Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Lowlands by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf)

In Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Lowlands, Gauri, Subhash, and Udayan, form a triangle of love, politics and circumstance in an India unfamiliar to many westerners. It’s part of Lahiri's art that you warm to her fondness for a familiar place and people, an idyll of domesticity and the comfort of tradition. Of course it’s a set-up for the wrenching unthinkable change to come.  But she’s such pleasant company you are willing to go where she takes you. Her words describing a huge crowd, a bird singing, a young woman in a sari or rooftop view, are perfect miniatures of a moment in flight to the next. Yet, what seem inconsequential, passing, adds up. They are the substance of a huge generational shift that begins with two brothers growing up in the 1960’s in the outskirts of an Indian city. 

Cautious Subhash, the older by 15 months, shares a small room with Udayan, his unpredictable brother. Though he's dutiful, wanting to pleases his parents, he finds it unfair that no matter how he works to achieve their ideal, they favor his rebellious brother. Still the brothers are each other's best friend with a common curiosity and ingeniousness (which once inspired them to build a wireless radio), though Udayan leads with Subhash following. So it was Udayan, who came up with the idea of breaking into an exclusive Country Club. But when they were caught, Subhash took the beating. Udayan never forgot the policeman who ignored his pleading to stop.

The boys' father, a government clerk, saved for decades to buy the house near the near the Lowlands, nature's respite from the city. The wild marsh, where the boys play, is also a meeting place of rich and poor that changes with India's culture. The father built his house with the expectation that his sons will live there with their families. Their first hurdle was to excel in their studies, so when they get the highest grades in their exams for college, he proudly felt they were on their way. Udayan chose Chemistry, Subhash physics and their lives diverged in more significant ways. While Subhash was dedicated to his books, Udayan attended meetings of student groups and became enthralled with Karl Marx.

Then Udayan made secret trips at night, referred to friends his brother didn't  know and lectured from political tracts. Subhash feared Udayan, with his high emotion, and rash personality, could easily be led astray. And he did become entranced by a charismatic political movement, rejecting government, property, arranged marriage, and, ultimately, the careful life their father had made to keep them safe and comfortable.

Soon only Subhash slept at night and did chores. He took his degree in chemistry but like many of his generation, discovered he was over-educated, prepared for nonexistent jobs. Inexplicably,Udayan was happy with a low-level job teaching mathematics. When Subhash learned of police round-ups of students, he feared for Udayan but knew he could do nothing. Subhash then decided he would take a scholarship for a Master's in Marine Biology in Massachusetts. He would get his degree and return. 

Though his adjustment to New England weather, strange food and a profound sense of aloneness was difficult, he persisted. Subhash received a few letters from his brother about his job and new girlfriend, but not a word of politics. Subhash wondered if he’d given them up, though Udayan cautioned him to burn the correspondence. Subhash had his American life; he fell in love with a married woman, and went on to a doctorate with little thought of return. He missed nothing but the once close friendship with his brother. When he learned of Udayan's marriage, he wistfully wondered about the girl who had taken his place in his brother's affections..  

Suddenly, he learned his brother was dead and his parents wanted him home. With his Americanized eyes, Subhash became painfully aware of the rigid provincialism of his parents. Gauri, his brother’s widow, lived as an outcast in his parents' house. His mother was unforgiving of this girl she didn’t pick and blamed her for his brother’s ruination. The fact she was pregnant didn't soften his parents' attitude. They placed her in a small room away from them. And when Subhash imagined her grief and decided to share his own, his mother couldn't imagine he spoke with her--while he could not imagine his parents’ cruelty. He was further enraged, when he learned of their plan to raised the baby and send Gauri to her relatives. 

“She only cares for books,” his mother said dismissively. Yet Subhash realized it was her scholarly nature, along with her natural beauty, that attracted Uduayan. Subhash offered to marry her, take her to America, where they could raise the child and she could pursue her studies. Subhash had both a wish to honor his brother and an attraction to Gauri. Despite how upset his  parent were, that both sons married the unacceptable girl, Subhash fled with his bride. Escape meant not just leaving India, but the horrific secret of Udayan's end. 

That secret and Gauri’s trauma are sublimated in the American model of a normal family life. They created a fiction that was both refuge and  curse. And in The Lowlands, emotional  inheritance is a serious factor in destiny. Motherhood did prove difficult for Gauri, because of her inclination to solitary scholarship. And with her grief she was not able to love the brother, who resembled the one she had lost. Subhash could not take his brother’s place but was in the hopeless position of trying. 

The most satisfying relationship in this novel is Subhash's with Bela, his daughter. He is a natural parent, who shares his love of the ocean and knowledge of undersea life. The exchanges between father and daughter were honest, affectionate and funny. But poor Subhash always fears the day she will learn he's not her biological father. Tension accelerated, when Subhash and Bela go to India and his mother points to a picture of Udayan and told  Bella it was her father. .

When they returned, they discover Gauri had fled to California and a position as a philosophy instructor. With a brief note to Subhash, none for Bela, and no contact information,she walked out on her 14 year old daughter. This rejection haunted Bela, who distanced herself from Subhash, dropped friends,so neglected schoolwork that they suggested a psychologist.

Eventually, she improved and grew up to resembles Subhash in her love of nature and Udayan in her active physical pursuits. She studied agriculture, but rejected her parents' academic paths. Instead, Bela became an itinerant farmer, who worked on farms, in natural foods co-ops, and lived with groups in squats. Her situations were always temporary.  Subhash is never sure when she will visit. She just showed up. 

Then she came for a longer time, after he retired,and he learned Bela was pregnant. Subhash made her the offer to return home and, at the same time, he found a woman who cared for him. When he thought of marrying, he tracked down Gauri. She didn't care about his request to sell their house in India, but the idea of a divorce disturbed her. Gauri, who had been happy in her life without emotional ties, wanted to see Subhash and Bella. She decided to bring the papers to him.

What happened when she goes to the house and Subhash is not there, the climactic meeting with Bela, is what must happen. The secrets that had been kept Bella's whole life are revealed. You get the sense a kind of wholeness will  eventually occur for this family of bridged cultures. That the new generation will make their own traditions, in the America that became their own. 

This family saga was intensely moving, not least because of the delicate way Lahiri paints shades of emotion. She traces their sources; how they are linked to weather, landscapes, the creatures of ocean, air, and food. Subtlely, she reveals the mystery of how love can occur in real life, apart from the expectations of people. She also demonstrates how emotion, time, and physical events weave the texture we recognize as human life. Like The Lowlands, which are trashed and then land-filled, you see that nothing is untouched by this process. Choice can mean, whether to stay broken or find completeness like the life of the ocean or the food of the fields. 

SW