Thursday, October 10, 2013

Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland

This novel is on the 2013 Booker shortlist, to be decided next week. It will not win it, and in my humble opinion should not be on the list at all. 

In matters of form and content it's pretty traditional fare, quite contrary to what the chair of this year's judging panel, Robert Macfarlane, described when announcing the shortlist: "We were drawn to novels that sought to extend the possibilities of the form … We wanted novel novels."  

The early chapters focus on the radical politics of India in the 1960's, influenced as it was by Maoist revolutionary thinking. There are two brothers and the youngest gets mixed up in this. He's passionate, vital and idealistic. I thought, this is going to be good - a powerful political novel. 

But then that focus suddenly ends and we're moved to the US, where the more conservative older brother decides to settle. The story now becomes a family saga, albeit a good one. We're sucked into the personal histories, tragedies, conflicts and tensions, all the standard stuff, including the usual 'Big Secret'. The family members make major decisions and choices that pursue and haunt them forever. 

There are three main US-based characters - Subhash, his wife Gauri and their daughter Bela. They are isolated, stranded and seemingly rootless in a freedom obsessed country, but focussed on pursuing their individual dreams. 'They were a family of solitaries. They had collided and dispersed.' (p262). Lahiri really brings them alive. As characters they are fascinating and wonderfully drawn.

Is there any wider meaning in any of this though? In the contest between Indian and American society America wins hands down. India is bad, America is good. The Indians who have fled to the US experience no racism, violence or even economic struggle. Lahiri offers no critique of the US at all, not even obliquely. It's a land of freedom and promise, a pleasant middle class lifestyle and, seemingly, free education. No matter that it's the noisy sixties with its Vietnam protests, race riots, assassinations, and the rest. None of this is even hinted at. India, on the other hand, is a condemned place of abject poverty, cruelty, disease and violence, and imprisoned by rigid customs and social structures which even its celebrated Ghandi-led independence from Britain has not ameliorated.

It's a bleak view of the rich culture and society of India. It also suggests that only radical, violent, grass roots action of the failed Maoist sort could ever bring real reform. 

So apart from the usual depiction of life, love, tragedy, treachery, lies and death in all their glorious majesty I'm not sure what this novel has to add.

In summary, a real disappointment.

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