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Friday, October 25, 2013

Ramshackle and grand!

Monita Soni

By Monita Soni, MD

I finished reading “The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri at 3.55 AM. To quote the author I could do it because  “ my mind is not occupied in directly caring for others”. 

Also because I wanted to read it before my daughter or her friends finish it. Most importantly because the author weaves a story around two siblings separated by destiny from their each other. It’s a family drama told in Lahiri’s familiar settings of Calcutta and Rhode Island. There are traces of her first novel “Namesake” in her assimilation of characters and their typical Indian habits: eating French fries, bread and butter; notating in the margins of a newspaper; writing directions on the back of an envelope. Two brothers, spitting image of each other and yet different in their passions, pursuits and professions are flung apart by fate.  The premise may appear overworked but in lieu of the 2013 Naxalite uprising in India that made world news, the backdrop of Lahiri’s novel set in a 1967 communist uprising is provocative!  Perhaps it is also prophetic of future unrest.
 
 
The crisp form and pleasing syntax that thrilled us in her Pulitzer winning short-story collection “Interpreter of Maladies” in 1999 appears time and again in “The Lowlands”. She masterfully manipulates our heartstrings and unwraps our core as if peeling the thin purple foil off the Cadbury bar.  Vivid sensual images flood our being. A translucent eraser that smelt of fruit in a child’s compass box, tempting clay cups holding sweet tea and sweet curds, a black water urn, a crate holding comforters, girls with braided hair and sky colored skirts, a turquoise shawl thrown over a shoulder. Remnants of the Raj, a walled off elite Tollygunge club starkly separating the natives who huddle close to the lowlands on the other side for meager sustenance. The wetlands a diverse biome of flora, fauna and the echoed reference to the water hyacinth symbolic of human yearning to cling to permanence. The Lowlands witness the frail attempt of all characters to prevent an inevitable erosion of body and soul.
 
 
The three women in her story are so different and yet hinged at their hips by a common loss. Bijoli with her conventional broad vermilion parting and a tragic preoccupation with the physicality and absence of her second born are honest. She rejects her bookish daughter-in-law, but is unprepared for her double whammy. Her shriveled existence teaches the reader to acknowledge that one can’t fight fate. Our inadvertent reaction to it is what paints it with pain. Gauri is the dreamer who scans the world with her beautiful eyes from her favorite vantage point: her grandparents’ balcony. She is still in a reverie when the compelling Udyan, a revolutionary crusader, plucks her off her feet. Their brief bond leaves indelible footprints on the fabric of her soul.  In an effort to wash off his aura and her own guilt from her deep complexion she reject rejects her own daughter. Gauri shreds and sheds her Bengali and maternal persona by shearing off her hair and sari. Bela, the baby who arrives amidst a tempest clings to “yesterday”, a father “who is not” and to the retreating shadow of a mother.  She is the most vulnerable transplant in the powdery gray sands of Rhode Island. Bela nourishes her roots by digging deep into the earth and letting it clings to her fingernails.  
 
 
Lahiri’s probing intellect and her way to wrap around inner realms sparkles in her much lauded simplicity: “The baby breathed with her whole body; the blood of too many dissolving the stain; time crushed by her fingertips...” but sometimes she appears to have difficulty in keeping the flow and maintaining the readers curiosity. At places her scenes and characters especially the other brother Subhash are truncated, either over-weeded or left unattended.  This approach if intentional may appeal to her fans in the short story draft but in a novel they are distracting.  Regardless the novel resonates with my Indian-American identity because I suffer inexplicable anguish of living so far away from aging parents, from a young grandson who has just started talking and a dear sister who is my mirror image. I wonder after living away for so long, if I will ever find refuge in India when I retrace my footsteps permanently.
 
By Monita Soni
 
(Published as submitted by the author)
 
 
Monita Soni, MD -- A pathologist in Huntsville, Alabama, diagnosing cancer in her day job. Reading and writing poetry is a passion that splashes her literally with a sparkling abundance. She is inspired by great twentieth century poets (Robert Frost, Keats, Browning and Tagore) and ancient Sufi poet like Hafiz, Rumi and Faiz. Her writing style weaves eastern and western cultures. You can hear her commentaries on WLRH Sundial Writer's corner.

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