It is the privilege of a writer of repute to always be taken seriously, to be read with earnest consideration. So it is with Jhumpa Lahiri, described, rather melodramatically, in a Financial Times review of her 2008 short-story collection Unaccustomed Earth as ‘probably the most influential writer of fiction in America’. Inevitably, this quote has ended up all over the publicity material for her new novel, The Lowland, as though it were necessary to market it thus. (Lahiri will get read, folks, the jig is up.) Just as inevitably, she has won a place on the first ever Man Booker shortlist to include Americans, almost assigned one as a matter of course.
I seem to resist each new Lahiri. I have a mini-tantrum in my mind, not wanting to participate in the solemn reception. I have trouble with her short stories for the usual boring reasons—too much of the same Calcutta-to-Cambridge displacement, too many micro-collisions of the old world with the new, too much immigrant texture. But these are non-critiques, discomforts born of overexposure or overcontemplation. They also don’t explain why her longer works—her first novel The Namesake, the three-part novella ‘Hema and Kaushik’ which makes up more than half of Unaccustomed Earth, and The Lowland—managed to hold my attention and interest as they did, especially since excerpts from the latter two, published as short stories in The New Yorker before their release, did not.
That is the mystery—I wouldn’t name Lahiri among favourite novelists or great prose stylists but she is oddly compelling. Her stories stay with me, insisting on meaning. Their impact is silent, leaving behind a sense of magnitude, a mood more than a moral.
Reading The Lowland, a possible explanation emerges: if Lahiri’s narratives are effective, it is because they exhaust. (And if they are not, it is for the same reason.) After three draining experiences, I am starting to think the exhaustion is, at least in part, the point.
The Lowland is exhausting. I was suspicious of my initial enjoyment of it, anticipating the sinking feeling that has plagued me whenever I’ve read her, the persistent darkness in all of her long works, lurking behind colourful Bengal and cold New England—a harrowing, vertiginous sense of placidly circling despair, of leaning toward it, or having to lean against it. Her characters often drift quietly into alienation, though in The Lowland they are aided by a decisive moment.
Subhash and Udayan Mitra are two brothers growing up in Calcutta in the late 1960s and early 70s. Though Subhash, the older, is described as a follower of Udayan, even ‘a spare version’, it quickly becomes clear that they are both drawn as negative space for each other, mutual foils. Udayan, the rebel-adventurer-idealist seen primarily through the eyes of his brother and his widow Gauri, is shot and killed by the police for his involvement in the Naxalite movement a mere fourth of the way into the novel. Everything that comes after is inflected by this event.
Subhash marries Gauri, pregnant with Udayan’s child, and brings her to Rhode Island, USA. They raise Bela together for 12 years until Gauri leaves to pursue a career in academia—arguably to escape an inadvertent life. Bela grows up independent, idealistic, increasingly self-isolating, a nomad. They become ‘a family of solitaries’.
Lahiri is merciless, deepening estrangement, enforcing consequences, withholding redemption, deferring meaning. The sense of alienation in The Lowland cannot be written off as immigrant angst. But here is where the cumulative effect of Lahiri’s work lends its weight—though the novel is not about geographical and cultural displacement, it traces a similar sickness.
Lahiri’s main preoccupation, always, is with people adrift in their own lives—often lives of staggering range and density of experience. Late in the novel, Subhash observes that he cannot ‘fathom the extremes of his life’, and Gauri reflects on the way ‘she had generated alternative versions of herself’, insisting on these ‘conversions’, voluntary mutations of self, elected changes, a scrupulous regime of fleeing herself and drafting new versions.
This is the sort of thing book jackets tend to summarise as ‘the amazing human capacity for change’—but it is a horrible capacity too, a terrifying compulsion. Lahiri’s characters aren’t made of assigned quirks, of canned demotics; they are compelling because they contain more than they perhaps should, straining against their own bounds, testing the reader.
What Lahiri is trying to achieve is only achievable through the looping of stories. Things only make sense down the line, in memory, as history; meaning percolating through generations, lives finding resolution in subsequent lives. A story has to be told repeatedly, exhaustively, to begin to make sense.
Perhaps this is why Lahiri so often accelerates abruptly through time, skipping to the next significant moment, decades later; why she cannot resist digressions, telling everyone’s side; why The Lowland doesn’t quite cohere, seeming to contain too much and span too wide. Stories, she seems to suggest, must be as tiring as lives.