Jhumpa Lahiri: The Lowland – A Novel
In fact, the progress of Lahiri’s introspective ‘lowland’
brings to mind that we of the generations born after
World War II and its ensuing colonial Independence
wave sometimes do as if we invented Immigration
with a capital ‘I’. But indeed, barring the draconian
border strictures of our age, the fuel of migration
has ever been much the same. Cynthia James
I’ve just finished reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland – A Novel. This is the fourth book of hers that I’ve read, and again I am fascinated by her handling of the migrant narrative.
For where very many migrant narratives highlight cultural strangeness and external differences, The Lowland highlights the stranger within – the inner adjustment the newcomer makes to the circumstances that have pushed him or her to becoming a migrant, and also the coming into being of his or her new self.
And so Providence Rhode Island is new climate and new ground, but for Gauri and Subhash, bound by a past of filial indebtedness the focus is on their new life, both individually and as a couple.
This is not to diminish the foreignness of their American experiences, but any hue and cry about their contact with the outer American world that surrounds them, is muted in comparison with their management of the page turning of their own individual and intruding extended foreignness.
I was also struck by the echoes in The Lowland of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India.
Any comparison with that Forster’s novel so deeply embedded in British colonial politics may sound out of place.
But Tollygunge the old English club, the Naxalites, the vast internal migration ensuing from India’s pre- and post- Independence socio-politics, form a sweltering chain of events that have determined the lives of the main characters. In a way, too, the geography of the vast West Bengal lowland delta depicted in Lahiri’s novel reminds of the uncovered secrets and the power to transform of the Marabar Caves. Then on the human plane, Gauri, the disoriented, dishevelled mentor of student disciples, is very much a Mrs. Moore of A Passage to India. On Gauri’s revisit to her hometown, she finds the various tablets she has come to memorialize covered over by people and landfill – no longer where she last saw them. And so at the end of her life she leaves again, chastened.
Even the introspective tone and style of Lahiri’s and Forster’s narration I find to be comparable. Actually, it’s the opening of The Lowland that brought A Passage to India to mind – the two books open similarly laid back, each under the pall of the English club and each against the backdrop of looming, enigmatic sky and terrain.
Yet The Lowland upends Foster’s clash between East and West, and upends as well the mantra much applied to his work – that of “only connect”.
In fact, the progress of Lahiri’s introspective ‘lowland’ brings to mind that we of the generations born after World War II and its ensuing colonial Independence wave sometimes do as if we invented Immigration with a capital ‘I’. But indeed, barring the draconian border strictures of our age, the fuel of migration has ever been much the same.
Whether it’s a mother fleeing her homeland to protect her unborn from Herod or from the ravages of the DRC; whether it’s a family in search of an illusory better economic existence; whether it’s the restless adventurer; or whether migration comes in the form of population displacement and redistribution in search of better hunting grounds up and down the Siberian or Andean chain – the inner coming to terms with self-in-foreignness of the migrant lies on a continuum of parallels.
And in this respect, for me, the philosophical core of Lahiri’s The Lowland (a novel that underscores its links with the ancient discipline of philosophy) lies with Subhash and Elise, the elderly couple who have found reliability in each other’s companionship, but who at the same time maintain their separate selves. (He and Gauri are divorced.) Subhash and Elise walk across the Irish marshes trying to fathom the circumstances surrounding the cryptic artifacts and skyline before going back to their adopted Rhode Island.
They go hand in hand studying the ancients.
As for their relationship, and in fact, the relationships of couples in The Lowland, it seems to me the book pays scant homage to conventional depictions of love – even when young people are presented, even when Gauri and Udayan are depicted.
This is neither Hollywood nor Bollywood.
The stark inner aloneness of Lahiri’s characters is punishing. For The lowland contains yearning, and angst, and loss, and yes, love, but much more inscribed into characters is the brutality of their aloneness. The legacy for Bela, Gauri’s daughter and perhaps even for Meghna, the granddaughter are the same.
And in this regard, The Lowland is more generous to its male characters and more poignantly unforgiving of its females.
For me, myself a migrant Gauri woman, what is the take-away? That whatever piece of sky arcs over me, I am joined, unawares to powerful determinants in an age-old migration, forced and unforced, of peoples.
So, as relentlessly discomforting, alone and troubling as Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland is, for me as a reader, it is a relief not to buck up against old cultural battles of newcomer adjustment or to have to suffer through the clichéd migrant fairy tale.
©Cynthia James – December 2013