Jhumpa Lahiri quickly jumped to the top of my favorite authors list when I discovered her via my English Comp class my second year of undergrad. Interpreter of Maladies came to me as both my first (that I can remember) short story collection and my first time reading an author who wrote primarily regarding an international identity. The first story in Interpreter of Maladies titled ‘A Temporary Matter’ remains to be one of the most important short stories of my life. The beauty of the ordinary spoke to me- it was through Lahiri that I realized one could create something out of nothing. That the average days meant something, were worthwhile despite. I abandoned my thoughts that I needed an exceptionally outrageous event to write about and began noticing the small, human things associated with life. Lahiri has a talent for identifying human nature (the good, the bad, the questionable)- what she writes about we cannot deny; the secrets of her characters are our own secrets, the ones that bring rouge to our cheeks and a poisonous quick beat in our chest. She’s an incredibly talented writer, not only for her acute awareness of human nature but also because of her incredible ability of telling stories from members of a multicultural identity. Her combination of culture- particularly the huge differences inherent in two cultures- and the undeniable common denominators that all human beings have.
Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri’s second short story collection, impressed me equally as much. Although I do prefer Lahiri’s short works compared to her novels (I wasn’t crazy about The Namesake, her first novel), The Lowland blew me away (although it was long, chronologically confusing, and somewhat sad).
The story begins with two brothers (Udayan and Subhash) and their interactions as children and their young adult lives. As Udayan begins participating in an anti-governmental scheme in Calcutta (called Naxalism), Subhash leaves India to attend university within the United States. Separated from India and his brother, Subhash remains worried but removed regarding the politics in place in his homeland, and is startled when he gets news that Udayan has married (a woman named Gauri whom their parents are quite unhappy of). Although Subhash continues to worry about his brother’s hidden involvement in anti-government schemes, his distance from the situation allows him to retreat. Government officials eventually come for Udayan who hides in the lowland, an area behind their childhood home in which he and Subhash used to play in. It is there where Udayan is shot and killed, where Gauri is left widowed, pregnant, and unwelcome in her new in-law’s home. Subhash receives the news and flies to India, intent on helping his family and his new sister-in-law recover. In a strange, abrupt moment, Subhash offers to marry Gauri and to raise Udayan’s child as his own. And so it goes.
Bela is born in the United States believing that her father is Subhash. Lahiri gives Gauri a voice once she arrives to the U.S., and readers are given the opportunity to see things her way: how in love she was with Udayan, how unsure she is of the new culture she’s living in, her guilt of marrying Subhash and feeling secure, and her boredom especially. Gauri starts attending college and becoming increasingly interested in philosophy and the mysteries of life: “she saw time; now she sought to understand it. Did it exist independently in the physical world, or in the mind’s apprehension? Was it perceived only by humans? What caused certain moments to swell up like hours, certain years to dwindle to a number of days? In Hindu philosophy the three tenses-past, present, future- were said to exist simultaneously in God. God was timeless. Descartes said that God recreated the body at each successive moment. So that time was a form of sustenance.” As Gauri becomes more invested in her academic life, she withdraws seriously from her personal life. She faces the trouble of not being a good mother, not wanting to spend time with her child. And she becomes increasingly aware of her disinterest in her husband- she can no longer deny that she does not love her husband. Her fabrication of life pushes her further into academic life in attempts to understand. Gauri leaves Subhash and Bela, retreating to a life on the other coast of the country, becoming an independent academic devoid of married life and motherhood.
Lahiri does not tell this story in a linear trajectory. Rather, the novel and the full story comes to the reader in flashbacks throughout Subhash’s quiet life on the East Coast of the U.S. and throughout Gauri’s interrupted life both in India and across the U.S. Bela herself becomes an adult woman, a nomad going here and there doing odd jobs. Subhash faces a deep depression as he ages, a loneliness and awareness of death that is cutting: “It was like this since Richard’s death: a disproportionate awareness of being alive. In a world of diminishing mystery, the unknown persists.” Bela’s return, pregnant, supplies Subhash with renewed hope and will to live. His new relationship with Elise also encourages the living. And while Gauri re-enters for a moment, Subhash, Bela, and Bela’s daughter live independent of Gauri. And while Gauri’s action leave her disappointed and with a deep sense of shame, the reader does not feel angry at Gauri; rather, I personally respected her deep commitment to learn and to understand. Gauri’s position as a mother and wife were thrust upon her- what of her self? And, just the same, we do not leave the novel pitying Subhash. We respect each character. We hope (via Lahiri’s small note of encouragement) that one day Gauri will be in the picture. We know all involved have dwelled and suffered and enjoyed.
And after it all, the betrayals, the secrets, the disappointments- all so true to the human experience- Lahiri leaves us with a strong note of hope: “He returns to bed, still looking out the window at the sky, the stars. He is startled anew by the fact that their beauty, even in daytime, is here. He is awash with the gratitude of his advancing years, for the timeless splendors of the earth, for the opportunity to behold them.”