The Muzak of Jhumpa Lahiri

by Ahsan Akbar

ScreenHunter_355 Oct. 14 09.11Summer bids farewell. It is the perfect time to long for a dip into warmth of homeland nostalgia aka “immigrant fiction”, though the term is not favoured by Jhumpa Lahiri, whose new book pique my interest. The Lowland (Bloomsbury 2013) is her second novel and fourth work of fiction. Immediately after the announcement of the 2013 Man Booker shortlist, its sales became astronomical. And Lahiri, no stranger to prizes and shortlists, reaffirms her place in the pantheon with yet another bestseller.

London maybe Lahiri's place of birth, but she grew up in the East Coast of America – Rhode Island, finishing college with multiple degrees from Boston. She cannot read Bengali, but she can speak the language and she certainly takes an interest in her roots: Calcutta. Her debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies, a slim collection of short stories, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. That surprised many literary establishments, perhaps shook some pillars too. As a fellow Bengali, daft as it may sound, I could not but rejoice in her achievement. Comprised of nine stories, the bestseller offered refreshing insight into the lives of Indians and Indian Americans without pulling punches. Personally, I enjoyed how Lahiri had common components in all the stories, which gave an overarching feel to the collection. Despite a lot that was both admirable and enjoyable about the book, I was also baffled by the fact that she would name a Bengali character 'Pirzada' in her '71 story (When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine). This is especially distressing since she holds a PhD and is presumably skilled in research. Critics in the West, who choose to downplay such mistakes in works about cultures they don't know should just ask themselves this: Could an otherwise perfectly good story about the Civil Rights movement get placed anywhere if the black central character were called, say, Aaron Steinmetz?

In any case, Lahiri got the upper hand of the cultural politics of America-endorsed ethnic fiction: many of the stories from Interpreter of Maladies were about exotic places but written in the context of a safe American suburb, a soft focus also adapted by the Sri Lankan-born Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje in his latest work of fiction, The Cat's Table.

Lahiri's next book, The Namesake (popularized by a film adaptation by Mira Nair), and Unaccustomed Earth, another set of short stories, Lahiri, continue the trend of swapping continents though limited only to America's East Coast and India's West Bengal. That hallmark defines her latest foray, The Lowland, as well. It is her most ambitious work to date, charting her own family history, its association with the Naxalite movement of the 60's, finishing up with the Rhode Island treatment of a dysfunctional marriage, which is seemingly part and parcel of the Lahiri patois.

The story begins with one of Tollygunge's colonial remains for the brown sahib: the Tolly Club, its exclusivity with “wooden gate and high brick walls”, idiosyncrasies, golfing men, and around it, the kinship of the two brothers, Subhash and his 15 months junior Udayan, who is presented with a daredevil nature. Lahiri shows dexterity in presenting the history of the place, weaving the tale of the two, without distorting any facts. We get a snapshot of Tollygunge, Major William Tolly and Tolly Nullah; we are made to revisit Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal, the Naxalites. Then very early on two things happen (relax, this is no spoiler): Subhash moves to – no prizes for guessing – Rhode Island to pursue higher education, and Udayan, who by now is married to an expecting Gauri, gets arrested by the authorities only to never return.

The premise itself vaguely recalls the sprawling epic Purbo Pashchim by the late Bengali literary giant Sunil Gangopadhyay. In his novel of multi-generational tragedies we have two friends who choose between America and Naxalism. The themes, in short, are too familiar to Bengali readers, even if they come across as 'fresh' to Lahiri's far bigger and far more adoring Western readers. But no topic as big as the Naxal movement belongs to any one author. Nor does a theme as classic (or cliched) as brothers separated by fate or history. The real problem with this plot is that it seems to hit a roadblock.

The reader is left with agonizing details of Gauri in the States, who could not really love Subhash, even though he chose to be the saintly one, in 'rescuing' her through marriage. In turn, through many meandering chapters, the reader gets the high-handed impression that the saint here, really, is Gauri with zero moral turpitude and pathetic remorse for Udayan's death. Her frigidity in bed extends outside the bedroom, with her lack of interest in Bela, their child. Further complexities of the grim-faced domestic nature soon follow to the end. In the latter part of the book, we are suddenly swept as west as California; we learn about the next generation, but the family saga had begun to lose its elegance long before. At conclusion, Lahiri hustles in tidying-up too many loose ends, which lends no gravity to the overall impact of the novel.

For a novel with such gumption at the setting, The Lowland really fails to deliver in terms of depth and gravitas. Perhaps there is something to be said for upcoming South Asian fiction's hopes of becoming less shaped by Western expectations. We could do with the writer's views a bit more instead, and that's something falling short – not just in South Asian literature – even though the writing is faultless, as described aptly in the Issue 17/August '13 of the Brooklyn-based literary magazine n+1: “…a failure on its own narrow terms, good writing being, in a word, the creation of people trying to tell the truth, however slant, rather than to produce “literature.” Writers more interested in literature than the truth ensure that they never come out with either thing — one reason that the word literature today sounds so fake, as if you were to insist on saying cuisine every time you meant food. Food, as in sustenance, is more like what we have in mind.”

Putting the book down, I remain unaffected, rather unmoved but the feeling is ‘neutral'. Wouldn't be stretching if one compares the experience to lounge music, or elevator music, otherwise known as muzak. Muzak is as harmless as lounge music. Or maybe not, if you follow the Will Self school of thought: muzak is a sort of mind-numbing torture because it is “cunningly fashioned to sink below the level of ordinary consciousness, while yet retaining its ability to influence.” The Lowland may well go on to win the Booker this month, but is that all Lahiri and her fans want?

* * *

Ahsan Akbar grew up in Dhaka and studied at Exeter. His debut book of poems, The Devil's Thumbprint, is due in November 2013. He is a board member of Bengal Lights, and co-organizer of Hay Festival Dhaka. Currently he lives in London and is at work on a novel.

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