A Tale of Two Brothers
Jhumpa Lahiri, Random House India, 2013
Set in Bengal and USA, the novel opens in the 1940s when the author tells us about two brothers, Subhash and Udayan. They are born just fifteen months apart and are more like twins. Growing up together, they develop a strong bond. Temperamentally, the brothers are poles apart. As an ideal son, Subhash, the elder one, decides to pursue higher studies and go to the US, in agreements with his parents’ wishes. Udayan, on the other hand, much to his parents’ dismay, joins the Naxalite movement. He marries a girl of his choice despite knowing that his parents will oppose it. In a tragic twist of events, the police kill Udayan and the lives of everybody associated with him change forever. Subhash returns to India, marries Gauri, his brother’s pregnant widow, and takes her to America where Gauri gives birth to a beautiful baby girl, Bela. Then, all of sudden, Gauri disappears from the lives of Subhash and Bela.
The first half of the novel does reasonably well. The topographical details of Tollygunj in Calcutta of the 40s, 50s and 70s invoke the imageries that transport you to the periods of time. The author beautifully describes the equation between the two brothers, and you immediately fall in love with them. In the beginning, Gauri garners the empathy of the readers when her husband is killed. But, later, when she moves to America marrying Subhash, her behaviour suddenly changes, leaving the reader a little perplexed. She finally loses sympathy of the readers when she decides to leave her husband and daughter Bela without any specific reason.
The moment the story moves from India to the US, things begin to take a turn for the reader, and not in a helpful way. Particularly troubling is Gauri’s character. The readers never get chance to know what ails Gauri. Her love for her dead husband is something that should bind her to Subhash because both of them loved Udayan equally. But, it doesn’t. Moreover, it appears highly implausible that a girl born and brought up in a middle class Bengali family will shed the baggage of Indian moral values so quickly and will accept the bohemian life style of the west.
The protagonist Subhash also doesn’t get a fair deal as his character is not rounded. His motivations behind marrying his brother’s widow are never properly explained. Bela, Gauri’s daughter, is another quirky character whose idiosyncrasies are inexplicable and we are left wondering why she doesn’t bond strongly with her father when her mother abandons her. There is an invisible but palpable distance between Bela and Subhash, one which perhaps could have been explored a little more.
The Maoist insurgency of 1960s and 1970s is the main backdrop of the story; however, we never hear anything directly about it from those who are involved in the revolution. What we get to know about Naxalism and its cruel suppression by the state are in the form of aftershocks the other characters of the novel feel in their lives. At times, we feel the author is holding back when she has an opportunity to tell the readers something more about the ultra-leftist revolution. In between, she makes sure to drop hints about the brutal side of the Naxal movement. The ugly face of communism is shown promptly to offset the positive images she creates by showing the youth associated with the movement as ‘idealists’. Maybe, this is deliberately done to take care of the ultra-capitalist sensibilities of her American readers. Anyway, the word ‘Commie’ (short form of the communists) is a derogatory word in the US and many American readers would die of shock if their favourite writer is seen sympathising with the ultra-communists.
The literary landscape created by Jhumpa Lahiri in her latest offering called Lowland has several low lying areas submerged in clichés and are also damp with the writings that don’t rise above the level of mediocrity. One expected the Booker shortlisted writer to deliver something stronger to match her reputation as a writer of a Pulitzer winning and stunningly good collection of short stories. Though she pulled it off in the first half of the book, the second half suffers from the malady of implausibility. The unrealistic characterisations also mar the later part of the novel, as we have to plough through pages heavy with unnecessary details and repetitive descriptions. The denouement, too, leaves the readers stranded in the wilderness of half-told stories.