Echo of an Execution
At the centre of Jhumpa Lahiri’s finely sculpted new novel set in Calcutta and America is the death of a brother and revolutionary
At the centre of Jhumpa Lahiri’s finely sculpted new novel set in Calcutta and America is the death of a brother and revolutionary.
Jhumpa Lahiri heard about the execution a long time ago when she was on vacation in her paternal grandparents’ home in Calcutta. Two brothers were killed by the police in the neighbourhood and she, a young adult then, was struck by the information, and was curious to know more about the students. It was a time when the revolution— born in the village of Naxalbari, sustained by the teachings of Charu Majumdar, and kept alive in the mind of a generation that dreamed in the vivid colour of blood— swept across the campuses and back alleys. “It was planted in my head,” Lahiri tells me over the phone from New York on the eve of the publication of The Lowland, her new novel inspired by the killing. “For ten years I didn’t know what to do with it. For a while I thought it could lead to a story. This book had such a long gestation period: Almost ten years. I started writing it in 2008.” Jhumpa Lahiri did not write a “Naxalites novel”.
The Lowland, the literary event of the season, is imagined by a writer who is too sensitive to write a novel subordinated to history; rather, history is, as the philosopher may say, ‘ being in the world’, an endless experience of the living. In her second novel, the Lahiri landscape, at the outset, is the same as that of her earlier fiction ( two collections of short stories and a novel): Calcutta, city of farewells, and America, land of the uprooted. The immigrant in Lahiri’s stories lives between memory and the shifting realism of displacement, and the emotional cost of being caught between two worlds is at times too heavy to bear. The Lowland too is inhabited by men and women playing out their existential script in a land chosen by destiny. Still, this is not a novel of immigrants either, their movement powered by the raw mechanism of displacement alone. In The Lowland, a piece of history has been distilled into a memory from which the displaced has only illusionary routes of escape. One death— an unrecorded statistic in the city of fear— changes the lives of those who heard the gunshot from the lowland, or its distant echo.
Two brothers open the novel, Subhash and Udayan, separated by fifteen months but, together, a study in contrast. Subhash, the elder brother, is the cautious one, and a family boy from the very beginning. Udayan is the compulsive one, daring and adventurous and the parents’ favourite. They never leave each other till they grow up and discover the world beyond the wretchedness of Tollygunge. Subhash goes to Jadavpur University to study chemical engineering; and Udayan to Presidency for physics. It is the mid-’ 60s, when the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorises America to bomb North Vietnam, when Charulata is released in Calcutta, when the Communist Party of India is split. Then, in 1967, the brothers hear about Naxalbari, about Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal. Udayan begins to quote The People’s Daily, “the spark in Darjeeling will start a prairie fire and will certainly set the vast expanses of India ablaze”. Udayan has changed.
Together and still far apart, that is the dynamics of the brothers’ bonding. Their loy-
alty to each other never snaps even as they begin to travel in opposite directions after their graduate studies: Udayan deeper into the revolution, Subhash to the United States for a PhD. It is on the campus in Rhode Island that Subhash hears first about his brother’s marriage to Gauri (“like Chairman Mao, I reject the idea of an arranged marriage”) and later, about Udayan’s death (“this year no parcel came from his family. Only a telegram. The message consisted of two sentences, lifeless, drifting at the top of the sea. Udayan killed. Come back if you can”.) In the pages after Udayan’s death, the brothers come closer in an intimacy accentuated by absence, association, memory and destiny. Subhash marries Udayan’s young pregnant widow and brings her to America. Gauri takes over The Lowland.
