Reading Jhumpa Lahiri Politically

Jhumpa Lahiri’s failure in The Lowland is not one of style, but of sensibility. She has little investment in the spirit of the Naxalite movement she chooses to depict.

Illustration by Jan Buchczik

Jhumpa Lahiri does not like to be categorized as an immigrant writer, and her latest novel, The Lowland, is her strongest argument against that pigeonhole. Her discomfort with the label is understandable. After all, she has refreshingly little in common with diasporic writers like Salman Rushdie, Bharati Mukherjee, or Chitra Divakaruni. Unlike them, she does not brandish her immigrant status as an epistemologically superior vantage point, nor is she anxious to prove herself as a worthy native informant. Her writing is free of the exotic.

A second-generation immigrant, she is firmly grounded in the culture in which she was raised. Yet, growing up with parents for whom home would always be elsewhere, she gets the immigrant experience, especially its melancholia. Of what she knows, she writes masterfully. Indeed, prior to The Lowland, her fiction has been almost exclusively an engagement with immigrant angst in its many hues.

For The Lowland, partly set in Calcutta in the sixties and seventies, during the throes of the Maoist Naxalite movement, her ambitions are of a different order. She steps out of the sphere of navel-gazing immigrant fiction and frames the novel with a political movement of which she has no experiential knowledge. Like Lahiri’s earlier work, The Lowland made a splash as a finalist for both the prestigious Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award for Fiction, and yet, almost every major review of the novel has remarked on the stagnant quality of the narrative, the flat, detached characters, and the tepid pace. None, however, has identified the cause for this failure in an otherwise extraordinarily skilled writer. The single reason that is sometimes cited is Lahiri’s inability to translate her mastery of the short-story form into that of the novel. But her first novel, The Namesake, does not suffer from this supposed shortcoming, so that explanation remains unconvincing.

No, Lahiri’s failure in The Lowland is not one of style, but of sensibility. She has little writerly investment in the ethos and spirit of the political culture she chooses to depict, exhibiting neither imaginative curiosity about that era and its politics, nor genuine sympathy for the cause that motivates some of her characters. Lahiri, remarkably skilled at mapping the tapestries of emotions, flounders here in the construction of compelling characters. Naxalism is the catalyst for the plot, and her characters’ actions are often shaped by the movement, but because Lahiri herself cannot muster much sympathy for her characters, the affective is hollowed out of political meaning and the central characters denuded of a compelling structure of motivation. The failure, however, is not a general one; aspects of the novel that are less connected to the political movement do not fare as poorly. In fact, characters who remain untouched by Naxalism are delineated with the precision and care that have long been characteristic of Lahiri’s fiction.

The novel starts out in the Tollygunge area of Calcutta in the 1950s, centering on a middle-class family with two little boys. The bright and sensitive brothers, Subhash and Udayan, share an unusually close bond. But the bond breaks in the late 1960s as Udayan becomes involved with the Naxalite uprising and Subhash finds himself unable to fully relate to the movement. Choosing his own path, Subhash leaves to pursue doctoral studies at a university in Rhode Island. He returns home after receiving news of Udayan’s death — he was killed by the police for his involvement in the Naxalite movement. While in Calcutta, Subhash meets Udayan’s pregnant widow, Gauri, whom he then marries and takes back to Rhode Island with him. Their relationship never works, and Gauri is unable to connect even with her daughter, Bela. Subhash, however proves a tender father to the girl. When Bela is twelve, Gauri moves to California to pursue an academic career, abandoning both daughter and husband. After decades of separation and angst for all characters, a secret from the past concerning Udayan and Gauri’s role in the Naxalite movement is revealed. There is a redemption of sorts for all characters in the end.

The Naxalite movement, central to the plot, has maintained a noticeable presence in India. It began in 1967 with a peasant uprising in Naxalbari, a village in northern Bengal near the Nepali border. Initially led by armed members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the movement later broke away to form the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). It has largely followed Mao’s doctrine of “people’s war.” The movement, born in the countryside, spread to the cities during the 1970s, attracting mainly educated, unemployed youth energized by the peasants’ struggle for rights and recognition. A brutal counteroffensive empowered by draconian anti-terrorist laws brought the first phase of the movement to an end.

