REVIEW: Sue Townsend
“When I first started writing I was not conscious that my subject was the Indian-American experience. What drew me to my craft was the desire to force the two worlds I occupied to mingle on the page as I was not brave enough, or mature enough, to allow in life.” So said Jhumpa Lahiri in an interview with the New Yorker shortly after her eagerly anticipated second novel The Lowland was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2013 (it subsequently made it onto the short list).
I have never been to India but I find that it has got under my skin. Ever since reading Anita Desai and Salman Rushdie in the 1970s and 80s I have been fascinated by Indian writers (although Desai is half German and lived mostly in England and Rushdie also lives outside of India). Desai, her daughter Kiran as well as Rushdie and others (Gita Mehta comes to mind) write about the contradictions between life in India and that in the United States or England; the tensions between the old traditional culture and the new ‘modern’ one of the West.
Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London to Bengali parents but the family moved to Rhode Island when she was two. Here she lived and was educated and here she has set part of her new novel. The other location is Calcutta, a city she visited often as her grandparents remained there. The geography of the two places is contrasted but resonates – both have low-lying swamps or marshes. The title refers to a marshy stretch of land between two ponds in a Calcutta neighbourhood where two very close brothers grow up in the 1940s and 50s. In monsoon season, the marsh floods and the ponds combine; in summer, the floodwater evaporates. It is clear that the two ponds symbolize the two brothers — at times separate; at other times inseparable. But there is still more meaning hidden in this landscape, Lahiri goes on to tell us: “Certain creatures laid eggs that were able to endure the dry season. Others survived by burying themselves in mud, simulating death, waiting for the return of rain.” Not surprisingly, one brother goes to America to study oceanography – both chemical and ecological. But she is contrasting not only topography and culture but also the divergent lives of the brothers Udayan and Subhash. Udayan stays in India and joins the Naxalite revolutionary movement and the breakaway Marxist-Leninist splinter group of the Communist Party of India while Subhash, the conservative brother, pursues an academic career in America – steadfastly keeping his head below the parapet. Gauri is the woman who carries one of the brothers’ child. This daughter, Bela, in turn has to deal with her mother’s decisions as well as the eventual knowledge of her true paternity.
The writing is pared to the bone but not bleak, descriptions are lyrical and the protagonists are portrayed with great sympathy and humanity as they thread their way through the consequences of decisions that, when they were taken, seemed inevitable. Because the characters are “a family of solitaries” in Subhash’s words it is necessary for the narrator to constantly eavesdrop on their various thoughts and relay them to us. In an interview with the Chicago Times Lahiri refers to the triangles that are central to the relationships she explores – between Udayan, Subhash and Gauri as well as between Subhash, Gauri and her daughter Bela. The triangles start, however, with the two brothers and their mother Bijoli. These triangles create the tension which epitomises a family which, Lahiri explains, has to have at least three people, usually of two generations. Interestingly, the father of the boys is a benign but uninvolved presence.
Toward the end of The Lowland, a rainstorm hits, rousing Subhash out of his lifelong timidity, that mud hiding place Lahiri describes in her lyrical opening. Part of the beauty of this novel is that it’s far from a foregone conclusion whether this hard rain will give Subhash a new life, or drown him. Gauri, on the other hand, finally returns, on a whim, to Calcutta and finds the swamp has been filled in and covered with a housing estate – no trace of Udayan or his memorial stone remains, all has been obliterated.
What a pleasure it is when a second novel exceeds the expectations raised by its predecessor.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in January 2014