Lahiri, High and Low

Before beginning graduate school, I promised myself that I would never write about Jhumpa Lahiri. I had studied Lahiri’s debut novel, The Namesake (2003), in a maddening undergraduate literature ...

Before beginning graduate school, I promised myself that I would never write about Jhumpa Lahiri. I had studied Lahiri’s debut novel, The Namesake (2003), in a maddening undergraduate literature course called “Good Girls, Bad Girls,” and at the time, it represented everything I sought to resist: “model minority” mythology; ethnic assimilationist imperatives; diasporic nostalgia. The Namesake had been praised for its faithful, microscopic rendering of the second-generation Indian-American immigrant experience, but I chafed at the accuracy of descriptions of experiences such as Indian mothers serving up “American dinner once a week as a treat.” Rightly or wrongly, I worried that readers would assume the novel spoke to the shared experiences of all children of Indian immigrants—in other words, to my life and to me.

The Namesake got under my skin in the way that many novels do: not because of the book itself, but because of what it represented, because of its reception, because of its place in the world republic of letters. The response to Lahiri’s latest novel, The Lowland, indicates that she continues to entice and frustrate readers, both those who seek an anthropological account of America’s minority communities and those who fear finding themselves mirrored by her texts.

The Lowland tells the story of two Calcuttan brothers, Subhash and Udayan, who share a wife and daughter, but who ultimately follow diverging paths. Subhash, the older of the two, is initially timid, pragmatic, and duty-bound; Udayan, the younger, is bold and inventive, a militant communist radicalized by the Maoist uprising that began in the Bengali village of Naxalbari in 1967 and spread across eastern India. The brothers share childhood adventures of engineering and trespassing and the private language of an approximated Morse code, but they also nurse a tacit rivalry. Udayan, whose daring Subhash both admires and resents, chooses to remain in India, where he lives with his parents in Tollygunge until his revolutionary activities are discovered and he is summarily executed in the flood plain that gives the novel its title. Subhash is called by higher waters, like the plain’s mangrove seedlings that “[drift] from their source of origin … before maturing in a suitable environment.” In order to pursue his doctorate he emigrates to Rhode Island, where the action of the novel primarily unfolds. Subhash marries Udayan’s widow, Gauri, and becomes a parent to Udayan and Gauri’s daughter, Bela, who inherits both the burden of her own concealed prehistory and the murky public history of Indian Maoism.

Lahiri’s project is neither a full treatment of the Naxalites nor a dummy’s guide to Indian insurrections.

Lahiri’s treatment of Naxalbari and the revolutionary trajectories of two founding leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), Kanu Sanyal and Charu Majumdar, is a thin, journalistic backdrop to the novel itself. The history of communist revolt in Bengal is delivered through the radio reports Subhash and Udayan listen to at night (“Eleven people were killed. Eight of them were women.”) and political conviction is couched as intergenerational conflict. “Your generation didn’t solve anything,” Udayan says to his father. “We built a nation,” comes the father’s indignant response. “We’re independent. The country is ours.”

Reviewers have been ambivalent about Lahiri’s version of history. The novel is “bogged down” with details about the Naxalites,1 Ron Charles laments in the Washington Post, and yet “there’s not enough about [them]” for The National’s Fran Hawthorne.2 Where are the “Naxal poetry and songs,” asks Siddhartha Deb, reviewing the book in the New York Times?3 The text frustrates both the knowing reader unsatisfied with pedantic informational asides and the novice struggling to pronounce names and order events.

In fairness to Lahiri, her project does not seem intended as either a full treatment of the Naxalites or a dummy’s guide to Indian insurrections. Rather, The Lowland attempts to provide contextual scaffolding for its characters’ development in the form of world-historical connections. (“By autumn Sanyal and Majumdar had both gone into hiding. It was the same autumn Che Guevara was executed in Bolivia, his hands cut off to prove his death.”) The Lowland thus unfolds in what Benedict Anderson memorably termed the “homogenous, empty time” that he sees as characteristic of both the novel and the newspaper.4 If Anderson’s news was “novelistic,” then Lahiri’s novel is “newsy.” As the narrative ticks on, characters like Sanyal and Majumdar periodically appear and disappear from the plot.

In Lahiri’s rendering, drift is a psychic condition that may precede or follow revolutionary action or physical migration.

In his review of the novel, Deb argues that The Lowland contains “no dominant idea beyond that of generational drift,” but this description doesn’t capture how The Lowland’s multiple narrative threads convey the phenomenon of drift on both a historical and an individual level. In Lahiri’s rendering, drift is a psychic condition that may precede or follow revolutionary action or physical migration. It is an oceanic force at work both at home and abroad, a fact of living that neither requires nor culminates in the creation of heirs or the putting down of roots. Drift is enabling, as in Subhash’s move to Rhode Island, a place he has waited “all his life to find” and where he can finally “breathe.” It is also profoundly disabling. Gauri’s abandonment of her daughter leaves behind “a heavy stone” and a “hole [as] her hollow point of origin.”

