Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Book Review: Jhumpa Lahiri The Lowland

Booker short-listed 'The Lowland' by Jhumpa Lahiri is another one of her Kolkata-USA transitional novels, the kind she specialises in. Two brothers born in pre-Independence Kolkata, through the troubled naxal revolution times. Then one brother (Udayan) becomes a Naxalite, and the older brother (Shubhash) moves to study in USA and hence, their heretofore joined-at-the-hips lives develop in completely different ways. 
Obviously, tragedy strikes when the younger brother is killed and then starts the journey of Subhash with his brothers pregnant wife, who he marries to save her from an uncertain future. 
But it does not stop here. Bela is born and raised, and then she has a child and it goes on and on. And on.
Which brings me to my problem with Jhumpa Lahiri novels. They dont seem to end. Her short stories are works of genius. Pithy, hard hitting, and perfectly simple, they are a joy to read. But her novels tend to meander along heavy slow routes, leaving their original course, getting into unrelated territory, never seeming to end. So goes this story. Bela's mother is an intelligent woman but cannot love her daughter. It is never clear exactly why- because she loved Udayan too much? Or because of what Udayan did before he died? Why did she leave? Bela turns into a hippie of sorts, has a child out of wedlock, but comes 'back on track' and gets a boyfriend in the end. While Shubhash's life goes on, with and without his parents, with and without his wife, with and without his daughter (not really, his brothers daughter), with and without his friends and colleagues.
Now to what the novel started with, the Naxal revolution in Bengal and Kolkata, the first part of the novel, the part which actually is interesting, heart wrenching and close to home. I have been brought up in Tollygunj, where in my growing up years, the Naxal revolution was still clearly remembered, deeply felt. There were still parents left who had lost their children. Trees under which someone was murdered by the police, fields where someones son or brother had been asked to flee, escape and then gunned down mercilessly. Just like Udayan. Ive met people who have seen such things. I lived by the Tolly Club, and we, as kids used to enter the club through a hole in the wall, and play inside. My mother had done the same when she was a child... and she and her rowdy group had been caught by a guard and given a couple of hidings. I basically lived in the Lowlands. The Technicians studio is close to my house, and the mosque, the lanes, are just as Lahiri describes them. It was so close to home that I was a bit angry to read her, it was as if she had entered MY territory, "I" am the one who is supposed to describe it, "I" live there. I have studied in Presidency, my closest friends were in Jadavpur University, College Street where Udayan and

Gauri's love blossoms, was second home for 3 years.
"I" know the people, the stories... and yet, she is a Booker nominee for having told my story! 
But I wish she would stay with the Naxalites, not go into so much detail about Shubhash's life, Bela's life, 4 generations... why? How does Udayan's death affect the fourth generation? I didnt get that. It affected Bela's childhood, and that's it.
So much possibility... its a piity.
My verdict... or my bet, however you put it- the Booker for Lahiri? Not this time.

Also see: http://kolkatacitydiaries.blogspot.in/2013/10/my-kolkata-in-jhumpa-lahiris-lowland.html

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