Tag Archives: India

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.

One-year blog anniversary

blog-anniversaryThis year marks one year since I began to write this blog.  I’d like to say I’ve learned and grown a lot as a writer and blogger during this year, but I have to say most of what I have learned is how addictive the WordPress ‘Stats’ page can be.  I check it about 10 times per day, just to see the view count tick up.  This isn’t the sort of blog that I imagine will ever garner lots of attention; there just aren’t many Americans interested in my views on Downton Abbey, even among the subset of Americans that are interested in Downton Abbey. But I still get a thrill from anything that gives me a lot of hits.  I find one thing the most addictive–the WordPress map.  I desperately want to fill in all of the countries! I like the idea of my blog being read round the world.  So far, I’m doing pretty well.map

There are some countries I’m fairly certain I won’t ever get to fill in.  Internet access is tightly controlled, and often unavailable at all, in places like Iran and North Korea.  I don’t know a lot about, say Madagascar, but given their tiny population I doubt they will be visiting anytime soon.  I’m holding out a lot of hope for Mongolia, partially because it’s such a big country. I don’t understand why Greenland is not colored-in, because Greenland is technically part of the Kingdom of Denmark.  And I’ve got Denmark, so I think I should have Greenland.  *cough-WordPress-are-you-listening-cough* And it’s huge!

Not surprisingly, my blog is most popular in the US and the UK, with the rest of Europe and some other post-colonial countries (Australia, India) not far behind. But I have a lot of 1-offs, where one person from an entire country has deigned to visit my blog.  I’m always thrilled when I have new countries on the list, so thank you to the one of you from the Bahamas, Jersey, Uganda, Cyprus, Honduras, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Mauritius, Uruguay, St. Lucia, Grenada, and Nicaragua who have wandered in and then wandered back out.  Next time, tell your friends!

Other amusing pastimes include obsessively monitoring why people found my blog–what they searched for that lead them to my little corner of the internet. My most popular topic (more popular than all of the rest combined, I would wager) is any variation on ‘English Stereotypes’.  That makes up most of my traffic.  But when you get down to the end of the list you get to the more amusing keywords.  WHY were people searching for this stuff? WHY does searching for it lead to my blog?! Here is a sample of the weirdest searches:

Martin Freeman naked/nude (more popular than Benedict Cumberbatch naked, so Martin should be happy about that)

Benedict Cumberbatch + sloth OR ice age

bike mustache chops.   ????

Albus Dumbledore read Pride and Prejudice

Jane Eyre the hoes of these moves

bluffball did you see that ludicrous display last night

my possible favorite,

what is “wagger pagger bagger” slang for in England?

Excellent question, but one my blog does not answer.  There are also some that are less PG rated, including several people wanting to search about Fred Weasley performing certain sex acts, and something related to horses, dolls, and sex.  Yikes! For the record, my blog came up for that last one because of my review of Anna Karenina, which has a sex affair, a character named Dolly, and a horse race.  But I googled that same string of words and my blog was the second result, right behind a fetish porn site.  So…awesome.

I have learned that all publicity is good publicity.  I’ve had two writers retweet/link reviews that I posted.  In fact, the busiest day my blog ever had was when Steven Grasse linked to my review of his book.  If you didn’t read it, be aware that my review can be summarized by three words “Worst. Book. Ever.”  He seemed to find it amusing that his terrible book almost caused me to have a stroke.  I have to say that him personally linking to my scathing review means he has a better sense of humor than any of his humor book seemed to display.  Luckily, my other retweet came for a positive review.

I don’t mind being a small blog.  I think the best part of this blog is finding other like-minded individuals. I now follow a lot more people on WP, on Twitter, etc., who are interested in British TV and culture, who are British and are interested in TV and culture, and just people who are interesting.  I find that the most rewarding part, since it involves interaction and a conversation rather than answering misspelled Google queries.  It’s almost as rewarding as it will inevitably be when someone from Mongolia visits my blog.

Tsherlock and john laughingo the next year!

 

Movie Review: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

I actually watched this movie on the plane ride home from London, which was perhaps not the greatest idea. Any movie taking place in India, should probably be seen on a screen larger than 5-7 inches. After all, much of what is attractive and overwhelming about India are the colors, the sights (good and bad) and the noise. I think I should probably have seen it in the theatre, but hey, I’m not a millionaire.

