Fiction should flow outside the ambit of a few characters -- their daily tribulations and relationships -- and meander through the politics, history and deeper sociological underpinnings of the era that it portrays. It should have an ambitious plot and a didactic element to it that takes it beyond just a story. Many of us imbibe literary fiction that is grander, more nuanced and larger than our own insipid set of experiences. This stubborn -- and misplaced -- understanding is the reason some of us are unable to appreciate novels that are singularly focused on relationships or individual psychologies.
US President Barack Obama presents the National Humanities Medal to Jhumpa Lahiri. Photo: Twitter - @airnewsalerts
In her two collections of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri portrays an array of characters who feel a loss over a culture they inherit, but never truly own. The short stories mapping the experiences and relationships of flawed, displaced and lonely individuals living in an alien country, delve into the greyer shades of migration. Her characters feel a longing for something intangible – a sense of belonging – which they can never pin down. Yet they live on with the vacancy of living in a country that never truly feels like home.
Lahiri’s first novel The Namesake, traces similar themes, set against a Bengali family facing the hardships and idiosyncrasies of migration to the US. The protagonist, Gogol Ganguli comes to terms with his alienation from his own family, community and eventually his own self. Larger themes of globalisation play in the background, especially in the shifting narratives between Calcutta, Boston and New York City.
While I deeply enjoyed Lahiri’s prose and her effortless ability to write about the deeper elements of migrant life, I was unable to truly sink into it. Maybe because Lahiri’s poignant writing was about individual experiences that I could not directly relate to, or because they were seeped too deep in the contemporary. However, almost two years ago, I read The Lowland in a single sitting and my entire perception of her as a writer changed.
The Lowland is a tale of two brothers – Subhash and Udayan Mitra -- separated by 15 months and united by their childhood in Tollygunje, Calcutta. Both study science at the undergraduate level. But their different colleges ensure that their social and intellectual life is varied. Subhash, the older of the two, eventually goes to the US for a PhD in Oceanography. Udayan finds himself enamoured by the Naxalite movement, placing ideology and political belief over everything else, remains in Calcutta. After Udayan’s death (in an encounter staged by the police because of his involvement in Naxalite terrorism), Subhash marries his brother’s pregnant widow Gauri, a philosophy student, taking her away with him to the US. While Subhash lives within the pages of the novel, it is Udayan, whose death echoes in every sentence and word. Thus unravels the intricate and subliminal layers of the novel.
Lahiri situates The Lowland in the initial days of the Naxalite movement in 1960s Calcutta. The ferment of ideology, the romanticisation of adopting it, the horrors involved in practicing it and the impact of living with the outcomes, define the plot of the novel. The historical and political context of the novel and the culture and traditions of an era bygone yet familiar, creates a disintegrated atmosphere that is authentically Indian. Despite most of the novel being set in Rhode Island, USA, it is Calcutta and the Lowland of Tollygunj that are most memorable in terms of their descriptions and the events that take place there.
There is an all pervasive but laconic sense of loss that permeates through each page of the novel. The melancholy embedding the book is of the acceptance that individuals can barely control their own fates let alone the fates of revolutions, each other, or an intertwined life. My own understanding of Lahiri’s writing and her other works was sharpened after reading The Lowland. This novel, like her other works, delves into the isolation and vacancy that comes with migration. However, it is also deeply political, plunging into the impact of politics and ideology on individual lives. After reading this novel, I went back and re-read some of her older writings and realised that most of it is extremely layered and much deeper than just the words on the page.
Lahiri’s real genius is her ability to capture all the insignificant ‘nothings’ of life. Details, memories, descriptions and feelings each one possesses but can never truly articulate. While her writings seem to revolve around an individual experience at the surface, at its core, it is really about external forces that shape it: Migration, globalisation, cultural and religious identities, politics, the history of a family that permeates through each of its members.
Last week, President Obama included Jhumpa Lahiri in the list of individuals to be awarded the White House’s annual National Medal of Arts and National Humanities medal. There isn't another Indian-American writer who deserves it more.
Sarah Farooqui runs the Takshashila Institution’s flagship course, the Graduate Certificate in Public Policy (GCPP). She is also the Editor of Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review.
She tweets as @sarahfarooqui20