OCTOBER 9, 2013
JHUMPA LAHIRI is not an immigrant writer. Nor is she a writer of cosmopolitan, international, or global fiction. She is an American realist. In the manner of John Updike, Philip Roth, and Jonathan Franzen — writers with whom she is never associated — Lahiri’s magisterial canvases portray the elusive, vexed promises that comprise the mythos of the United States. But since her Pulitzer-winning debut Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri’s multinational biography has dominated the reception of her fiction and obscured what is a distinctly American literary sensibility. The British-born, Indian-American writer is almost inevitably subsumed into an axis of immigrant-minority-ethnic-postcolonial writers such as Junot Díaz, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and Zadie Smith. Accordingly, critics continue to overlook Lahiri’s most significant literary achievement: a New England regionalism that contains the consciousness of a nation. In her new novel The Lowland, a multigenerational family story that unfolds in counterpoint between India and the United States, Lahiri emphasizes neither the immigrant’s cultural displacement nor a contest of values between old world and new. Rather, this exquisitely written novel defines the very condition of American life through an exploration of the impossible prospect of belonging, a prospect that recedes “farther and farther, like the promise of a horizon, anticipated from a ship, that one never reached.”
The Lowland tells the story of studious Subhash and his mercurial younger brother Udayan, raised in Calcutta in the years immediately following Indian independence. Udayan, caught up in the Naxalite revolutions of the 1960s and the Communist movement that took over Calcutta, tries to persuade his cautious, bookish brother that the cause of history outweighs immediate familial obligations. Subhash’s resistance sets up the tension that underscores subsequent events:
What if the police come to the house? What if you get arrested? What would Ma and Baba think?
There’s more to life than what they think.
What’s happened to you, Udayan? They’re the people who raised you. Who continue to feed and clothe you. You’d amount to nothing, if it weren’t for them.
The personal and the political, the nuclear family and the national family: versions of these well-worn conflicts shape the novel, framed by the ideologies of Mao and Che as well as the philosophies of Marx and Marcuse. And while Lahiri makes Udayan’s political fervor magnetic, drawing us into his impassioned conviction that “War will bring the revolution; revolution will stop the war,” she nevertheless fails to convey the desperate scale of poverty in post-independence India, the unmet needs of millions for whom Communism promised liberation and dignity. As a result, the early pages of the novel oscillate between stunning, intimate family scenes and impersonal textbook descriptions of historical change, an awkward collision of the author’s Chekhovian and Dickensian impulses.
Subhash leaves India to pursue a PhD in Rhode Island; Udayan remains in Calcutta, growing increasingly militant until he is captured and executed in front of his parents and his pregnant wife, Gauri. When Subhash returns for Udayan’s death ceremony, he marries Gauri in order to protect his brother’s legacy, promising her a new beginning in Rhode Island: “If she went with him to America […] it would all cease to matter.” Gauri builds a tentative, melancholy life with her new husband, but following the birth of Udayan’s baby — a daughter named Bela who grows up believing that Subhash is her father — Gauri abruptly abandons child and spouse to become a professor of philosophy in California.
Out of the horror of Gauri’s betrayal, Bela and Subhash develop a tender, convincing bond that is pushed to its utmost limits when Bela, by the novel’s end a grown woman pregnant with a child of her own, learns that Udayan was her biological father. Among the novel’s concluding reconciliations and remarriages, Lahiri reveals that Gauri has for decades been haunted by her inadvertent complicity in a 1960s political assassination in Calcutta. Gauri’s inescapable awareness of “the loss that would never be replaced” dwarfs the revolutionary accomplishments of the past, suggesting that the private world of the family endures wounds more painful than the public narrative of history can describe.
This novel aspires, and occasionally struggles, to meet the formal and tonal demands of epic tragedy. Ironically, the few weaknesses of The Lowland are intimately connected to Lahiri’s hallmark strengths: unstinting attention to detail and quiet, controlled prose. In her short story collections Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri’s sustained evenness works to great dramatic effect; in a novel as long as The Lowland, however, understatement leaves the reader craving an exclamation point, a jagged sentence, patches of raw dialogue. (Touches of humor, which would have lightened the book’s somber mood, never surface in Lahiri’s literary worlds; it is hard to name another writer whose work excises the comedic so completely.) The Lowland is the most thematically violent of Lahiri’s works, encompassing terrorism, self-harm, and emotional abuse, but it lacks the tonal variety needed to devastate the reader. Climactic moments at the novel’s end fall flat; Gauri’s lifelong secret is unveiled too late and with too much restraint. And indeed, this secret itself produces a problematic structural inconsistency: haunted by guilt for destroying a family in Calcutta, why does Gauri destroy her own family? The late-breaking plot twist stymies, rather than fosters, our understanding of Gauri and the choices that this pivotal character makes as widow and wife, parent and professional. In these respects, Lahiri falls short of the perfection she has achieved elsewhere; ultimately, the too-carefully developed strands of The Lowland’s plot do not cohere into the consistent narrative whole that is the raison d’être of high realism.
