Jhumpa Lahiri`s fourth novel The Lowland nominated for the Booker Prize 2013, is set in Calcutta India, during the 1967 political uprising of the communist inspired Naxalite movement. The book builds on the family saga involving two brothers Subhash and Udayan Mitra, shifting the story between Calcutta and Rhode Island in the States.
The two brothers are born just 15 months apart but are polar opposites. Udayan is an idealist, a revolutionist fuelled by a hatred of an exploitative system which entraps people in grinding poverty. Udayan a sometime academic, actively becomes dangerously involved in the Naxelite movement and its nefarious activities and Subhash,the voice of reason,perhaps conservative, never bold or assertive and one never to show the true colours of his mast.
The book is a highly accomplished piece of exquisite writing and beautifully detailed in its content.The characters are so well drawn throughout,that your mind`s creative eye shows characters that are animated and real.Rather then concede to the hackneyed portayal of Asian female characters as being stoical, loyal and persevering, which has arguably been a staple of some South Asian novels, Lahiri refreshingly rewrites the rules. Gauri the widower in the novel, casts aside her maternal trappings and the shackles of her past and makes a decisive break for personal freedom. Seen as cold, and emotionally destructive, some might perversely see her as a heroine in her own right. During a recent BBC Radio 4 interview,the author commented that people would view Gauri as a “strong and in-depth presence on the page.”
Lahiri suspends with the tropes of South Asian writing and deftly delivers characters that speak off the page and demonstrates such an intuitive understanding of human nature, its foibles, contradictions,redeeming qualities and produces such well rounded characters.The author does not simply follow the linear novel but beautifully takes the reader back and forth in the story and keeps the reader engaged throughout. Yet there are main stories and back-stories which are all eventually dovetailed. Perhaps it would have been interesting to get a greater understanding of Subhash`s daughter Bela. The character almost seemed incidental with seemingly throw-away insights into her past.
Nevertheless Lahiri produces a novel that is a kenspeckle effort which pulls you in from the beginning and sends you on an exhaustive emotional odyssey and leaves you melancholic and yet sated at the end.
Addictive Cities: South Asian Literature Event 2013
South Asian Literature Event 2013 brought its calendar of events to with its closing event Addictive Cities featuring Jeet Thayil the author behind the book Narcoplis and also Amit Chaudhuri the author behind the book Calcutta.Two very different authors with the latter, something of a ken speckled figure and a man of not just literary but musical sensibilities as well with a litany of awards and Jeet Thayil something of a literary iconoclast with his book Narcopolis, a blistering attack on the chocolate box image of Bombay by exposing the underbelly of the city with its hidden drug dens. It strips the travelogue perceptions of Bombay and takes the reader down the dark and seedy underground with the theme of drug addiction at its core.
Interestingly the event started with an insightful question by the sagacious interviewer Ted Hodgekinson, to author Jeet Thayil on whether the memory of modern day Mumbai was firmly couched in history. It was an interesting opening question, considering there is a heightened understanding of globalisation and a reledntless drive towards the advancement of cities. Interestingly Thayil commented that Bombay was firmly entrenched in the past with its derilect buildings and its accumulated history but was never young. Yet there is something nevertheless “contemporary” about the city and this was one of the city`s many paradoxes.
Thayil also brought up the idea of how one can use the city as a way of disguising or purposely loosing ones own identity and becoming immersed in the city`s innards as as a way of cloaking one in anonymity. He mentions the French writer Charles Pierre Baudelaire who first originated the idea in his own writing. It seemed to me such an interesting comment because it dovetails with the ever present occurrence of celebrities desperate to hide from intrusive cameras or their celebrity alter ego or themselves? by taking refuge in the hubub of the city. Its occurrence, a sign how we are salaciously preoccupied with the notion of celebrity, itself maybe part of a modernity?
One of the audience members delivered a very salient point about whether the authors were consciously calling the Mumbai by its old name Bombay instead of Mumbai for personal reasons or were they simply unaware ? As far as Thayail was concerned, calling the city Bombay instead of Mumbai, was a way of reclaiming it back, since Bombay was the city he grew up in. In a way,it was a show of defiance to those who had engaged in political machinations and political posturing’s to change the name out of self interest. Overall a certainly engaging debate that packed an intellectual punch from its two very own literary heavy-weights and made it a fitting end to the South Asian Literature Festival season of events.
South Asian Litereture