At the heart of Lahiri’s narrative are two killings: the assassination of a policeman by Udayan and his comrades and Udayan’s own subsequent execution by the police. In response to the brutal repression of peasant uprisings, the Naxalite movement in urban areas adopted what was called the “annihilation program,” which targeted people in uniform such as police officers and paramilitary personnel. Udayan’s involvement in the assassination of a policeman, we’re given to understand, is part of this Naxalite strategy. He is a participant in the planning of the act, in procuring crucial information; he is present when the police constable was stabbed to death and he painted a slogan with the blood of the dead man. We learn of Udayan’s attempt at escape from the authorities, his haunting remorse for his action, his capture, and his family’s bearing witness to his execution without trial by the police. The manner of Udayan’s execution is consistent with the history of a draconian anti-insurgent operation which included on-the-spot shooting of known Naxalite cadres.

While the reader is offered thorough representations of Udayan’s militant act and subsequent execution, the narrative is empathetically invested in only one of these events. There is a clear narrative distinction in the way the two deaths are treated. Udayan’s execution by the police is presented as objectionable, even regrettable. But Lahiri does not dwell on the incident, she offers little to elicit the reader’s sympathy for Udayan, nor does she encourage our moral outrage. While we know that Udayan participated in the assassination of a policeman, the text does not allow us to relate to the motivations behind that act. There is no depiction of the world and inner lives of Udayan and his comrades that could embed the assassination in a political and emotional framework. In sharp contrast, the policeman is located in an identifiable and sympathetic milieu. Prior to his death, we’re given an intimate portrait of him as father to a young child, someone for whom policing was merely a job.

Lahiri portrays his murder as an unambiguously grievous crime. The manner of Udayan’s execution, on the other hand, is noted only in passing and elicits little beyond a rote condemnation of police brutality. The text’s real investment rests in the authorial judgment of the policeman’s assassination.

Udayan’s connection with the Naxalite movement is portrayed with neither empathy nor even conviction. As part of his political training, Udayan leaves for the countryside for a month to live and work with agricultural workers. Instead of just alluding to rural poverty as a sociological phenomenon, here was an opportunity for Lahiri to dwell on the motivations behind Udayan’s political beliefs. Through Udayan’s experiences, the narrative could have explored what it means to live under grinding feudal oppression, to be forced into a subhuman existence for generations, and to pass it on to one’s children. She might have woven into the narrative the everyday texture of deprivation, injustice, and humiliation. That would have humanized and contextualized the militant peasant uprisings against feudal landowners.

In fact, Naxalism is rarely embedded in the experiences of the characters; the brothers learn of Naxal activities through the news or from fellow passengers on a train. It creates a cinematic effect of the camera zooming out from its focus on private lives to a city caught in the whirlwind of a political agitation. Thus, there is mention of Udayan and his comrades attending political study groups and of their militant activism, but little engagement with the lives of those young people and what drew that generation to sacrifice their immediate interests and safety to make common cause with the rural poor. In a measured authorial voice, the novel notes the draconian counterinsurgency operations, during which nearly everyone under age thirty was treated as a suspect; the rampant state-sanctioned torture of young activists; the disappearances; and the killing of unarmed prisoners.

But again, what was the experience of it all? Udayan is killed by the police for his activism but there is scant focus on the texture of his moral outrage and the impossible courage that must have fuelled his politics.

The narrative does not portray why and how someone like Udayan would have been drawn to the movement. How did Udayan and others of his generation transcend middle-class insensitivity to the plight of the rural poor? What was their own experience of a crippling social and economic system? In what ways did political organizing channel their energies? What was it like for Udayan to be young in Calcutta in 1969 and know that he was part of a worldwide movement for social justice? The little that we learn of Udayan’s character surfaces through the memories of Bijoli, his grieving mother. Bijoli reminisces about Udayan’s intelligence, his sensitivity, his concern for the poor and the weak, yet these characteristics do not acquire much resonance beyond the distraught recollections of a bereft mother.