Nevertheless, this novel advances the cause of contemporary American realist fiction, giving us a portrait of an entire nation through its evocation of a single region. At first glance, The Lowland would seem to belong to a lineage of canonical 20th-century novels about India. The calm omniscience of its opening line — “East of the Tolly Club, after Deshapran Sashmal Road splits in two, there is a small mosque” — nods to Forster’s A Passage to India (1924), another novel in which geography exerts greater force than culture, history, or politics. As in Forster’s novel, and its less well-known successor, Orwell’s Burmese Days (1934), the hallowed, exclusive world of the British clubs sways the characters’ imaginations: in their youth, Udayan and Subhash sneak into the Tollygunge Club and mar its miraculously tended lawns, and the club comes to symbolize for Udayan everything immoral about class divisions in post-independence India. The moment of independence itself comprises Subhash’s earliest memory and links The Lowland to Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Subhash remembers burning with fever while “fireworks went off in Delhi, as ministers were sworn in”:
It was his first memory, August 1947, though sometimes he wondered if it was only a comforting trick of the mind. For it was a night the entire country claimed to remember, and the recollection that was his had always been saturated by his parents’ retelling
But unlike Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai, that ebullient narrator of a nation’s chaotic parentage, Lahiri shuns postmodern games that reorder history’s hierarchies. The Lowland’s defining project is not to tell a story about India or about Indians: rather, the novel pinpoints America as a crucible for the elemental impermanence that marks our humanity.
Impermanence imprints itself on every aspect of Lahiri’s America. To be American, whether native-born or arriviste, is to experience unceasing alternations of intimacy and isolation, neither state sustainable in itself. The Lowland demonstrates these alternations with astonishing precision, moving far beyond the terrain of immigrant displacement to map patterns of unity and separation in the smallest moments of daily life. Thus, university students tell time by a metal clock, its “giant hour and minute hands joining and separating throughout the day.” American families prove their closeness by vacationing far from home. Gauri lives “together yet separately” in an apartment with Subhash, feeling her unborn baby “nestled inside her, providing company but also letting her be.” A Rhode Island wedding ceremony that inaugurates a second marriage suggests “two people trading in one spouse for another, dividing in two, their connections to others at once severed and doubled, like cells.” The footprints that create a map of a walk on coastal sands are “immediately vanishing, washed clean by the encroaching tide,” while a ship on the Atlantic Ocean “cleaved a foaming trail that vanished even as it was being formed.” Subhash, returning in old age to the house he rented as a graduate student, finds that a preservation society has restored it to its 19th-century appearance:
The effect was disquieting. He felt his presence on earth being denied, even as he stood there. He was forbidden access; the past refused to admit him. It only reminded him that this arbitrary place, where he’d landed and made his life, was not his […] Among its people, its trees, its particular geography he had studied and grown to love, he was still a visitor. The worst form of visitor: one who had refused to leave.
Everyone in America is a visitor, Lahiri reminds us, and to hope for the safe transmission of identity and experience across time, whether in individual or collective memory, is to inevitably confront one’s outsider status.
It is crucial to distinguish Lahiri’s outsiders from the immigrant and first-generation characters created by writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Lan Samantha Chang, and Jamaica Kincaid. In contrast with these and numerous other American writers, Lahiri evinces no interest in exposing the political faultlines of our national story; nor does she aspire to generate an “alternative” American narrative voiced by marginalized minorities. In The Lowland, as in Lahiri’s other works, Indianness is incidental, its languages and customs no more empowered to secure identity than, for example, the condition of parenthood or the experience of grief. What Joyce Carol Oates once wrote about Updike’s Pennsylvania characters holds equally true for Lahiri: “Men and women who might be called ordinary Americans of their time and place are granted an almost incandescent allure by the mysteries they present to one another.” These mysteries have little to do with the clash of culture, religion, or race; they arise out of the untranslatable otherness that one person represents to another. In The Lowland, the register for this unbridgeable human distance is American geography.