In a Jhumpa Lahiri novel, women are more sculpted to multidimensional perfection than men, and even by that standard, Gauri, a student of philosophy from Presidency, is exceptional— even explosive. Epigrammatic to a fault, supremely intelligent, opaque and enigmatic, she begins her journey in America as an obedient, indebted wife to the brother of the man she still loves. For Subhash, Gauri is more than a totem of his loyalty to his brother; for a man of remarkable solidity like Subhash, she is someone through whom he aspires to catch up with his brother, always the smartest. She is monosyllabic submission and mute indifference, constantly aware of what she owes Subhash but incapable of loving him; she is here and elsewhere. She makes the best use of her escape, and her assimilation verges on vengeance. What she knows and what she remembers will never be revealed to the man who tries in vain to take ownership of her. Her retreat is ruthless. Leaving Subhash and her daughter, she moves to another city to teach philosophy: “Isolation offered its own form of companionship: the reliable silence of her rooms, the steadfast tranquility of the evenings.”
This enforced tranquillity is set against the upheaval elsewhere. Bela, her daughter brought up by Subhash, eventually will know who her father is, and her life as a radical humanitarian activist has a dash of Udayan in it, and she herself doesn’t know who is the father of the child she is carrying. In The Lowland, the generational rite of rebellion and reunion provides some of the finest moments. “You are not my mother. You are nothing,” Bela tells Gauri when the mother comes to see her from nowhere after years. “There was nothing inside her. Was this what Udayan felt, in the lowland when he stood to face them, as the whole neighbourhood had watched? There was no one to witness what was happening now. Somehow, she nodded her head.” In death, Udayan, the most loved character in the book, makes every reunion a non- event. His memory makes reconciliations redundant; still, Gauri, carrying within her a terrifying secret about Udayan and herself, returns to Tollygunge after forty autumns: “Standing there, unable to find him, she felt a new solidarity with him. The bond of not existing.” Only Subhash, steady and stoic, attaining calm with a rare gift for forgiveness and longing, finds happiness in the accidental mercies of life.
In The Lowland, the displaced carry more than one world within them, and Lahiri’s craftsmanship is at its best when she maps their emotions. The place, be it Calcutta or Rhode Island, is not as overwhelming for the uprooted as their memory is. Still, for a writer born in England ( in the year of 1967 when, elsewhere in her ancestral city of Calcutta, the Naxalite movement was gaining momentum) and raised in America, home is not a fixed point of return. “I don’t know where my home is. Until very recently in my life, I felt a sense of homelessness. Once I had children, I wanted to give them a sense of home. I didn’t have one. And as a writer, I don’t want one,” she tells me. In The Lowland, it is not history— History with a Capital H— but memory that provides most of the raw material for the structure. “I didn’t want to write a heavy historical novel. History is part of my characters’ life.” She read more Thomas Hardy than any historical tome during the writing of this book. “Hardy’s works and world helped me construct the novel— his sense of place and tragedy, and how social constraints shaped the characters’ destiny,” she says. The evolution of Gauri is quite Hardian.
Every character in this novel is a story, and Lahiri translates its emotional whirl in a language bare and beautiful. There is a spartan elegance about the architecture of The Lowland, linear and luminous. “I hear the sentences in a certain way in my head. I don’t think about the style consciously. I want it to be efficient and clear,” she says. There is also a chronological clarity: In the span of ten pages, years may pass by. “The art of the novel is magical in that way. Time can be like an accordion, expanding and contracting,” she says. In 1999, she published her first collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies. It won the Pulitzer. The next, in 2003, was a novel, The Namesake, which was followed by another short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth. She shuttles between the two forms with equal panache. “I love both. I can’t imagine a world without Chekhov and Tolstoy. I want both.” Two living short story writers she admires most are the Irish William Trevor (“a classicist”) and the Canadian Mavis Gallant (“who turned the form on its head”). The Lowland is the work of a classicist who has given a Chekovian treatment to a moment in India’s history. The tragedy of it has the clarity of a teardrop. The echo of that gunshot heard in the lowland of Tollygunge is there to stay in the hall of fiction.
“I hear the sentences in a certain way in my head. I don’t think about the style consciously. I want it to be efficient and clear.”