Sunday, January 1, 2017

Water, Mud, Love, Death

Hard on the heels of my previous two books, I was craving tradition and structure. Fortunately, I found it in this DSC Prize for South Asian Literature winner, Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland. It's been on my TBR list for quite some time; I was inspired to read it at last by the Color Coded Reading Challenge, where it served as the white book, and the Mount TBR Reading Challenge.

I've read Lahiri before and was happy to return to her lucid style. Unfortunately, my review of The Namesake has gone AWOL, so I can't revisit what I said about her. It was surely favorable, though. I'm pretty sure I read Interpreter of Maladies during my brief tenure as a book club participant, but alas, no review there, either. Both of them are just words on a page. So much for the indelible electronic record, right?

This novel tells the story of Subhash and Udayan, twin brothers who manage to lead dramatically different lives despite their closeness of birth and sensibility. Udayan is a born revolutionary, while Subhash follows a more traditional route of education and modest success in America. Lahiri does a remarkable job of depicting the simultaneous bonding and distance of inseparable but opposite siblings. Disparate twins have a long tradition in literature and Lahiri takes full advantage of the echoes of Romulus and Remus, Helen and Clytemnestra, Luke and Leia, and the rest.

The lowland of the title is a patch of swampy ground near the family home, the site of Subhash and Udayan's boyhood adventures, the site of  Udayan's death, and the site of their mother's mourning the loss of her son. Lahiri weaves the lowland into the story as a kind of touchstone, returning to it in key passages as the ripples caused by Udayan's death spread across time to affect his parents, his brother, his widow, his child, and his grandchild.

Lahiri's deft touch and eye for detail carry this story from the personal to the universal and back again. Her effortlessly coherent writing was a welcome relief after the disjointed narratives I've recently read. Even the shifts in narrative focus, although requiring an adjustment on the reader's part, represent a minor quibble, not a technical flaw. Lahiri saves the most important shift in focus for the novel's end, when her story loops back to the lowland for the final time, giving us one last view of love and death against the political backdrop of the times.


One morning, watching from the terrace, [Udayan and Subhash's mother] Bijoli has an idea. She goes down the staircase and walks through the swinging doors of the courtyard, into the enclave, and then out onto the street. Schoolchildren in uniforms are walking past, in white socks and black shoes, satchels heavy with their books. Sky-colored skirts for the girls, shorts and ties for the boys.

They laugh until they see her, stepping out of the way. Her sari is stained and her bones have turned soft, her teeth no longer firm in her gums. She has forgotten how old she is, but she knows without having to stop to think that Udayan would have turned thirty-nine this spring.

She carries a large shallow basket meant to store extra coal. She walks over to the lowland, hoisting up  her sari so that her calves are revealed, speckled like some eggshells with a fine brown spray. She wades into a puddle and bends over, stirring things around with a stick. Then, using her hands, she starts picking items out of the murky green water. A little bit, a few minutes each day; this is her plan, to keep the area by Udayan's stone uncluttered.

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