Despite the fact that I think my enjoyment of it was somewhat lessened by the small screen and bad audio, I did like the movie.  For one thing, the cast is ridiculous. Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy (love him), Dev Patel, Penelope Wilton, the list goes on.  Oh yeah, and Maggie Smith! It’s just a ridiculous list of actors and actresses.  I do enjoy the fact that the British don’t mind having movies that feature people older than 50 (gasp!).  The last US movie I can remember with older people as the main actors was probably Cocoon. But all of these actors and actresses are older (besides Dev Patel, obviously) and they are all very busy in movies and shows like Downton Abbey, the Harry Potter series, Love Actually, the Bond movies, Calendar Girls (another great British movie featuring people older than 50.

The British seem to like this sort of big ensemble cast with little vignettes and snippets of people who are interconnected but not always connected enough to hold the movie together. I felt the same way after Love Actually, that sometimes things seemed a bit thrown together, and not everyone got enough time on screen to really get their identity across with the audience. It feels a bit like when I write a paper, or a story, and realize 75% through that I’ve taken on too much. You can’t do everything justice when you bite off more than you can chew, especially when it comes to storytelling. It was one of those movies where you realize after you’ve seen it that you had no idea what the character’s names were.  Everything just moved a bit too fast from one to the next in order to get a good grip on it.
Nevertheless, I really enjoyed it. The basic plot is that for different reasons (Maggie Smith’s character needs a hip replacement and there is a waiting list at English hospitals, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, and Penelope Wilton all have money concerns, and Tom Wilkinson is on a personal quest), all of these elderly English people end up in a retirement ‘hotel’ in India, run by Dev Patel’s character. In order to get guests for the hotel, he pays for their tickets from London to India. Once they arrive, they realize that the brochure they saw does not match the reality of this hotel, which is much shabbier and lacking doors on some of the rooms. But most of them don’t have the money to pay for airfare back to the UK, so they are literally stuck.

The movie seems to be mainly about assimilation. And what a challenge! I don’t think I’d last more than a few days in India without wanting to leave, and I’m sure each character wanted to leave at some point.  The person who just can’t assimilate, can’t even see anything worth loving about the place, is Penelope Wilton’s character. She spends her days reading in the garden, never leaves the confines of the hotel, and takes a plane back at her earliest convenience.  While she’s stuck there, she disparages the place incessantly and stomps on anyone else’s enthusiasm for India, its people, or its culture. She’s not xenophobic or cruel, but she’s out of her depth and cannot find her feet in this foreign land.  I think everyone can relate to that, and it makes her sympathetic even when she’s horrible. I wonder if it would be harder or easier to assimilate into a new culture at that age.  I think, both.  I just saw my Dad in the UK, and he is definitely homesick. There shouldn’t be any associated culture shock with moving to the UK, but he’s set in his ways and places comfort as a major priority in life.  With age, that does happen (I already feel it happening to me).  On the other hand, with age comes the knowledge that life is so fleeting and so ridiculous and horrible and wonderful and overwhelming, that the only thing the sensible person can do is let go and enjoy it.  At least, the wisest of us can talk ourselves into letting go of the semblance of control and allowing the world to sweep us out where it’s going to take us regardless.  The rest of the characters are much better at embracing that sense of change, of challenge, of enjoyment in whatever comes.

Judi Dench’s character narrates much of the movie, and she does mention the challenges and the rewards of moving to this completely separate culture. We see the most of her inner thoughts and feelings. Bill Nighy is fantastic, tall and besuited, and has that snort of a laugh that I adore. He is the most charming of all the actors onscreen.

Maggie Smith’s character sort of stunned me, because she’s blatantly racist! From her very first line, she is unpardonably racist.  Not that there really is a pardonable level of racism, but you see my point. It’s not an accidental bias, it’s not uninformed prejudice, it’s pure bile.  But she undergoes a transformation through the movie, and …well I’m not going to say she starts to be color blind, because I’m certain that’s not true, but she changes and opens up and becomes a much more sympathetic character. And, being Maggie Smith, it’s all done really very well.  She’s fabulous.

Tom Wilkinson’s character has the most desperately sad story, and I think his is the most compelling character.  I don’t want to give away more, so I won’t say more.

But there are two characters, played by Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup, that seem very similar. They both want to date younger/richer people, or marry them, or whatever. They seem to mostly want sex, love, to be …not lonely anymore. Understandable, but there’s very little to their characters. I wonder if they had more scenes originally and they were cut at some point, because it just doesn’t feel full or complete. They don’t seem to add much to the movie, except some comic relief. The movie was based on a book, These Foolish Things, which I suspect might contain more on these two that makes them integral to the group or to the action in some way. But in the movie it seems they just didn’t have time.

All in all, the movie was pretty good, but it could have been a bit better. I wonder how much I would enjoy the book, as I suspect I would get to know the characters more in that format. But the main thing that made the movie better than average was the incredible actors. With so many of them in one place, it’s almost to the point where you don’t notice how great they are, because they are all great.