The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
My Rating: ★★★★☆
He had found the letter under his brother’s bed.
He had not minded the dust that lit up the damp light of the room. He had read it immediately. But now that he was back in his room, he took it out again, wanting to read it one more time, as always.
He remembered all the letters he used to receive from India and of how he could hear his Udayan’s childhood voice as he read it, even when the voice was long changed. In this letter he could not.
This time he picked up from the third page of the letter, glancing at the parts that did not make sense to him.
What defines identity once you are away from your center? What defines the center when you are away from our identity?
He wondered why Udayan would take the trouble to write all this when it must have been such a struggle to write at all. With that hand of his… Is it because he wanted to take comfort in talking with me? Or does he just write whatever comes to mind, arrange them in a semblance of order and mail them across the oceans? He looked back at the page.
Is it anger in the obvious betterment seen all around you? Is it shame that you were never really part of it? That you were not part of building it? And instead of building one you have just taken the easier path? Is it pride, perhaps, in your independence? Is it the blustering of the intolerable journalist when he talks about the better ‘systems’? Is it just a sense of loss of all that is left behind?
He skipped the last few lines and then skipped to the next page. Udayan’s handwriting always used to deteriorate towards the end of a page and now it was almost unreadable. ‘Not that I am missing much’, he said to himself.
Wherein lies the center of the modern man’s existence?
Is it in an imaginary village consisting of all that mattered to him as he was growing up – do they ever break that circle? Or is it constantly expanded as you grow? Or is it constantly redefined?
If you don’t have the less developed multitudes (relatives like me) to look upon you from that left-behind circle, will any achievement truly matter in life? Can your center, your point of reference and your identity, only be defined from a transpositional view from below? Or is It from a patriarchal view from above that leaves you smarting?
He was not sure why Udayan had taken to writing to him as if the roles were reversed – as if he was the one who had never set foot beyond his home city and as if Udayan was the one who had roamed the world and thought about a home that had been left behind with such ease. Of course, Udayan wouldn’t have been able to leave behind anything. He had been able to. ‘With ease’, he repeated doubtfully.
He had skipped ahead again without noticing it but decided to carry on. He knew he would be reading it over later. Again.
What of the constant sense that assaults you of not being part of the ‘real’ world – of the world you inhabit – the ones outside your country, your center being somehow artificial? Is it this artificiality that gives you wings? Soaring in a flight of fancy to heights you wouldn’t have dreamed of back where the real things are?
It is not as if he didn’t know that this was probably Udayan’s way of teasing him into coming back home. And it is not as if he didn’t know why it was never posted. He started skipping across the letter faster, eager to reach where he was addressed directly. Eager to see if could recapture the childhood voice when he read his brother addressing him directly instead of talking platitudes. He uttered a faint hum as he skipped across increasingly badly scribbled lines.
Is it a requirement to step outside the circle to be able to step outside it?
How do you view the real world then? Are they the dream now that you are living the dream?
Can you sleep knowing that the dream is never to be dreamt?
Why wouldn’t you try to dream up some solutions as well then? Why wouldn’t you start believing that your newfound wings would work in that ‘real’ world too? Why wouldn’t you even consider flying back?
Why wouldn’t you attempt to solve all the problems?
Even if you never attempt it, you know that with these wings of yours, any problem is an easy one, especially those – the ones in that ‘real’ world. The shadow world of reality.
He felt a faint irritation with his brother now. What right did he have to lecture? What had he done except read a bunch of books and preach around? Then he checked himself. Udayan had always stopped teasing whenever he got angry. He used to always know why.
It is not necessary, of course, that the circle of identity had to be a country or a village or a society or family – stepping outside your circle, outside our reality gives you wings and solutions – but the solutions and the wings are never to be allowed back in – you may step back in but you step back in as yourself, without the fancy stuff. And then you have to forget the dream. You can only inhabit the twilight or the sunrise. Never both.
Ah, he remembered, now is when he talks about the book he had asked me to send to Anita. Udayan had ended up reading it first. Mostly because one of the main characters in the book shared his name. He tried to recollect the little he had read of the book before wrapping it. He knew that much of Udayan’s ramblings in this letter might have come from the book.
After all, there were some parallels. It was the eternal afterlife of the exile that Jhumpa Lahiri was always expert at dissecting. ‘Maybe it was all a build up towards telling me why I should read it too’, he mused, ‘maybe he was not taunting me at all’. Or maybe he felt the book could do that job much better.
There are some books which once read you have a compulsion to make others read – as if the enjoyment is not complete until it is shared. Until you can see the expression of amazement in the other’s face when they have read too – your enjoyment growing in the realization of theirs.
This book is not like that – it is a quiet pleasure to read but there is no expectation of pleasure from the sharing of it – there is no compulsion to talk about it – there is nothing much to talk about really. It is boring in its own way: a beautiful and boring stream that you saw on your way – you paused to see it but you don’t run home to get your wife to stare at it together.
I was excited to read it, to see how it would capture the times that we have lived through. Times that held so much meaning for us. But, it was not meant to be of the masses and the loudness of the massed struggle – just of the individuals and of the quietness of their desperation — it requires no knowledge of our complicated history or the nuances of our anger that ignited the streets. It was not even remotely concerned about all that…
He started searching for the book among the shelves. Then under the bed. His brother loved to sleep with a book and let it slide under his bed as one arm arced and drooped. There it was. Almost brand new. Only two pages bent to mark places to return to. He turned back to the letter.
We are Twilight’s Children, brother, the Midnight’s Children was still some way ahead of us – we are the ones without definition. We were born before the darkness set in, and the day too far off.
After reading The Namesake (the one that you had sent me years ago – ordering me to read it and that you wanted me to get a sense of your University student life), I searched for something new in this one… trying to find what excited the author, trying to get a glimpse into your life – the intimacy with the characters was there – that was expected, that was known; the reality of private lives was there – again known, again expected. What set this apart from the other one? Is it the suffering? But what is suffering? Where was it? I couldn’t see it? Is it necessary that your own anguish has to be less than that of a character’s for you to be able to feel empathy?
But, when I read about this one (in an editorial review), I half thought I could get you to read it… to understand me – another book from the same author. There seemed to be a symmetry to that. But it was not to be. It was not about Bengal, at least not the Bengal that I lived through… it was not to be.
I am told the author grew up in Rhode island – that intimacy is visible. Rhode island becomes more of a home to the reader than his own Bengal. Again, my purposes were not being served by the author.
He looked at the marked pages of the book again and noticed that both seemed to be underlined faintly on lines that described their city. The language was exquisite. Maybe the time away from his expected times and places put him off the book. Udayan was never one for relishing language. He always wanted meanings and words to speak loud and bold.
You had told that you would try to read this before sending it to me. If you managed to complete the book, you must have realized that the book is not very atypical of Lahiri. I am afraid she will find it hard to win another Booker until she breaks out of her own mould or a Booker Committee comes along that doesn’t take the trouble to have read the previous winners.
He smiled at his brother’s silly mistake and continued reading. But he found that he was skipping through the lines now, without reading much. Soon he had reached the end of the letter. It did not end with the usual wishes and he knew that it had not been finished. He quietly flipped back to the beginning again. He could hear the milkman cycling outside on his early morning rounds.
Their relationship had been stretched – stretched halfway across the world – refusing to break, no matter how much he tried.
He walked slowly to the window-sill and lit the candle he had placed here. He watched as the ashes settled nearby and turned away as the breeze started to carry them away.
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