Millennium Post

Their name was Red

There’s an atmospheric quality in Jhumpa Lahiri’s writings. Yes, that we all know. She has mersmerised with Interpreter of Maladies, the freshness of which astonished the most experienced of American and Indian readership. It fetched her the Pulitzer when she was 33. Now aged 46, she has changed to the extent that her prose has acquired a stillness that’s more than the mature reticence she had shown with her lines early on in her literary career. The Lowland, her second novel, is a departure from her previous works, precisely because in this book, stillness is so entwined with movement that the two are practically indistinguishable from each other.

Lahiri still hovers on her pet subject – the immigrant experience in America – but the epicentre of the novel lies in the homeland, as it were. The Lowland has a grand sweep, both in time and space; but it keeps returning to the titular lowland, the marshy twin-pond system adjacent to the Kolkata residence of the twin-protagonists of the novel. Subhash, the elder brother, the one that ‘buries itself in mud, simulates death to tide over the harsh summer, awaiting rain’ is a creature of caution. He’s the one that merges with the blade of grass or the shade of rock and makes himself invisible by blending in. Udayan, the younger brother, is more full-blooded, and perhaps, in Lahiri’s authorial hindsight, more foolhardy. But the time is not right. The decade is the 1960s, the year 1967, the place the infamous Naxalbari of Bengal.

Ever more the daredevil, Udayan gets attracted to the ultra-radical communist uprising amongst the youth, whose rebellion against the incompetent authority, the state government, takes a violent turn. Udayan is drawn into the armed revolution, flawed though it turned out to be. He meets a terrible end when he’s executed by the police firing squad at the same lowland next to their house in Kolkata. Subhash, the apolitical being, who had escaped the drudgery of Kolkata to study marine chemistry at an American university (Rhode Island), comes back after he learns of his beloved brother’s death.

Once again, Lahiri weaves an intricate net, of the personal and the political, the geographical and the temporal. Subhash meets Gauri, the beautiful young and pregnant widow left behind his dead brother. Gauri, an intellectual beauty, was a classmate of Udayan’s and has a fiery mind of her own. When Lahiri describes how Subhash falls in love with her, she oh-so-delicately underlines the resounding irony in the manner the dutiful elder brother proposes to the deceased younger brother’s glamorous child-carrying wife. The lovesick Subhash emphasises that Gauri should marry him and come to America so that she could pursue her higher studies in philosophy!

There’s a Platonic innocence in Subhash’s academic romance with Gauri, his courting of her mind (as much as her body, obviously). Lahiri, very subtly, turns the saga into an incestuous ménage trois of sort, in which political compassion and physical intimacy fuse into each other. The dead but forceful Udayan never really leaves Gauri’s mind, even though she and Subhash raise his child, a daughter, Bela, together. They agree to live the fiction the rest of their lives that Bela is Subhash’s daughter, even though, Gauri, becomes more of an estranged sibling, and less of a wife, as days turn into years in America.

What connects the disparate threads in Lahiri’s sweeping narrative is Subhash’s emotional reflection on what his life has come to. Could it really escape the churning that denoted the 1960s Kolkata? Could it leave aside, forget for a moment Udayan’s presence and absence, between him and Gauri in the bed? Could duty and love be reconciled ever, and could a brand of politics, even after the individual has discarded it, not leave its bitter aftertaste in the mouth? Moreover, Lahiri also poses a question through the tale of two brothers: by taking up arms as opposed to perhaps a pen, could Udayan change anything beyond the truncating his own family, turning his parents into still lives with his gruesome death? On the contrary, by rejecting the youth movement altogether, could Subhash really stay away from it? Wasn’t embracing Gauri also an embrace of his brother, his posthumous legacy, the violent poetry that he belonged to?

Lahiri does not answer the questions she casually but elegantly teases us to ask ourselves. Instead, she matures the minutae, details the intimacy. The dramatic is usually reminisced; it happens offstage. It’s recollected, as one remembers the memories of smoke many years after a fire. She doesn’t show the burn marks, but hints at their existence. Understatement and reticence have always been Lahiri’s forte, but in The
Lowland, they acquire a luminous splendour, like the glow of the moonlight on the marshland, when rainwater has filled it up, making it extraordinary again.

While Subhash lingers on the past, drawing his solace from memory, Gauri expresses herself in a different way. She chooses her intellectual development over demands of wifehood, even motherhood. In America, as Subhash had promised, she does find herself, but in a radically altered avatar. Lahiri presents a fantastic portrait of the woman as scholar above all, living a life of the mind at the expense of her other obligations, definitions, recognitions, roles. Bela, Gauri’s daughter, is perhaps the opposite of her fierce mother. Nebulous at first, Bela assumes criticality and gets Lahiri’s authorial attention once she returns as an adult, reorienting herself to revelations, physical, ontological and hereditary, as she confronts them one by one.

In the end, geography defines character, and charts one’s fate, though not completely. Udayan travels in other people’s memories. Subhash returns to the lowland every other day, hour, minute. How can geography be separable from the landscape of the mind? Lahiri, despite her Booker miss, has written a yarn of formidable strength and elegance. She has rightly left behind the self-conscious encumbrances of The Namesake. She has also moved beyond the immigrant pastoral of Unaccustomed Earth. The Lowland is Lahiri’s best work, undoubtedly.
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