The trope of a mother reminiscing about her revolutionary son inevitably evokes comparison with Mahasweta Devi’s Mother of 1084. There, too, the young son was a Naxalite killed in counterinsurgency operations. The mother’s bereavement becomes her reason to connect with the world of Brati, her dead son; for her it becomes essential that his ideals do not remain mere abstractions. Through the mother’s empathetic quest, Devi’s readers connect with Brati, and with the deepest motivations of a young, idealistic generation. By the end of the book, the reader shares the author’s searing denunciation of Brati’s state-sponsored execution. This is in striking contrast with Lahiri’s treatment of her protagonist. Shorn of a similarly empathetic reading of the character and the movement, Udayan’s killing becomes a simple parable of crime and punishment.

Udayan’s death is not the only novelistic indictment for the “crimes” of the movement. Lahiri reserves an even more severe judgment for Gauri. She escapes Udayan’s fate, and moves to the United States, where she begins life anew with his brother and her daughter. Through this move, Lahiri places Gauri in her familiar territory of immigrant experience. But Gauri is unlike her other immigrant characters; there is little authorial sympathy for this character. Her move to another country produces in her neither curiosity for the new nor nostalgia for the old. It is this pervasive indifference, a fundamental inability to connect, which becomes Gauri’s punishment for her part in the Naxalite movement.

Initially Gauri strikes one as a remarkably interesting character. In her life experiences, her interests, her relationship with Udayan, her flouting of all familial expectations through her marriage and her nascent involvement in the Naxal movement, there is much potential for compelling character development. That promise, however, remains unfulfilled. Once Gauri marries Subhash and moves to Rhode Island, her character becomes increasingly opaque. Her one distinguishing characteristic is a resistance to all relationships. The hardships of her earlier life notwithstanding, her descent into a stubborn decades-long emotional withdrawal is almost inexplicable. In the end, her long, successful, and austere life, free of sustained emotional attachment, could have been ascribed to authorial excess and left at that, were it not for another failure on Gauri’s part. She abandons her twelve-year-old daughter, Bela, with hardly any explanation and pursues her own life without regrets. This abandonment of her child cannot be dismissed as mere authorial excess. The reader is forced to judge Gauri for the cruelty of her act, if not her intentions. And decades later, when Gauri learns from an unforgiving Bela that, in contrast to Gauri’s emotionally barren life, both Bela and Subhash thrived in their own ways, the reader can’t help but find some satisfaction in this emotional justice.

Why does Lahiri reserve such judgment for Gauri? Udayan is executed by the state, but Gauri is punished by her author for her participation in the Naxalite movement. She, too, played a part in the assassination of the policeman by Udayan and his comrades; it was her job to observe and report back on the policeman’s daily routine. In fact, it is through her eyes that we see a man walking his little son home; a father-son companionship both quotidian and precious. Gauri’s guilt, even though unstated, emotionally paralyzes her. Udayan confesses to Gauri that after what he has done, he could not bring himself to parent a child, and since their guilt is shared, Gauri’s life becomes an acceptance of that punishment. Even though she gives birth to their daughter, Gauri finds herself unable to forge a bond with her child. Udayan’s words thus become a joint prophecy.

As The Lowland unfolds, we see that the story is about the indictment of that one militant act in which Udayan and Gauri were both involved. It is about the long-term consequences of the political assassination of a man who was also a father. After such crime, what forgiveness? By making the assassination the source of the narrative’s moral and emotional logic, the novel reduces the movement itself to an act of crime. Lahiri’s depiction of Naxalism is largely in tune with conservative historiography — a selective rendering that casts the movement as well-intentioned but wrong-headed and devastating in the way it played out. Lahiri’s isolation of an act of Naxalite violence for literary exploration, while providing little more than a conventional overview of the context, has the effect of depoliticizing, even criminalizing, the entire movement.

Lahiri is entitled to her critique of the Naxal strategy of “annihilation” that targeted state officials. My issue with the novel does not relate to her position on a particular strategy; rather it is that while locating it at the heart of her narrative, Lahiri does not provide a humanized reading of the Naxal movement. It is entirely possible to be critical of aspects of a movement or even of a movement in its entirety while offering contextualized, intimate portrayals of its origins, justifications, and dynamics. A. Sivanandan’s When Memory Dies, for instance, provides a scathing critique of the later-stage militancy of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, while at the same time offering a deeply historicized and sympathetic portrayal of the driving force behind the Tamil movement. In that novel, the political is explored through the intimate life experiences of the characters; it is never a state-constructed backdrop. Sivanandan’s empathetic investment in the historical process is a characteristic sadly lacking in The Lowland.