Indeed, the dominant idea of The Lowland is not simply generational drift, but, as Lahiri puts it, “connection[s] at once false and true.” Subhash and Udayan are both inseparable and irreconcilable. After Udayan’s death, his family carries on “aware of him, unaware of him.” Subhash marries Gauri because taking his brother’s place feels “both right and wrong.” He does not want Udayan’s child to grow up in a “joyless house,” but he nevertheless relegates her to the joylessness of Gauri’s forced domesticity. Academic research is Subhash and Gauri’s means to a meaningful life. For Udayan and, later, for Bela, however, “books and labs” are not the stuff of engagement, but rather the coward’s means of abstracting from the material world. As the novel progresses, Bela seems to have “found herself” but is “still lost.”

Lahiri’s repeated subversion of the Aristotelian law of noncontradiction moves the novel away from the familiar territory of diasporic in-betweenness to the richer space of constitutive contradiction, trading the vacillating “either-or” for the demand-laden “both-and.” Overlooking this duality, Hawthorne speculates that Lahiri’s characters have become “too
Americanised … [they] don’t suffer the pangs of being torn between two cultures.” Others describe the characters as strangely “bereft,”5 the style “glacial, impersonal,”6 the narration “cold, almost clinical.”7 These evaluations assume that Lahiri’s displaced characters should express the traumas of exile. Although The Lowland is sometimes complicit in this demand, for the most part, Subhash, Gauri, and Bela welcome distance and even thrive on it.

The novel moves away from the familiar territory of diasporic in-betweenness to the richer space of constitutive contradiction.

Taken as a whole, The Lowland conceals immigrant nostalgia more than it indulges in it. Yet reviewers have consistently illustrated Lahiri’s view of the subject with a single sentence of the 340-page novel: “Once more the leaves of the trees lost their chlorophyll, replaced by the shades he had left behind: vivid hues of cayenne and turmeric and ginger pounded fresh every morning in the kitchen, to season the food his mother prepared.” This sentence has been singled out for praise as a “lovely fragrant passage” that “bridges two cultures,”8 glossed as the “surreal perceptions of an immigrant,”5 and reviled as “cheaply microwaved otherness … a parody of contemporary transnational literature at best.”10

This is the predicament of reviewing Lahiri. Readers look for multicultural content in her work, then find it overfamiliar and stale. They seek in her novels an account of minority struggle that confirms their expectations, but find her oddly self-contained characters resistant to voicing the pain they are expected to feel. To be sure, Lahiri does occasionally indulge in exotic spice references, but so what if the trees have turmeric leaves? In autumn on the East Coast, they do. Shouldn’t a writer be able to draw on a mélange of references without readers rushing to adjudicate their identity-based origins?

Meanwhile, the British-born American citizen Lahiri has been living in Rome since 2012, where she reads in Italian and finds it “really liberating to be in a place where I am a foreigner in every way.”11 And no wonder: reviewers and scholars continue to insist on reading Lahiri in identitarian terms, questioning the “Indianness” of her authorship and asking questions like “Is she a Bengali, Indian, Asian American, American, or a post-colonial writer? Is she simply a writer? Does what we name her matter?”12

Reviews of The Lowland and recent interviews with Lahiri suggest that she has finally exhausted and been exhausted by these questions. It is telling that The Lowland’s Subhash studies eutrophication, the ways in which aquatic ecosystems metabolize pollution and foreign substances in order to arrive at a healthful state: after writing four interrelated works of fiction—two novels and two short story collections—examining Indian-American subjectivities and internalizing the backhanded celebration of her “immigrant” writing, Lahiri has said that she is moving toward other, more abstract territory. For my part, I have learned to embrace the works that discomfit me most. The Lowland may fail as a historical novel and frustrate as an immigrant tale, but it succeeds in reframing the questions of diaspora and exposing the critical demands placed on a hyped and hyper-scrutinized world novel. icon

  1. Ron Charles, “Review: ‘The Lowland,’ by Jhumpa Lahiri,” Washington Post, September 25, 2013.
  2. Fran Hawthorne, “After her Pulitzer-winning Debut, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Latest Fiction Is a Bit of a Detour,” National, August 22, 2013.
  3. Siddhartha Deb, “Sins of the Brothers,” New York Times, September 27, 2013.
  4. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, 1983), p. 25.
  5. Deb, “Sins of the Brothers.”
  6. Manasi Subramanian, “Review of The Lowland,” Asian Review of Books, September 8, 2013.
  7. Ellah Allfrey, “With Controlled, Clinical Prose Lahiri Explores Love and Sacrifice,” NPR, September 23, 2013.
  8. Heller McAlpin, “Review of The Lowland,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 27, 2013.
  9. Deb, “Sins of the Brothers.”
  10. Porochista Khakpour, “Jhumpa Lahiri Comes Up Short in The Lowland,” Los Angeles Times, September 26, 2013.
  11. Megan O’Grady, “Jhumpa Lahiri in Rome: The Pulitze Prize–Winner Talks About her New Novel and New Ideas,” Vogue, September 25, 2013.
  12. Lavina Dhingra and Floyd Cheung, “Introduction,” in Naming Jhumpa Lahiri: Canons and Controversies, edited by Dhingra and Cheung (Lexington Books, 2012), p. xiii.