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Book Review: Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Lowland’

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By Achyut Dutt

Born fifteen months apart in late 1940s Kolkata, Subhash and Udayan Mitra are close. Subhash is the dutiful son, while Udayan, the younger, is the risk-taking, naughty child.

As they grow, Subhash leaves for higher studies in the US and Udayan gets swept into the tide of the Marxist-Leninist Naxalite movement of the late 60s and early 70s West Bengal. The insurgency ultimately claims Udayan’s life when he is killed by the government’s CRPF hit squads, a traumatic event that is witnessed live, by his young wife, Gauri.

By then, she is already pregnant with his child. Those days, Indian society was harsh toward widows. While not exactly persecuting her, her in-laws abuse her mentally by making it look like she does not exist. Subhash sees Gauri’s misery and deems it his duty to marry her and give her and the baby, a girl they name ‘Bela’, a new life away from all the societal crap. They get married and Gauri moves to the US.

There’s more but I don’t want to spoil your fun. Go ahead and read the book.

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Photo source: Elene Seibe

Fast-paced and eminently readable, I found Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland enthralling. Jhumpa Lahiri’s narration is vivid: Subhash and Udayan’s childhood in Kolkata’s Tollygunge, scaling the walls of the Tollygunge Club to look for golf balls lost in the bushes, the lowland behind the two ponds that filled with rain water in the monsoons. It is an exquisite imagery and a veritable feast for the senses.

The story is painstakingly researched and brilliantly intertwined with the historical events of the time. A friend of mine, who met the author when she visited Kolkata to gather info on the Naxalbari movement which Subhash’s brother, Udayan gets embroiled in, had this to say about Jhumpa…

“…Jhumpa met my English teacher, a rare bibliophile, and took notes from him about the socio-cultural correlates of the city, during the Naxalite times. My sir said he was impressed by her carefree, easy conversational style, as she squatted on the floor, just like that, amidst a pile of books, jotting down references and reading out select excerpts of her still-to-be-published book, seeking suggestions etc…”

Further, the author has found a way to weave even the rawest of emotions into her narrative. I quote below Gauri’s emotions, as she desperately seeks the intimacy that she had once felt with Udayan. While her new husband, Subhash, is off to his university lab and her daughter, Bela, in the day-care, Gauri follows a man she has never even met, around the university campus, not even sure of what she really wants. Then, unable to contain her sexual tension and seeking immediate release, she enters the university Students’ Union building and, well, here it is:

“…She escaped to the only place she could think of, the enormous women’s room, pushing against the heavy door, crossing the thick carpet of the lounge and locking herself into a stall. She was alone, there was no one in the neighbouring stalls, and she could not help herself. She pushed her hand up her shirt, to her breast, caressing it, another hand unzipping her jeans, hooking her fingers over the ridge of bone, her forehead against the cold metal of the door.

It took only a moment to calm herself, to put an end to it. She washed her hands, smoothed her hair, saw the color that had risen to her face. She strode past the lounge, not checking to see if that man was still there…”

I found that erotic and believable. The male version of it has consumed me a few times in the past and I have no difficulty identifying with it.

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Photo source: Wikimedia

The character of Gauri is the most intriguing. Quite frankly, I have never met anyone like her in real life. I think it would be exciting to know her, to maybe even make love to her, to try to figure out what was going on in her mind as I lay beside her, satiated, trying to catch my breath.

Bijoli Mitra, Subhash and Udayan’s mother, is an exquisitely crafted character. In spite of the way he is, naughty and irascible, Bijoli loves Udayan more, not just a little more, much more. I can understand this. I was the Udayan in my family.

Indian women, those days, didn’t feel sane unless they were battered in some way, even if it was by their own child. Is it perhaps universal with women everywhere? The more you treat a woman like dirt, the more she adores you and thinks you’re cool? I saw this in my own mother as a child and took full advantage of it.

I apologize. I stray. This is not about me. It is about Jhumpa’s book. Jhumpa Lahiri makes me stray, makes me think of my own past and draws me into a maelstrom I do not wish to be in again. She makes it very personal. The lowland has such a wealth of detail that it makes me wonder if a substantial bit of it isn’t autobiographical. Maybe not the setting, but the place where Subhash and Gauri’s daughter, Bela, grows up (Rhode Island) is also where Jhumpa Lahiri grew up, after her parents migrated from the UK when she was just 2 years old. Maybe there is a bit of Gauri and a bit of Bela in Jhumpa Lahiri.

