(Book review series The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri)
It has been a while since I was this disturbed by a book.
I started reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest book “The Lowland” at about 2.00 PM on the 2nd of October. By 5.00 PM I was so hooked to it that I forgot it was raining and there were clothes drying on the terrace!! I did not take a break from the book until I had completed reading it at 11.00PM!!
The story set in Calcutta of the 1960s and 70s is about Subhash and Udyan - brothers separated by a mere fifteen months gap in age. They are more friends than brothers. They study in the same class, have similar hobbies and spend almost all their free time together. Udyan, the younger one is the more mischievous, intelligent and creative of the two ,given to spurts of genius. He is the one who gets more attention from the parents. Subhash on the other hand is the quieter child who tries to seek parental approval through obedience. Both brothers do well academically and go on to college in different parts of the city pursuing different subjects. While Subhash studies chemical engineering at Jadavpur University, Udyan enrolls for a Bachelor’s degree in Physics at the Presidency college.
It is while he is at college that Udyan comes into contact with students who are part of the Naxal movement. He goes on to join the movement, keeping it away from his family, though his older brother suspects that he is more than a sympathizer.
Subhash in the meanwhile gets a scholarship to pursue a Ph.D program in the United States. He moves to Rhode Island while Udyan stays behind in Calcutta, teaching at a local school after his post graduation. He receives a letter from his brother one day with a picture of a young girl enclosed within it saying that he had married this girl- Gauri. She was his friend’s sister. Their parents disapproved of the marriage and the girl but were slowly coming round. Subhash is just a wee bit jealous that his younger brother has married before him and to such a striking looking girl at that.
Life goes on in a rather placid way for Subhash until he is jolted by the news he receives from Calcutta that his brother has been killed in a police encounter. When Subhash reaches home he meets the widowed Gauri for the first time and is struck by how beautiful she is. He is also disturbed by the news that Gauri is pregnant. His parents want the child but not Gauri in their lives. After some thinking he tells his parents that he plans to marry Gauri. His mother is horrified. Gauri herself is not willing. However after some time she agrees to marry him. Jhumpa describes his mother’s anger in the line “A girl who she disliked was entering her family for the second time as her daughter in law”.
Gauri joins him in the US as his wife. Subhash takes care to keep his distance from her when they are alone while at the same time trying to maintain the facade of being a new husband and expectant father to the rest of the world. However this distance dissolves as the baby Bela is born. Subhash feels a sense of closeness to the child that he had never anticipated. For twenty three year old Gauri it is different. She is on one hand very nervous about caring for the child, thinking that one wrong move on her part might prove life threatening to the child. But she slowly gains confidence in caring for the baby. Subhash helps out in both house work and child care. Gauri slowly begins to accept Subhash as her husband in a real sense. She also realizes that of the two brothers Subhash is probably the better human being. But this does not in any way lessen the deep love that she still holds for Udyan.
The books moves on to explore the relationship that Subhash and Gauri share with Bela. To the child, her father is her world. To Subhash she is the reason for his existence. To Gauri the child is an obstacle to her academic ambitions. She realizes soon enough that Subhash though not a biological parent is much better cut out for fatherhood than she the biological mother is. It is Subhash who deals with Bela's psychological problems that come up as a result of this. It is at this point that Subhash realizes that though he may not be the father who was responsible for her birth, he was the father who was responsible for her rebirth!
As Bela grows up, she charts out a life for herself that is completely different from what her academically oriented parents do. When she becomes pregnant and moves in to live with her aging father, life for Subhash comes full circle-he finds himself again looking after a pregnant woman
The book explores familial relationships in a way that no other book I know of has. On one hand is the relationship between the two brothers. On the other hand is the relationship they share with their parents and the third angle is the relationship that Subhash and Gauri share with Bela. There is a fourth dimension to this too- the relationship that Bela shares with Subhash and her feelings for her mother who abandoned her.
The book questions the entire theory that parental love is something that we get by instinct. While there is certainly a primeval instinct for protection of the child that show up in all parents, the nurturing role is not something that comes naturally to all. Infact, it is not even biologically inherited. The book confirms something that I always suspected. The motherhood role is reinforced more by social learning than biological instincts. Many mothers go about doing things for their children because it is expected of them and not because they may naturally want to do it. Sacrificing one’s ambitions for a child is something that we do because society expects a mother to do it. The guilt that comes into a mother’s mind when she feels that she may be giving her career more importance are all indications of this social pressure on living up to a role. The character of Gauri is a key example of someone who undergoes this inner turmoil. However she is able to come to terms with her conflicts and decides to make a choice that does not follow social dictates. She embarks upon a long and lonely journey in the quest for her individual goals.
The character of Subhash brings out the opposing elements of whatever we in Gauri. Here is a man who is driven by a strong sense of responsibility towards everyone in his life – his parents to whom he sends money, his wife to whom he remains faithful even when he knows that she does not love him the way she loved his brother and to the child Bela to whom he is the most caring father! When Bela refers to Subhash as “Baba” ( father) , the writer says that it was a “both a lie and the truth”!
A better man may not always be the preferred man, is something that stands out in the way Gauri relates to Subhash. She remains passionately in love with Udyan- a man she was married to for less than two years and whose child she bore more out of her love for the man rather than her own desire for motherhood. A man to whom a revolution mattered more than providing a secure home to his wife. This is probably what love is all about –something that sees no reason.
The book spans two worlds – the east and the west. Though the value systems that come into play in these two worlds are different, the emotions are consistent. There are times that the book brings tears to the reader’s eyes.
To me this book holds a very special place as it is set in the city that I grew up in. It describes events that are too faint in my memory to be classified as news yet too fresh to be called history. The marshland near Tollygunj where the story begins to unfold, may not exist today but its importance in the plot is central. The historical and ecological descriptions of the place make it come alive in front of the reader.
For a book that deals with such heavy emotional undercurrents, it is a surprisingly easy read with language that is descriptive and simple to understand. I would say that it is probably Jhumpa’s best work yet!!
A must read for everyone who is a parent!