Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Publisher: Random House India, 2013
Pages: 340 Price: Rs499 [Hardbound]
There are two brothers. They differ in age by just over a year and resemble each other physically. But psychologically they are poles apart. One becomes a Naxalite and the other goes to the USA where he completes his higher studies and settles down. The Naxalite is eventually killed and his brother marries the widowed young wife who is pregnant. She gives birth to a daughter in America and soon deserts the family. She goes to a faraway place and works as a professor of philosophy and writes books, cutting herself off totally from her second husband as well as her daughter. The daughter grows up and inherits some of her biological father’s revolutionary spirit. She gives birth to a fatherless child and lives with her adoptive father doing odd jobs related to conservation of the environment. The adoptive father decides to marry a friend when he is 70 years old.
That is the plot of a novel that was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013 – Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. The plot is as immaterial as the treatment of the themes and as shallow as the characters. After reading the novel one will be left wondering what the author was trying to convey. Is it that relationships are immaterial or untenable in today’s world? Is it that the Naxalite movement of the 1960s was a brutal folly? Is it that your past will haunt you like a vindictive ghost, as the blurb says: “A fiercely brilliant woman haunted by her past”?
The major drawback of the novel is that the author fails to convince us of anything worthwhile. For example, it is not very clear why Gaauri, the wife of the Naxalite, chooses to leave the man who saved her from a miserable existence as a young widow, more so why she abandons her own daughter. Is the Naxalite a hero or a villain? Was the movement justified or was the suicide of Kanu Sanyal, one of the founders, an indictment of the movement? Why do some characters just pop in and out of the plot according to the whims of the author? Holly is a woman separated from her husband and she has an affair with Subhash, the brother in America. Later she rejoins her husband and moves out of the plot, only to make a brief return some years later. Richard is a close friend of Subbash’s who disappears from the plot once their studies are over, but returns years later only to die soon.
Gauri is a professor of philosophy and so we hear names like Hegel and Horkheimer. But nothing more. At least some philosophy would have saved the novel.
One wonders why Gauri is so excited about a middle aged man’s gaze, so excited that his sight accelerates her heart, makes her limbs taut and produces “a damp release between her legs.” She follows him one day and sees him kissing a woman. Then she walked into a women’s room, “and she could not help herself, she pushed her hand up her shirt, to her breast, caressing it, another hand unzipping her jeans, hooking her fingers over the ridge of bone, her forehead against the cold metal of the door. It took only a moment to calm herself, to put an end to it.” She avoided the man altogether after that.
All the major characters in the novel seem to live that kind of a life of masturbation: finding some kind of delight, however transient, in one’s own personal occupations or ideologies or concerns. Neither they nor the readers are blessed with any sense of fulfilment.
I went through the novel again, rapidly though, after finishing the first reading in order to find out whether I had missed out something significant. No, I couldn’t really find anything. I was disappointed. This is not what I had expected from the author of the brilliant stories in Interpreter of Maladies.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to a student of mine who lent me his personal copy of the novel.