By Jhumpa Lahiri
Random House India
A student of the great American writer Richard Yates had once bemoaned to him that she was able to write only about family. Yates, two of whose novels, Revolutionary Road and Easter Parade, are enough to earn him a place in the pantheon, had replied: “Yes, family. What else is there to write about?”
In her two collections of stories – Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth – and her previous novel, The Namesake, three books that have cemented her reputation as one of the most formidable practising writers in the English language, Jhumpa Lahiri has returned again and again to the theme of the family – its internal dynamics, its fraught as well as rewarding nature, its contradictions and its consolations.
In The Lowland, shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, she wheels around her guns, marrying the personal and the political, the inner lives of her characters and the events of the outside world which shape them, to produce a searing novel that is as haunting as it is tender.
Subhash and Udayan, two brothers born 15 months apart, the best of friends, one defined by the other, come of age in the Kolkata of the 1960s. From modest backgrounds, they are brilliant students, and are admitted to the city’s best colleges.
After graduating, Subhash, the more conventionally dutiful of the two, goes to a university in Rhode Island. Udayan, the rebellious idealist, gets involved in the Naxalite movement that was at the time sweeping across the city, co-opting thousands of bright, young minds from campuses.
To say what happens next, even in summary, would be to offer a spoiler. It is sufficient to merely let on that a terrible tragedy brings Subhash back for a visit to Kolkata from the life that he has painstakingly pieced together for himself in Rhode Island.
Then, things fall apart. Devastation and deaths, the thwarting of desire and the breakdown of relationships, darken the pages of this remarkable novel.
Parenthood has been one of Lahiri’s preoccupations, and it is the relationship between Subhash and the little girl he raises as his daughter that shines through, luminous and loving, amid the elegiac tone of the novel.
It is impossible to read Lahiri without being put in mind of Flaubert’s dictum: “Prose is like hair: it shines with combing.” Here she is on walking through a sea of shifting, dead leaves in a New England autumn: “The leaves sometimes rose around him, as if something living were submerged beneath them, threatening to show its face before settling down again.”
Once one turns 50, Martin Amis has written, one’s own past becomes an unexplored continent. This is Lahiri, towards the end of the novel, describing 60-year-old Subhash obsessively remembering and trying to reclaim his past: “These minor impressions had formed him. They had washed away long ago, only to reappear, reconstituted. They kept distracting him, like pieces of landscape viewed from a train. The landscape was familiar, but certain things always jolted him, as if seen for the first time.”
Lazy readers have referred to Lahiri’s books as immigrant fictions. She shows, in The Lowland that her particular concern is the portrayal of characters suspended between two states of being, unsure of their place in the scheme of things, as much inside looking out as outside looking in: the young bride who is unwelcome in her in-laws’ home; the Naxalite who feels alienated from everyone but his comrades; the aging widow whose grasp of the sense of present and past is slipping; the vulnerable father, whose daughter has grown up and left home, needy for her attention, and anxious that he won’t find it.
One of the many striking virtues of this novel is the empathy Lahiri extends to her characters. Be it the mother who abandons her daughter, the Naxalite who plots terror, the policeman who unleashes violence, Lahiri unflinchingly sees all sides of the picture. She is an anatomiser of the human heart. She does not judge her characters; readers may, at their peril.
When asked in a New York Times interview about what kind of book she likes to read, Lahiri had said: “I am drawn to any story that makes me want to read from one sentence to the next.” In this novel, she has – once again – written that kind of story. No wonder that her American publishers have ordered a first print run of 3.5 lakh copies. The Lowland is nothing if not an example of an inimitable writer at the peak of her powers.