The Lowland

232480744In The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri contrasts the lives of brothers, Subhash and Udayan, as their stories slowly emerge in the backdrop of a changing world.  Although the narrative begins with protracted attention to the brothers’ childhood in India, soon after its independence in 1947, their roots and surroundings provide a necessary grounding for the story of familial loyalty and cultural ties that follows.  If you patiently wade through the excruciating details, you will be caught in another time and place, and Lahiri once again will hypnotize you with her storytelling.

Having grown up in Rhode Island, Lahiri taps into her knowledge of that area when older brother, the quiet and cautious Subhash, leaves Calcutta for his doctoral studies in the United States, but her research into younger brother Udayan’s involvement in the beginnings of the Naxalites reveals her detailed attention to a movement that is still active in India today.  As one brother leaves family and country behind to adopt a new life, the other, more reckless and bold,  defies his parents to become a rebel.  Lahiri carefully notes that the movement in India has little press in the United States and the action only provides a backdrop for the incidents that affect the brothers’ lives, but through her descriptions, she effectively reveals an India that many would not have known.

Udayan becomes a follower of the Maoist Naxalite movement, which fought for the violent overthrow of the Indian government beginning in the 1960s.   After Udayan is arrested and killed by the police, Subhash returns home. He marries his brother’s young widow and takes her back to the United States, where he raises the child she was carrying as his own.

Lahiri’s genius may be to connect those universal feelings – family rivalry, loyalty, and love – to extraordinary circumstances and unfamiliar surroundings.  Subhash struggles with loneliness in a new country, missing his family but relieved to be disconnected from their expectations and demands.  Udayan forsakes a future as the beloved son, rebelling against those same expectations and demands.  When he marries Gauri, without his parents’ permission, he tries to accommodate both worlds by living in his parents’ house with his new wife, while secretly conspiring with the underground.  When he is caught and executed, brother Subhash returns to India, not knowing how his well-meaning rescue of Udayan’s wife will affect their lives.

The story flips back and forth from life in Rhode Island to memories of India, and through three generations that eventually find peace and acceptance.  But, the journey of the three principals – Subhash, Udayan, and Gauri – and their complicated moral choices – creates a unique perspective not only on how much the world has changed in the last fifty years, but also how inner struggles and successes continue to make life go on.

The Movie That Inspired Reading the Book

With a British cast of veteran stars, I expected to enjoy the movie “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,”  and I did.  Although all the storylines were resolved happily in the end – a true Hollywood ritual – I wanted to know more about the characters than the two-hour production allowed.  So, I sought out the book that inspired the movie – Deborah Moggach’s These Foolish Things.  

I found the original but my Kindle changed the title to reflect the movie fame; so far I like it as much as the movie – not only for the descriptions of India but also for the positive spin on getting older. See the movie; read the book.

An Excerpt from These Foolish Things

Sealed into their compound the residents lived in a world which was, in many ways, more familiar than the England they had left behind. It was an England of Catherine Cookson paperbacks and clicking knitting needles, of Kraft Dairylea portions and a certain Proustian recall. Now the summer was over the mali was planting out English annuals – marigolds and cosmea – widely spaced in damp depressions of earth. Evelyn itched to get her hands on the flowerbeds; gardeners here knew nothing about colour and mass.

Outside the walls, India clamoured. So many people, such need and desperation. Evelyn had only ventured out a few times; she found the experience disorientating. The moment she stepped through the gate beggars stirred and clambered to their feet. Skeletal dogs nosed through heaps of rubbish. Even the holy cows, wandering between the cars, were cruelly thin. And then there was the legless young man, sitting on his trolley in the midst of the exhaust smoke.

The Artist of Disappearance

In three short novellas, under one cover in The Artist of Disappearance, Anita Desai addresses a missed opportunity, a craving for recognition, and finally, the wish to be left alone. Her clear flowing language reminds me of Jhumpa Lahiri, author of Interpreter of Maladies. Like Lahiri, Desai’s stories are all set in India.

