Jhumpa Lahiri at her poignant best
23 November, 2013
What I love about Jhumpa Lahiri’s work is the way she takes up ordinary, everyday, commonplace occurrences and weaves a tale out of them, so effortlessly, that you are left to wonder how come you saw the same things all your life but never noticed such a great story lurking underneath.
The Lowland, again, is about ordinary people. It is about an ordinary middle class couple living with their two sons, Subhash and Udayan, fifteen months apart, in a small house in the 60s Calcutta. The only thing that separates the two otherwise inseparable brothers is their vastly different ideologies – while Udayan gets drawn to and irrevocably involved in the Naxalite Movement that shook Calcutta to its core back in the 60s, Subhash establishes a stable, respectable life for himself in the States.
The story oscillates between Calcutta and the United States, the sharp contrast between the two cultures coming through with forceful clarity, as does the difference between the lives of the two brothers. The amazingly detailed description of each road, each nook, each turn of these two vastly different geographical locations makes it more like a movie than a book. I felt I could actually smell the salty breeze over the Rhode island beach and the stench of the swamp at Tollygunge, Calcutta.
And then, a telegram comes. And life will never be the same again. Subhash has to return home to pick up the pieces that his brother scattered while he was trying to make the world a better place at the cost of everything he ever held dear, including his own life, and his wife, Gauri.
The Lowland is a story of a romance that survives death, of the glaring lack of it between people inhabiting the same house, the same bed. Of the trauma of a child whose mother abandons her; and the darkness that descends on a mother who has to see her child being mercilessly killed. It is the story of a son who defies his parents to pursue his idea of truth; it is the story of another son who defies his parents to fulfill what he believes is his inherited duty. It is the story of a mother who feels trapped with her daughter and finds escape in her work; it is the story of a grandmother who has lost the right to take her grand-daughter into her arms. It is the story of a wife who helps her husband kill; it is the story of a wife who is relieved to find the traces of another woman in her husband’s life. It is the saga of a father who never met his child; it is the story of a father who loved a child as his own. It is a story of helplessness, of difficult decisions, of irreparable loss, of groundless anger. It is the story of bloodbath; it is also a tale of unbridled love. Delving into more detail in this review might diminish the reader’s joy of discovery of deep-seated gems, so I would leave it at this.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s expertise lies in her amazing character sketches, which makes it easy for the readers to laugh, weep, brood and feel completely at one with them. The Lowland excavates complicated, shockingly strong emotions from the depths of human psyche and makes sense of them, and shows how they define and shape personalities and alters life paths. Each incident, each turn of events is like a picture, held up at a number of different angles, so the reader can look at it from the viewpoint of each character in the story. And all that is done in a comfortingly lucid flow of words. That is Jhumpa Lahiri’s signature style. To end with a cliché – It is unputdownable.
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