Sunday, 13 October 2013

Hard To Like

This novel was, like the title says, hard to like.

Once The Lowland was released, Jhumpa Lahiri was everywhere. It's like she already won the Booker. To not like the book seemed like a bad thing.

Then she says something like, yes, The Lowland is not easy to like.

But for some reason, I don't feel better.

Though there was, perhaps, a good reason why Gauri left her child and husband - which kind of makes sense once you piece the whole story together - I don't think it would've made me appreciate the book more.

Hard to like

first published in The Star, 13 October 2013

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013, Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland is a multi-generational tale that tells of two brothers and what follows after the death of one.

Subhash, the older of the two, is the reserved, dutiful son – the opposite of the impressionable, adventurous Udayan. Yet the brothers grow up as part of a close-knit family in Tollygunge, Calcutta, during the tumultuous era following India's independence.

Then comes news of the Naxalbari incident in 1967 (police opened fire on a group of villagers demanding their right to farm a particular piece of land). The idealistic Udayan becomes a Communist Party supporter while Subhash, who wants no part in his brother's politics, eventually moves to the United States and becomes a scientist there.

The elder sibling receives updates from home on occasion. A picture arrives in the mail one day, that of his sister-in-law Gauri. Not too long after that, news of Udayan's death follows; the lowland near the family home is where he hid in vain from his fate.

Subhash returns home to Tollygunge for the funeral and learns that his brother was killed because of his involvement with the Naxalites. But was it his attraction to Gauri or the duty to his late brother's unborn child that drove him to marry his sister-in-law and take her to the United States?

Of course the union is ill-fated, otherwise this would be a very short book. In America, Gauri eventually abandons Subhash and her young daughter Bela. But, as they say, life goes on. And it really goes on and on....

This book is probably not a good introduction to Ms Lahiri's body of work, which includes two short-story collections praised by a colleague and numerous others. I wanted to enjoy this book but couldn't.

Earlier, I'd read a novel about displaced characters and felt comfortable with it, probably because they were created by a fellow countryman and, therefore, felt familiar and more relatable.

Lahiri's vivid depiction of the life of Bengalis in India and the United States is greatly helped by what she and her family had witnessed and been a part of – and is an exemplary showcase of her writing talent.

But I feel her kind of polished, flourish- and gimmick-free prose is better sampled in small doses. This is not a novel you'd want to relax with.

And, for me, Tollygunge is too far away in terms of history and geography – except perhaps for the Communist violence. Closer to home are the struggles of one who has to pick up the pieces after a loved one's untimely demise. Nearly all the main characters seem be struggling to fill the void carved out by the death of Gauri's husband.

The slow decline and passing of her parents-in-law is particularly poignant, a powerful admonishment to children who embark upon violent careers that might work for places such as India, where Naxalite insurgents are still active.

Most notable is Gauri who tries just about everything but can't seem to patch that Udayan-shaped hole. Her attempts to do so, culminating in her ditching Subhash and Bela, is responsible for dragging the melancholy across two generations and over 200 pages.

For me, the book's atmosphere finally lifted when, after a grown-up Bela tells a suitor about her past and why she can't be with someone, the dude says, "I'm not going anywhere".

A strong art-house-film vibe comes off this book, and it might find a second wind in the form of a silver screen adaptation (hello, Mira Nair!). The way The Lowland drags on, though, begs me to concur with another critic (I forget who) who wondered if Lahiri is only good at short stories. That would be unfortunate, considering her way with words.

The Lowland
Jhumpa Lahiri
Bloomsbury Publishing
352 pages
ISBN: 9781408828113


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