a risk and deviate from the insular world of accomplished Bengali Americans and their generally privileged American Bengali progeny.  The stories of Udayan and Gauri are anything but predictable or safe choices for a writer beloved by critics and American readers alike. Instead, each of the main characters, including Subhash and Bela, are memorable and distinct, complex and tragic, and they live with the reader long after the last page has been closed. How Lahiri, who comes across as having had the best of most things -- including a stable and secure upbringing in the New England area -- can get into the heart and head of Gauri, the troubled female protagonist from another world, another time, is a puzzle to me. Lahiri exemplifies what she has always been good at -- i.e., depicting the inner lives and turmoils of her characters and deftly drawing you in to care about them forever.

It seems that the main discontentment (in reviews and online comments) with this book is about her understanding of the Naxalite movement (as an 'outsider'), her depiction of the Calcutta politics of the '60s and '70s (as an 'outsider'), and the impression that she writes for a non-Indian audience.  But my own brief disenchantment arose due to the quality of her writing in the first 30 pages or so.  It seemed passive, distant, hurried, with a singular goal of establishing the sociopolitical milieu, painting the landscape and explaining the geography, all in a whirlwind of numerous sentences beginning with the word 'They'. She gave an impression of going through the motions of setting up the atmosphere without ever breathing it in.  It was almost as if it was written as an afterthought in response to an editor's note that some introduction into the Calcutta of yore is needed.  But once she (and we as the readers) get through this necessary exercise, a private world of deeply-wounded and remarkably stoic characters opens up to us and we end up being enmeshed into their extraordinary, unexpected and melancholic stories. 

We become privy to her characters' pain -- their sorrows, their sadnesses, their loneliness--at once together and apart from each other.  From then on, it is not just the politics of West Bengal and Calcutta,it is the politics of the old and the new, of ideology in the home and outside, of parents and sons, of in-laws. There is so much deeply-moving character and content, and the author carefully lays it all out for us to read, feel, see and never conclude. Or at least conclude only when all is gradually revealed at the end, as she subtly and carefully peels a layer here, shares a detail there, leaves a gentle clue or two. For example, when Gauri was questioned by the investigators there was only one name that she did not truthfully know. This fact nagged at me while I was reading, but I realized the significance of the detail only towards the end.  Apart from it being a crucial detail to the novel, it made me stop and think. We may not all be revolutionaries (or destructive social elements -- depending on our viewpoints) and commit heroic (or unspeakable acts), but when we decide to act at any level, we affect people, even those whose names we may not have cared to know. Patience is required of us as readers and it is well worth our while as our understanding descends eventually but gently about the controversial choices made. Our compassion sets in for all those individual lives affected immediately (and for a generation or two to come) by the course of unwavering and steady but cold social reality since the dawn of the people's history.     

If the child is the father of a man, what becomes of the girl-child without a childhood?  
The story of Bela is a quintessential painful and poignant story of resilience in a child -- yet not a single review I had browsed earlier on, touched upon it or alluded to it (which was a good thing, because I stumbled upon it without any expectations; it is a story that will always be remembered by me and passed on to others broken and recovering from family tragedies). Even though I was bewildered by Gauri's choice -- the one that was finally truly hers to make, own, and live by, however controversial and irreversible -- and every vulnerable fiber in my body rebelled against it, I came to understand in the end that this is the punishment she metes out to herself and her kind. Painful though it is, the logic of depriving your own flesh and blood what was deprived by you to another offspring's life, seeps through, and I came to understand that this is only way in which Gauri redeems herself, at least in my eyes. Yes, but Bela pays the price.

Even before the secret that holds Gauri apart is revealed to us, Lahiri tells us so much more about her early life. Just the details of young Gauri explain to us the comment that Udayan's mother makes to Subhash: She's too withdrawn, too aloof to be a mother.  She is talking about a young woman who was born to an ailing, older couple, who send her and Manash (the only sibling somewhat close to her age) to live with the grandparents. And how much attention could they have given her despite their love? Her numerous older sisters are forever absent from her life and the only person who is a constant in her childhood and youth is Manash. Hansel and Gretel usually make a great fairy tale, but not always natural-born parents. It is telling that in a city teeming with life, Gauri was depicted as usually gazing at it from the distance of her small balcony -- when she wasn't absorbed in her books. A young partner, newly in love, could have potentially drawn her into the midst of this promising, busy world, but Udayan too frequently kept disappearing on her while he was still alive. Her in-laws kept their own aloofness which turned into full-fledged resentment after Udayan's death. So much so that when Udayan looks at her face just before being killed -- which he regretfully understands as his final abandonment of her -- he sees only a look of disillusion. After all this, how could a young woman, as alone in this world as her, handle motherhood with ease?  To give as a mother, it is usually necessary to receive as a child. This is one area in which Bela, under Subhash's undivided attention, fierce protection, and steady, solid love, actually fares much better than Gauri.

A few words about what Gauri's character means to me:
A month or so before I began to read 'The Lowland', I lamented the fact that South Asian diasporic fiction focuses on women who follow their husbands across continents and experience domestic and cross-cultural adjustments. I regretted that women like me -- having arrived for grad school on our own, just like the men -- are rarely depicted. Juggling grad school, career and personal life, the additional pressures and extra avenues for isolation we face, are less well-known than those that our men face. Ironically, I declared that even Jhumpa Lahiri does not write about my kind of first generation women. Yet, here is Gauri, slowly but surely submerging herself into her intellectual passions, earning a PhD scholarship, riding the ebb and flow of her academic life, glowing in the seasonal fluctuations of her students' respect and love when knowing fully well that they will be gone at the end of their course, if not at the end of the semester.  For the two children whose adversity she must feel responsible for, she balances out by helping a few college kids, I suppose. Still, I could so easily be her. A thin line separates her madness from mine. With my love for all things academic and my passion for what I imagine is an unfettered intellectual life, I would so want to be her, minus her wrongs and humiliations.  

One of the strongest and most interesting female characters in South Asian diasporic fiction, Gauri may be somewhat flawed but she comes equipped with her own internal moral compass. Her strength comes from her willingness to be alone, to take the more difficult and less-trodden (and near-empty) path, and to live out her life on her own terms even if it means being alone with her own thoughts and regrets.       

Too many descriptions of the book out there, emphasize, so predictably and in a banal way, the love beyond death between Gauri and Udayan -- yet, I don't see it as that simplistic.  There was love and then there is some hate. But more than anything else, what binds her to her first husband, her dead husband, is the unspeakable secret she shares with him.  Subhash is a strong enough character on his own -- even Gauri recognizes that from the beginning to the end. Yet, several reviews out there, describe him as a sibling who has had to live in the shadow created by his younger brother.  I can't understand for sure whether Lahiri is sympathetic to Udayan and his politics, but her depiction of him in the final pages is full of compassion with a tinge of sorrow about the lack of choices for youth driven with a sense of righting society's wrongs; for youth thirsting for social justice.  In the end, although Naxal politics provide a background and a springboard for this book and open a window into a Calcutta that was largely unknown to most of us who came of age after the '60s and '70s, what really captures us are the individual characters that Lahiri was bold and imaginative enough to create and stand by in a world that did not expect her to break out of her own mold. She took a risk and I love her more for it.