Lahiri expressed her preoccupation with geography in Unaccustomed Earth, the flawlessly executed eight-story collection she published in 2008. Unaccustomed Earth’s introduced readers to a spectrum of characters — old, young, Indian, non-Indian, single, married, divorced, widowed — whose tenuous connections to time and place emblematized the fundamental tenuousness of American identity. The collection’s epigraph, drawn from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Custom House” declared, “Human nature will not flourish […] if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and […] shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.” Here is the paradox that haunts all of Lahiri’s fiction: a nation founded on the notion of hospitable soil can only enrich that soil through a transient, uprooted citizenry. For Lahiri, the American Dream is exactly that: an unreal fantasy about an impossible, endlessly deferred assimilation. And if her characters seem unconscious of their American privilege (Ivy League–educated residents of Cambridge or the Upper West Side, owners of summer homes in the Hamptons, expatriates in Rome), Lahiri renders that privilege fragile. Unaccustomed Earth ends not with the 9/11 attacks, but with the 2004 tsunami that killed over 200,000 people in Asia; the motif that appears on the book’s title page is a single ginkgo leaf, signifying a tree that predates human civilizations. Thus, Lahiri proffers neither a Marxist critique of the American bourgeoisie, such as Udayan flings at Subhash in The Lowland, nor a liberal vision of democracy, but more darkly, an awareness of the planet’s indifference to human activity. Geological time washes away the evidence of national and cultural time.
Like Updike’s Pennsylvania, Roth’s New Jersey, and Franzen’s Minnesota, Lahiri conjures a New England whose landmarks, landscape, and inhabitants signify their own cultural particularity but simultaneously invite speculation about America’s evolution. Over her quartet of books, Lahiri has created a geography of New England that illuminates the region’s most obscure corners and joins the names of remote places to famed urban centers. The Cambridge-Boston settings of Interpreter of Maladies, which broadened to include New Haven and New York City in The Namesake, took on planetary breadth in Unaccustomed Earth, where Lahiri drew lines connecting New England to India and Italy, England and Thailand. The Lowland shifts between India and the United States, and while the Calcutta scenes are finely wrought, it is in the depiction of Rhode Island that Lahiri is at the height of her powers, capturing the multiple historical and natural temporalities that give the state its character.
Here is the moment of Subhash’s arrival:
A few months later Subhash also traveled to a village: this was the word the Americans used. An old-fashioned word, designating an early settlement, a modest place. And yet the village had once contained a civilization: a church, a courthouse, a tavern, a jail […] [A]ll of Rhode Island, he learned, had once been covered with sheets of ice. The advance and retreat of glaciers, spreading and melting over New England, had shifted bedrock and soil, leaving great trails of debris. They had created marshes and the bay, dunes and moraines. They had shaped the current shore.
If her first three books memorialized New England through towns and universities, monuments and cemeteries, lighthouses and landmarks, The Lowland conveys the centuries-old spirit of the maritime region through nature: the quality of its light, the striated patterns of soil and sand, little-known islands and bays whose names Lahiri incorporates into the story with encyclopedic ease: Matunuck, Judith, Galilee, Rome Point, Buzzards Bay, Patience and Prudence, Hope and Despair, Fox and Goat, Rabbit and Rose. Eastern birds soar and swoop across the novel’s pages: gannets, kestrels, mergansers, plovers, egrets, herons, sandpipers, buffleheads, terns, the mysterious logic of their migratory patterns offering an elegant parallel to the characters’ own transatlantic movements. Geography even appears legible on the bodies of the region’s inhabitants: the “range of tones and shades” of the naked skin of Subhash’s lover, Holly, seems “as quietly variegated as a handful of sand,” an embodiment of the ever-shifting and yet unified character of New England, and, by extension, of America itself. It is not too much to say that Lahiri has achieved for New England a literary vividness equal to what Joyce achieved for Dublin, allowing readers to feel at home in the places that alienate and discomfit her characters.
At the end of The Lowland, Subhash marries a character named Elise Silva, a Rhode Island native of Portuguese descent, and they honeymoon in Ireland. Lahiri does not reassure us with universalizing pronouncements about aging or love; the marriage is “a shared conclusion to lives separately built, separately lived,” and the honeymoon begins with the spectacle of a local funeral: “For a moment it is as if they, too, are part of the funeral. There is no sense of its boundaries, where it begins or ends, or whom it grieves.” Reminded of their own deaths in the earliest days of their wedded union, Subhash and Elise inhabit the psychology that Lahiri has painstakingly delineated as the defining trait of Americanness: an intricate, dynamic balance between flux and constancy, permanence and transience. The Lowland orchestrates this balance with a tragic lyricism, honoring the millennia-old landmass that became the United States just 200 years ago, and telling its myriad stories of insiders and outsiders alike. In Jhumpa Lahiri’s America, everyone is an immigrant.