Time, history and memory are at the heart of Jhumpa Lahiris delicate new novel, The Lowland, her fourth book of fiction exploring the liminal worlds of Bengali exiles and expatriates.
By LINDA SIMON
Special to The Star
In a quiet, coolly detached voice, Pulitzer winner Lahiri invites us into the intimate lives of couples unsettled by loss, parents anxious about a childs future, immigrants carrying with them the indelible legacy of their nations past. Here those themes play out on a larger canvas: four generations of a familys dramatic transformation.
The Mitra brothers, born just after World War II, grow up in a middle-class enclave of Calcutta, sheltered from the political upheaval of Indian independence and partition.
Fifteen months apart in age, the elder, Subhash, is quiet and serious; Udayan, impetuous and rebellious. Udayan goads his brother to join him in an escapade, jumping over a wall into a British country club, where they play at golfing with stray balls.
Aside from occasional childish pranks, though, the brothers fulfill their parents hopes: earning good grades, getting into fine colleges, training for careers in engineering and science.
But in the 1960s, Udayan involves himself with political activists known as Naxalites, a radical Maoist group with strategies that include bombing banks and movie theaters, burning government offices, and killing policemen. At first sympathetic to their rhetoric of justice and equality, Udayan soon is caught in the eddy of events that whirl out of his control.
Subhash only suspects the extent of his brothers commitment. He leaves India for Rhode Island, where he attends graduate school in oceanography and embarks on a productive, if emotionally circumscribed, life as a scientist.
Separated by geography as well as ideology, the brothers have only superficial contact for several years. Subhash learns that Udayan, against his parents wishes, has married; and soon after, he receives a wrenching telegram: Udayan killed. Come back if you can.
Overcome with sorrow and besieged by memories, Sudhash returns to a city that feels both viscerally familiar and startlingly alien. He meets Gauri, his brothers pregnant widow, who lives like an outcast in his parents home. In a gesture at once meant to help Gauri and weld his own life to his brothers, Sudhash proposes that she come to America, where they will marry and raise her child together.
Lahiri writes tenderly of Sudhashs embrace of fatherhood. He chooses his daughters name Bela, the name of a flower, and also a word meaning a span of time: morning, afternoon, or night. As in Lahiris previous works, names carry metaphorical weight.
When Bela is 4 and first learns the word yesterday, she uses it to mean anything that happened in the past the day before or months ago. She has no idea that in Bengali, her parents native language, the word for yesterday, kal , is the same as the word for tomorrow. Only adding an adjective or changing a verb tense distinguishes past from future.
For Bela as a child and for her parents time can flow in either direction. When Gauri reads the days headlines on her laptop, she notes that a click can take her from breaking news to articles archived years ago. At every moment the past is there, appended to the present. Its a version of Belas definition of yesterday. Haunted by those moments, Guari takes refuge in solitude.
In Lahiris fiction, though, every generation portends hope. Despite Belas struggle to find her own moral compass, she is likely to live up to her name: a flowering of joy from sturdy new roots. Gently and elegantly told, the story of the Mitra family complicates Lahiris abiding themes to reveal the insidious burden of secrets, grief and guilt, and above all, the shattering risks and redemptive power of love.
Linda Simon is a writer and book critic who lives in Oakland, Calif.