The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Final Lowland cover.inddI read some Jhumpa Lahiri short stories as an undergrad, in my Contemporary British Fiction course.  Her writing style is so beautiful and simple and easy to comprehend–people who write know how difficult it is to produce a simple and effective sentence, without endless clauses and commas. I tend more toward the maximal than the minimal, but I wish I could embrace and produce brevity the way Lahiri does. I haven’t read her other novel, The Namesake, but I did see the movie with Kal Penn, and I remember liking it.  I may need to read the novel because I also enjoyed this book. Lahiri was born in London to parents from West Bengal, but moved to the US with her parents when she was still quite young. She has a unique perspective as an immigrant and emigrant of 3 countries and that is reflected in her writings. She lives in Rome now, but this particular novel is all about India and the US.  It was shortlisted for the Man Booker last year, which is how it ended up on my Christmas list.

I have a tough time with the sort of books that span lifetimes.  This is one of those.  We start with two young brothers, growing up near Calcutta: Subhash and Udayan. By the end of the book, focus has shifted to one of their grandchildren. I’ve read other books that cover this much of a life, or a few lives, and I find it difficult. When you zoom out so far on someone’s life, it is much harder to find the point, the lesson, the change they endure during the story.  It is undoubtedly closer to real life, but I don’t read fiction for real life. I read fiction because at the end of a book there is a sense of order and satisfaction. There was a problem, the person learned to conquer it and then they did.  It doesn’t have the same, or sometimes any, meaning if we follow them for another 40 years of their lives. Often these books are more about the gradual change from bright and energetic youth to tired and sad decline.  And I don’t like that either, because I’d like to think there was some hope for happiness once I’m over 40 or 50.  So that aspect of this book was not my favorite.

But it was beautifully written, very clear and concise and well done.  I believe the slow decline, the overtaking quietness that consumes almost all of these characters stems from one event. A death that no one in the book recovers from. Everything from that point on can be categorized as a ripple effect. The family never recovers, the children inherit secrets and pain that lasts a few generations.

I am pretty woefully ignorant of Indian culture, let me say that straight from the beginning.  Unlike in London, there aren’t large populations of Indian/subcontinent immigrants in the US. There are pockets here and there, much more where I live now than when I lived in the Midwest, but nowhere near as ubiquitous as in the UK. But I have read several books now that focus on immigrant families coming into the UK and the US.  I’ve read Zadie Smith–White Teeth and On Beauty–Salman Rushdie–the Satanic Verses–and now the Lowland. I can’t help but notice similarities.  Most obviously, there are pairs of men, usually related, usually very different (Subhash and Udayan in the Lowland, Magid & Millat in White Teeth, Farishta and Chamcha in the Satanic Verses). Secondly, someone is usually involved in academia or science (Subhash and Gauri in the Lowland, the Belsey family in On Beauty, Magid and Marcus Chalfen in White Teeth), and their counterpart is usually involved in politics or religion. I am not an immigrant, and have never lived in a culture different enough to worry about assimilation.  I don’t think learning to stand on the right and walk on the left in the U.K. exactly qualifies me to discuss the immigrant experience. But, I am pretty good at empathy, and I think I can see a lot of reasons why these relationships keep coming up.  Being an immigrant or of dual ancestry means that you are always considered two different people. An Indian man in London may seem very Indian to his fellow Brits (of a more Anglo descent), but he will seem very British if he returns to India. It’s like the god Janus, one face looking forward and one looking back.  These novels tend to have a character that embraces completely the new culture, and another that leans in the opposite direction and clings to tradition, to the country they consider their true home. In the Lowland, Subhash returns to India with his daughter, and though both her parents are Indian, little Bela cannot stomach the same food, water, or sun that her mother and father grew up with. Life in the US has made her softer than life in India would have. She can’t go back ‘home’ and be with her ‘native’ culture. It implies that immigration is a non-reversible event; once you go, you can’t come back.

There are two events in this book that shape every other character and every other moment.  The death of one of the brothers, and the abandonment of Bela by her mother.  The reviewer for the New York Times found real fault with this event and its aftermath, saying Ms. Lahiri never manages to make this terrible act — handled by Gauri with cruelty and arbitrary highhandedness — plausible, understandable or viscerally felt. Why would Gauri regard motherhood and career as an either/or choice? Why make no effort to stay in touch with Bela or explain her decision to move to California? Why not discuss her need to leave her marriage and her child with her husband?  

I didn’t have an issue with this, because I empathized with Gauri. She didn’t want a child. She couldn’t accept this child in particular, because of what and who it represented.  A child is a massive never-ending responsibility, looking for love and knowledge and entertainment and safety, looking to you every second of the day. I don’t want kids. Not at all. I’m not up for that kind of commitment. Having a pet is the most amount of commitment I can deal with, and I like pets a lot more than I like kids. So for Gauri to run away from this massive commitment, this project that would take up at least 20 years of her life, always reminding her that she lacked freedom and she lacked her own life…I can empathize.  Luckily for me, we have contraceptives and I don’t have to have kids. But I can’t say I find it hard to believe the what or why here. I can imagine the fear that would come from looking at this little person that depends on you for everything, and instead of finding the love and dedication growing inside yourself, you see something akin to a cage.  Like I said, I don’t want kids.

My only real problem with the book is the ending.  After we see the characters age and procreate, and then their child procreates, after all this, and in the last few pages of the book, we are thrust back to moments before the death, from the point of view of the about-to-be-deceased. Ending it that way almost acted as the opposite of closure.  Questions and ideas that had been settled in the denouement of natural events, were re-arranged and had to be re-considered.  And then the book was over.  It robbed me of a sense of ending, and it left a bad (mental) taste in my mouth. I’m not sure why she chose that ending, but I wish it had been left out. I suppose perhaps the point in showing the death again was to solidify the idea that this one death was a spear in the side of everyone mentioned in the book, and continued to affect them far after it occurred and even after it was forgotten. It affected 4 generations of characters, and would continue to affect them. That’s why it’s there at the end, I suppose.

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