On uneven terrain

Print edition : January 10, 2014

The Lowland, By Jhumpa Lahiri, Random House India, Pages: 340, Price: Rs.499.

Jhumpa Lahiri poses with her book "The Lowland" during a photo call in London on October 13. Photo: Olivia Harris/REUTERS

Compassionate and vivid portrayal of frustrated aspirations, failed relationships and blundering characters.

JHUMPA LAHIRI’S arrival in the eclectic universe of Indian English writing marked the emergence of an authentic and nuanced representation of the Indian diaspora. In her first collection of short stories titled Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri portrayed the alienation and isolation of Indian immigrants in the United States with acute sensitivity. Her subsequent work, The Namesake, has established her as a master chronicler of the universal human condition of loneliness. Her engagement with the political, however, has been limited.

The essence of Jhumpa Lahiri’s work lies in the conflicted inner lives of her characters, their trials and tribulations around difficult life choices, and their perpetual struggles to negotiate their emotions vis-a-vis a hostile universe. In that sense, her recent novel, The Lowland, marks a significant departure from her earlier works as it tries to explore hitherto uncharted territory. Jhumpa Lahiri moves out of the domain of humdrum middle-class existence in the campus life of American universities to politically turbulent times in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Her earlier work constantly addressed the East, but this is an altogether different canvas. The Lowland is not a nostalgic harking back to the East in search of roots, which predominated her earlier work. The East here is more real, with all its grime and dust, the brutality of police action, the taut script of revolutions being plotted and, above all, aspirations for a more equitable world suppressed ruthlessly. In a sense, this is Jhumpa Lahiri’s first serious engagement with a political movement.

The novel revolves around the lives of two contrasting characters and their varied responses to the naxalite movement in Calcutta. The dichotomy between pragmatism and idealism is brought out in the contrasting responses of Subhash and Udayan to a pervasive atmosphere of revolutionary fervour. Udayan considers Subhash’s decision to migrate to the U.S. a betrayal. He says, “I refuse to forgive you for not supporting a movement that will only improve the lives of millions.” Jhumpa Lahiri, however, fails to capture the pulse of a movement that had kindled the imagination of hundreds of youth. The evolution of Udayan from a college student into a revolutionary is not etched out clearly. The description of the movement in its heyday fails to bring out the ways in which it seeped into everyday lives. The challenge of a serious engagement with a political movement in fiction is to bring alive its human and social dimensions through well-etched characters.

Despite her sincere efforts, Jhumpa Lahiri’s choice of tropes does not get into the heart of the matter. She resorts to the use of cliches in describing the naxalite movement —arbitrary killings by the police in the middle of the night; idealistic students drawn to the revolution; study circles brewing the revolutionary fervour. A lot of Bengali fiction on the naxalite movement abounds with such tropes. However, in The Lowland the movement remains an externality; its correspondence with the lives of the characters is incomplete.

An interesting contrast is provided by the novels of Samaresh Majumdar in Bangla, which are more rooted in the contemporary reality and bring alive the nooks and crannies, the interstices of a city torn by strife, and characters evolving through their varied interactions with it. In contrast, the evolution of Jhumpa Lahiri’s revolutionary character Udayan is not etched out clearly. Although Udayan dies in the middle of the novel, his presence looms large over the lives of other characters. The trajectory of his career as a revolutionary is not traced fully. A life cut short unexpectedly by brutal murder comes back in fits and starts throughout the rest of the novel: in the memories of his wife, the anxieties of the child and the ritualistic mourning of the senile mother. Jhumpa Lahiri’s representation adequately humanises the revolutionary. But it does not do much by way of conveying the essence of the movement itself or excavating the motivations and intentions that leads to the movement becoming inextricably linked to the life of the character.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s portrayal of the central female character, Gauri, however, touches upon an important aspect of the movement vis-a-vis woman’s agency. In fact, the portrayal of Gauri raises more significant questions about the intent and nature of the movement than that of the stock character of Udayan. Gauri’s choices at several points in the novel throw light on the ways in which the naxalite movement negotiates with the question of woman’s agency. The party does not approve of Gauri’s decision to marry her husband’s brother after Udayan’s untimely killing and considers it a dishonour to Udayan’s memory. This shows how even an indoctrinated woman has limited choices in terms of exercising her agency. Gauri, despite her revolutionary leanings, constantly struggles with the unconventional choices that she makes vis-a-vis motherhood and companionship. In fact, Jhumpa Lahiri’s genius is evident in her portrayal of the conflicted emotions of Gauri rather than the revolutionary fervour of Udayan. Gauri comes alive more than any of her male characters, in her frustrated attempts to work out a loveless marriage, in her failed attempts to be a good mother and towards the end her feeble efforts to invoke memories of Udayan in a visit to Calcutta. In her portrayal of Gauri, Jhumpa Lahiri once again does what she is best at; concretising with acute sensitivity and compassion the essence of isolation. The author highlights Gauri’s frustrated attempts to find love in her marriage to Subhash: “With Subhash she learned that an act intended to express love could have nothing to do with it. That her heart and her body were different things.”

Gauri never quite fits into the socially accepted role of a mother. The strained relationship between the mother and the daughter is subtly invoked in the novel. In one chapter, the author describes Bela’s daily routine: “Every morning she went upstairs, knocked on her parents’ door, not wanting to disturb her mother but also hoping she’d been heard.” Gauri’s final act of renouncing the household is perceived by both Bela and Subhash as an unforgivable transgression. But what is more interesting is Gauri’s own conflicted response to a conscious choice, amply evident when she is wracked by a sense of guilt after a confrontation with her daughter much later.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s considerable achievement in the novel is her succinct portrayal of blundering characters struggling to build their lives around failed relationships and trying to hold on to the remnants of a distant past. This dystopic vision is visibly concretised in one of the final chapters of the novel where Subhash is visiting Ireland. As he strolls around the drenched and uneven ground, he walks towards a stone and stumbles, reaches out to it, and steadies himself. The author observes, “A marker, toward the end of the journey, of what is given, what is taken away.”

This novel shows far greater maturity in terms of treatment of themes and characters even in its depiction of the diaspora compared with the author’s earlier works. This is achieved through the frequent correspondence between the East and the West, which goes beyond nostalgia. The emotional geographies of characters are built around a complex web of events, fate and places. Gauri’s memories of the locality in Tollygunge are scarred by the killing of her husband by the police. She realises her intellectual aspirations in the U.S., far removed from a claustrophobic household in Calcutta where she was always made to feel like an intruder. Bela retreats to a simplistic world of commune living in the West, a reaction against the mad rush for aspirations. Jhumpa Lahiri steers clear of stereotyping the East and the West and dividing the two worlds into neat compartments. This lends depth and complexity to her characters and their experiences.

Jhumpa Lahiri treads new terrain in terms of her treatment of political themes and characters dealing with complex personal decisions in turbulent political times. Despite its somewhat unsuccessful attempt at capturing the pulse of the times, the novel stands out for its compassionate and vivid portrayal of frustrated aspirations, failed relationships and blundering characters trying to make sense of their lives.