Just before you are starting to think that this is a pretty long read for a short story, you will be surprised to know that this was actually an excerpt from a novel Jhumpa Lahiri is slated to release in September this year, aptly titled The Lowland. Knowing this now and looking back at the story, one is forced to wonder at how the parts fit perfectly together, never seeming contrived or stitched together from a much larger piece. But for those of you who expected to know more about Udayan’s life while Subhash was in Rhode Island in order to come to terms with the end of this story, you will definitely be waiting for the novel.
Lahiri’s story, titled ‘Brotherly Love,’ is without doubt a tale of two brothers from a really ordinary middle-class Bengali family in Tollygunge (where Lahiri’s own father grew up) but what makes the story so captivating is Lahiri’s stark simplicity to convey the knotty human emotions she wants to convey.
Family dynamics, as she portrays, in a household, where the parents maintain strange silence and non-interference throughout the growing up phase of their two sons, could be unnerving. The reader almost seems perturbed by the lack of voice and agency given to them in the first half of the story, but perhaps it was Lahiri’s tactic to highlight the strange bond between the two brothers. This attachment again is depicted in a very outlandish manner; there is solidarity right from the start from where Udayan tries to protect his elder brother from a mean policeman’s blows when their attempts at partaking of some pleasure at the only inaccessible British colonial remnant in town, The Tolly Club, are exposed, and yet Subhash leaves him behind to go abroad.
There is vigilance from Subhash’s part whenever Udayan is up to some mischief, and yet he is unable to save him in the end. The two brothers grew up like twins, spending every moment of their childhood and most of their young adult lives together and yet when Udayan is killed, Subhash is greatly disturbed to find he didn’t know a substantial facet of his brother at all and now has no option but to decipher and reconstruct him from the fragments of memory.
All these complicated threads are infused with Lahiri’s aesthetic use of simple visuals — of the seasonal flood, the festival of Durga Puja, the newly renovated, extended house — images associated with an element of periodicity.
One can possibly interpret the renovation of the house to accommodate more members as a reverberation of India’s forced acceptance of immigrants from across the Bengal border or as metaphor of the underground Naxalite movement growing strong in West Bengal in the late 60s, early 70s, of which Udayan was an integral part. It’s almost as if the house stands as an allegory for the nation as it was at the time and the almost mute parents act as silent witnesses.
The ritual mention of the Durga Puja again makes the readers wonder whether Udayan was really ‘evil’ as triumphed by the good. The question of whether his Udayan’s widow Gauri will avenge his death as Durga (Lahiri’s use of Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man as a book she wanted to read makes it open-ended) or if she will be acquiescent to the customs ordained to her by her disapproving parents-in-law; of being confined to a white sari, a solitary room and bland food.
Lahiri’s narrative flows with certain stylistic cadence, in sync with the trope of ‘floods’ in the story. The words flowing from the most basic thoughts to the most nuanced and then again being washed over with the most surface level thoughts. As integral to most of Lahiri’s fiction, this story also traverses into the territory of transgressions whether moral or spatial — Udayan’s transgression from a revolutionary for the cause to a seeming ‘terrorist’ and Subhash’s transgression across the ocean into a different world.
Yet, at the border between these transgressions and these brothers’ love for each other sits Gauri, the highly intellectual young widow of Udayan. It’s the decision regarding her fate that will mark a fitting tribute by Subhash for his brother as the ultimate act of ‘brotherly love.’