In the first novella – “The Museum of Final Journeys” – a government official describes his year of field service in a rural district when he was shown a museum of forgotten treasures. The caretaker pleas for the government to take over their care and preservation. In the second – “Translator, Translated” – Parma, a middle-aged English literature professor with aspirations to be a writer, meets a successful schoolmate, turned publisher, at a class reunion. Parma uses her new-found connection to get a job translating a book written in her childhood dialect. Unfortunately, she gets carried away, rewriting rather than translating. In the final story – “The Artist of Disappearance” – Desai describes the life of Ravi, from his lonely childhood to his hermit existence, living in the burnt ruins of his formerly posh family home. Ravi only wants solitude, and creates a hidden garden glade that is inadvertently discovered by a group of film students, on a field project to document the destruction of the hillside by miners. Despite the ravaging of the world around him, Ravi escapes notice and preserves his peace.

Although Desai has written novels, I have not yet discovered them, but may now seek them out. I finished these three short novels within hours, but found myself rereading them – each story having a piece that resonated with me. Desai’s genius is in revealing hidden torments, and exposing them to possibilities.

Secret Daughter – A Book Club Pick

Gowda’s description of Somer’s Indian mother-in-law and Kavita’s life in India offer glimpses into another world in Secret Daughter.  Somer is an American pediatrician married to an Indian neurosurgeon who adopt Kavita’s baby from an Indian orphanage. Eventually, the daughter seeks her heritage and birth parents.

The facilitator of the book discussion wisely invited a woman who had grown up in India, giving the participants the opportunity to question how much of Gowda’s references to the culture are fiction.

A quick read – could be a Hallmark Channel movie – be sure to have your tissues handy for the heart wrenching ending.

The Marriage Plot

Novels that follow a romantic formula are comfortable and predictable.  You know what to expect – the plot involves “the suitors, the proposals, the misunderstandings, the wedding” (think Jane Austen).  In The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides injects realism into that familiar narrative to examine the lives of a love triangle destined to fail, and the coming of age of three angst-ridden college students in the eighties.

Eugenides opens the story in the middle of the action – graduation day at Brown University, backtracking to explain how his characters have come to this point – a little disconcerting because the effect of the dialogue seems to have no cause, at first.  He uses this device repeatedly in the story to reveal each character’s motivation and their reactions to each other.  As the lives of Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell unravel, their anxieties are overbearing, and the trials of college life and their subsequent life decisions after graduation become the focus.

Madeleine, an English major and the daughter of a former college President recalls her college years and her relationships with two men, as well as a few other peripheral characters, as she prepares for graduation.  She met Mitchell, a religion major, at a freshman mixer, and he immediately fell in love with her.  Leonard, a cool mysterious science major, entered her life through a semiotics seminar that will test your patience.

A sign that only means that it means.

Eugenides uses the class to showcase critical analysis of literature; former English majors will cringe remembering the never-ending cycles of symbolic representation possibilities.  The author acknowledges his overbearing farce, having Madeleine looking for a book with a story that will “restore her sanity.”  You may feel the same.

Following the formula, Mitchell is the “normal guy,”  and Leonard the passionate alternative, especially after he goes off his meds and lands in the psych ward for a while. Undeterred, Madeleine pursues Leonard to nurse him back to mental health – somewhat at her own expense, while Mitchell goes off to see the world in that popular year of travel after graduation – still hoping Madeleine will come to her senses and pick him. Mitchell plans to see India, by way of Europe, of course.

Throughout the unmerciful introspection, Eugenides cleverly has all three characters following the “plot,” while he subliminally ridicules yet sympathizes with their actions.  After graduation, while Leonard is fighting his lithium demons and Madeleine is applying to graduate school, Mitchell finds Mother Teresa in India.  They keep looking for something – just out of reach, and eventually all meet again.

A college professor once berated me for not recognizing that Maugham had more to say in Of Human Bondage; perhaps Eugenides is testing the reader with his tease of a simple story complicated with underlying symbolism.  No matter – if you persevere, you may find a few thoughtful phrases that touch your own life; maybe references to Thomas Merton will make you feel that you are improving your intellect.  In a Conversation about this book with novelist Colm Toibin, published in the New York Times, Jeffrey Eugenides offered this insight…

We know that we might be “mocked” for persisting in writing realist fiction. But we keep on doing it! Because we think there is something about reality, and especially about human consciousness, that can be accurately described and that the novel is the best way to do it.

Or you may just meander through the story of three characters – a smart pretty girl, her pining friend, and a clinically depressed lover –  who end up as they realistically would, not romantically should – as many do these days.