I have no doubts that Jhumpa Lahiri is a gifted writer. However, here are certain things I felt, jarred a bit, just a wee bit, about the book.

Gauri is almost zombie-like and unfeeling at times and at others, consumed by passion, an almost bipolar sort of personality. Perhaps it is the post-traumatic stress, first watching her beloved Udayan murdered in cold blood in front of her eyes in a Kolkata field and the rejection from her in-laws afterward. A certain numbness under those circumstances is natural.

However, for someone who has been delivered by an enormously considerate man from the curse of early widowhood (in India, to be widowed is still a really raw deal) to the stability of marriage to him, she comes out as a petty, selfish character, keeping him at an arm’s length emotionally, even though she is now married to him and in spite of the fact that Subhash is always there for her. That touch-me-not attitude doesn’t stop her from having regular rollicking sex with him. In North America, there is a term for such a relationship : ‘f—k friendship’. I found all that a bit unnatural.

Overall, the relationships do not seem very real. There are no hugs and no tears, no fun and no laughter, just a bunch of protagonists with bottled-up emotions and strange ways to let them out, making them look more like cyborgs rather than humans. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of yearnings in the story and they are beautifully expressed, but those yearnings play a perpetual game of catch-up since the objects of their desire don’t know how to reciprocate.

Subhash’s brief relationship with an American woman named Holly, prior to marrying Gauri, is an example of the catch-up. They have a relationship that is just sexual. He drops in on her on Fridays, when her son, Joshua, is with his father. She already knows that a long-term attachment won’t work. He doesn’t. He wants more, a permanence, which she isn’t prepared to give him, though she doesn’t mind the once-a-week tumble in her apartment.

Gauri’s desperate quest for intimacy that makes her chase that stranger around the university campus and then rushing into the women’s room, to masturbate and relieve herself seems a bit unreal. She is married to a loving and considerate man whom she may not love but with whom she still has an active and satisfying sex life. And yet she goes outside, looking for sex as a means of finding intimacy. Do women find intimacy only when they shtup? I think not.  One thing is for sure. From now on, if I am in a university campus or any other lonely-wives’ town, I’ll walk around in a T-shirt that says at the back, “I have stubbier fingers, Ma’am”.

Then there is the time in Gauri’s early courtship with Udayan, when she makes him wait outside the movie theatre in Kolkata until the intermission, before she finally shows up. The explanation for her tardiness is her hesitation over venturing beyond their neighborhood with him. Seems unreal to me. Compounding this surrealism is the complete lack of irritation in Udayan, for being made to wait, for not just a few minutes, but until half of the movie is over. Earlier in the book, the reader is made to form a picture in his mind of Udayan’s personality and it is that of someone who has always had his way. Given this, the whole thing seems contrived, with Udayan being dominating and a doormat all at once.

Then there is the author’s irritating habit of not isolating conversations within parentheses like all normal folks do. She has already won the Pulitzer for her Interpreter of maladies.  Why is there still a need to strive to appear different? Why make the reader unnecessarily struggle to understand where a conversation begins and ends? This is not art. This is jerking the reader off. It is arrogance.

Lastly, there is the ending which is a bit of a damp squib. No one knows for sure what happens in the end, to the three main characters: Subhash, Gauri, and Bela. The story just dissolves into nothingness. A more accomplished writer would have tied up the loose ends, if not in the form of an epilogue, at least in the flow of the narration itself. But hey, if you wish to read about a bunch of strange females who are at times, oversexed and the rest of the while, cold and withdrawn, and strong willed men who die and wimpy doormat men who survive, this is just the right book for you.

But you know what? I still think Jhumpa has arrived. Heck, Jhumpa is a lovely name. I could repeat it over and over and not get tired of it. Will I bat an eyelid at a possible Nobel at a future date? No, I wouldn’t, but I would need to take her out to dinner for a more in-depth analysis of her eligibility.

Pic-credit: Achyut Dutt

Bio:
Achyut Dutt, 59, builds jet engines at Pratt and Whitney Canada. He writes under the pseudonym ‘spunkybong’ and has a blog named spunkybong.com.

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Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Lucknow’s Many Muslims”. Edited by Prof. Nadeem Hasnain & Aseem Hasnain. The rich array of essays explores various facets of Lucknow, a ‘Muslim city par excellence.’

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