Lahiri has remarked that her inspiration for the novel was an incident that took place in her grandparents’ neighborhood in Calcutta. Two brothers who were Naxal activists had been executed by the police in front of their family. For Lahiri, the poignancy of the incident is located in its familial core; the political is incidental. In her rendering, the familial and the political may intersect at times, but usually run on parallel tracks. She is unable to appreciate how the political can dwell within the realm of the affective. In exploring the different contexts of the incident, she had to acknowledge the political, but there seems to have been little genuine curiosity regarding the motivations of the executed brothers.

Since the political is of little interest to Lahiri, the politics she subscribes to are grounded in an easy and available critique of left radicalism. Thus Udayan, grappling with the perceived futility of the movement as well as his own imminent death, questions Che Guevara’s belief that the “revolution is the important thing and that each one of us alone is worth nothing.” In the established tradition of left-bashing, Lahiri’s character is made aware of the sanctity of the individual over and above any political process. Lahiri remains oblivious to the possibility that, for a character like Udayan, the cause of a revolution could be inherently personalized and its experience not in contention with other aspects of individuality. Similarly, Gauri, confronted with the failures in her own life, is drawn to the news of Naxal leader Kanu Sanyal’s suicide. Her dark fascination with the leader’s final act is far more compelling than her interest or involvement in the movement ever was. Ironically, the political meaningfully resonates with Lahiri’s characters only for imagined messages of defeat and loss.

In sharp contrast to Udayan and Gauri, Bela, the second-generation immigrant and hapless victim of a marriage of convenience, benefits from the writer’s abundant empathy. While Gauri’s motivations in abandoning her daughter remain obscure, Bela’s crippling suffering is carefully portrayed. Lahiri’s remarkable skills in depicting the nuances of pain and its after-effects are at play in Bela’s quest for emotional anchors. Rejecting the pseudo-stability of a world that has failed her, Bela embraces the counterculture lifestyle of an agricultural apprentice, a farmhand, living in commune-like arrangements with an unstable income and strong commitment to organic living. Underlying her choices, the narrative claims, there is a “certain ideology . . . a spirit of opposition.”

Such oppositional ideology, which often originates from private angst and transforms little beyond lifestyle choices, has Lahiri’s blessings. Bela’s parents, however, are censoriously judged for advocating another ideology that seeks a far more fundamental transformation of exploitative structures. Lahiri’s empathetic rendering of Bela’s life speaks to her strength. The unfortunate part is that Lahiri’s empathy is limited only to characters like Bela and the universe she inhabits.

Lahiri may dislike the label “immigrant writer,” but it is doubtful that The Lowland will do much to change that reputation. Her earlier writing may be limited by a narrow range of sympathies, but there at least Lahiri is deeply connected with her subject. To have drawn the character of Gogol in The Namesake, Lahiri had to have been truly invested in the travails of immigration. The greatest failing of The Lowland is that while the Naxal movement is academic to Lahiri, it is still the primary catalyst for the plot. In an interview with NPR, the author expressed her reservations when she spoke of the Naxal activists as “basically kids” attracted by an ideology with a certain appeal. The mature, responsible Subhash echoes the authorial position when he is skeptical that an “imported ideology could solve India’s problems.”

Whatever the merit of such critique, Lahiri could have chosen to express her perspective through a literary and humanistic engagement with the political. Instead she simply patronizes and dismisses the movement, a gesture that resonates well with her liberal readers, who embrace multiculturalism but shun “extremist” ideologies.

Ultimately, Lahiri remains confined by a sensibility invested in cultural knowledge unencumbered by questions of power and ideology. It is a sensibility that works well within the bounds of immigrant and familial fiction. The Lowland, unfortunately, crumbles under the burden of a subject that remains outside its author’s ambit of sympathy.