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.

Man Booker Shortlist

The shortlist for the prestigious Man Booker is out, but I’ve read only one – Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being.  Of course I plan to read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Lowland, hoping it will be as amazing as her others, but its publication date for my area is late September.  The other four that make up the list of 6:

  • The Testament of Mary by Colm Tobin
  • Harvest by Jim Crace
  • The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
  • We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Have you read any on the list?

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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.

My Life’s Sentences

Buying a used book might offer unexpected bonuses – highlighted phrases, dog-eared pages, notes in the margin, and underlined sentences. Jhumpa Lahiri, author of some of my favorite books – Unaccustomed Earth, The Namesake, and Interpreter of Maladies – in her article for the New York Times, My Life’s Sentences – wrote about words that she needed to underline to isolate and remember. Oh, how I would love to have one of her used books.

Having just finished Katie Ward’s Girl Reading, Ward’s concept of the impact of words in a real book was still with me when Lahiri wrote…

“…it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.”

Katie Ward time travels through seven eras with books as the catalyst, but Lahiri confirms that readers can do this any time they open a book. Some phrases in books are so resilient, we never forget them. Like Lahiri, I underline sentences I want to remember, usually noting them in a journal, not trusting my memory. Words like…”A screaming comes across the sky.” (from Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow)

For Lahiri, it’s Joyce’s ” The cold air stung us and we played til our bodies glowed.”

Do you save favorite words from your reading?

Lahira uses the rest of her article to explain her own writing process – not as a primer for prospective writers – but as a testament to her own struggle with words – which she has clearly conquered.

In Honor of Edgar Allan Poe – Father of the Short Story

Today is Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday; the “father of the short story” would be 202.

The New York Times book review section uses the insights of three famous authors – Francine Prose, Joyce Carol Oates, and Roxanna Robinson – all who have written both novels and short stories – to capture “Small Moments,”  their reflections on the short story form, with lots of ideas for short stories to read in …

  • Colm Toibin’s The Empty Family
  • Charles Baxter’s Gryphon
  • Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision

Toibin’s collection sounds a little depressing, with tales of melancholy and regret; likewise, Baxter’s disturbed Midwesterners;  Pearlman’s ” perceptive and funny” stories sound right for me.  

“Pearlman writes about predicaments – odd, wry, funny, and painful – of being human.”

My library only has her second collection – Love Among the Greatsguess I’ll start there.

For the New York Times Book Review article: http://www.nytimes.com/pages/books/review/

and for more on Edgar Allan Poe:  http://knowingpoe.thinkport.org/default_flash.asp