Subhash and Udayan, brothers, a little over a year apart are academically very bright students who join Presidency College and Jadavpur respectively. Everyone, in the neighbourhood and their parents, are delighted. Subhash later goes to USA for his Ph.D. Udayan joins the Naxal movement. Hardly surprising given that this is Calcutta of the late 1960s. Lowland is about the brothers who were extremely close but their lives charted a course diametrically opposite to each other. Subhash has the predictable, straightforward, middle class life whereas Udayan a naxal is killed in a police encounter.
The Lowland was released with a tremendous amount of hype. The unveiling of the book cover ( at least in India) was done dramatically with press releases and social media chatter. The anticipation of reading a new novel by Jhumpa Lahiri was nerve-wracking. (Ever since her debut collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, I have admired her writing.) Before the book was released on 8 Sept 2013, there were the usual number of articles, interviews, and profiles of her. The extract published in the New Yorker on 10 Jun 2013 was promising. (http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2013/06/10/130610fi_fiction_lahiri) Her interview on 5 Sept 2013 in the New York Times stands out. ( http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/08/books/review/jhumpa-lahiri-by-the-book.html?pagewanted=all ) In it she refuted all claims of writing “immigrant fiction”. Her reply:
I don’t know what to make of the term “immigrant fiction.” Writers have always tended to write about the worlds they come from. And it just so happens that many writers originate from different parts of the world than the ones they end up living in, either by choice or by necessity or by circumstance, and therefore, write about those experiences. If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction? This distinction doesn’t agree with me. Given the history of the United States, all American fiction could be classified as immigrant fiction. Hawthorne writes about immigrants. So does Willa Cather. From the beginnings of literature, poets and writers have based their narratives on crossing borders, on wandering, on exile, on encounters beyond the familiar. The stranger is an archetype in epic poetry, in novels. The tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme.
Jhumpa Lahiri is always good in noting the particular. It requires a remarkable strength of observation, to detail and then recreate it in a different land. It could not be an easy task. Her detailing is restricted to the physical landscape, that is easily done, with a conscious practice of the art. it is conveying the atmosphere that takes discipline.
In The Lowland the story struggles to be heard between the vast passages of history lessons that the reader has to endure. It makes the novel very tedious to read. Probably it is due to the subject she has chosen — Naxalism. In the novel, her treatment of the movement is distant and unfresh neatened up in a story. For those familiar with the movement, in the 1960s, it was fairly simple in it being a peasant uprising launched by Charu Majumdar. (http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/NM2/History-of-Naxalism/Article1-6545.aspx). Today, the Indian newspapers are dominated by news emerging from parts of India affected by naxals. In an email to me about naxalism in India, Sudeep Chakravarti of Red Sun fame, writes “The maoist rebellion in low to high intensity can now be said to exist in between 106 districts. this does not include areas where propaganda and recruitment are on but as yet there is no conflict (for example, several indian cities, Haryana, Punjab). Numbers too are down. It is today a relatively more weakened force than, say, in 2006. but it’s a phase. the movement is nowhere near dead. I expect to take new shapes and strategies — in many ways that is already happening.”
Lowland is on the shortlist for ManBooker Prize 2013 and longlist of the National Book Award 2013. Jhumpa Lahiri’s talent has always been to tell a story, capturing the “thingyness of things”, but in Lowland she fails. One always lives in hope. At heart she is a good storyteller, but Lowland will not be her calling card as an author, that place is reserved firmly for Interpreter of Maladies.
3 Oct 2013
Jhumpa Lahiri The Lowland Random House India, India, 2013. Hb. pp. 350