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

India Today - - INSIDE - By S. Prasan­nara­jan

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.”

JHUMPA LAHIRI

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