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In the past 15 years, Jhumpa Lahiri has become one of the English language’s most admired fiction writers. Her critically praised debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000. That was followed by a novel, The Namesake, which was made into a film directed by Mira Nair. Lahiri (GRS’93, UNI’95,’97) then returned to the short story form with Unaccustomed Earth in 2008.
But before she wrote any of those books, Lahiri had conceived a story about two brothers born in Calcutta just as India was gaining independence from England. The novel—16 years in the making—is Lahiri’s latest work, The Lowland (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), and it debuted on the New York Times best-seller fiction list at number three.
The Lowland focuses on many of the themes—the Indian diaspora, the dislocation felt by many immigrants, the myriad ways families both nurture and suffocate—familiar to readers of Lahiri’s previous fiction. But it is a departure in many ways as well—a story about a real political movement (India’s 1960s Maoist Naxalite uprising) and its far-reaching consequences for one family. It is sweeping in its ambition, cutting back and forth between India and the United States over five decades.
Lahiri will read from The Lowland tonight at Morse Auditorium as this year’s BU Ha Jin Visiting Lecturer, followed by a conversation between Lahiri and novelist Daphne Kalotay (GRS’94, UNI’98), author of Russian Winter and Sight Reading, and a book signing. The event is free and open to the public.
The Lowland is the story of brothers Subhash and Udayan, born just 15 months apart. Despite their sharply different personalities, the two grow up to be very close. The brave and headstrong Udayan “was blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving certain colors.” Subhash, far more cautious, “strove to minimize his existence as other animals merged with bark or blades of grass.” Those differences will assert themselves more pointedly as the two boys grow into young men.
Udayan joins the Naxalite movement, the Maoist political organization that swept India during the 1960s, as a young man, determined to improve the plight of India’s poor. Subhash moves to Rhode Island to pursue a doctorate and a career in marine chemistry. But when Udayan is executed by police, Subhash returns home and persuades his brother’s widow, Guari, pregnant with Udayan’s child, to marry him and move to the United States.
What follows is an examination of how a single tragedy can play out over decades and generations. Lahiri deftly tackles a number of thorny issues: the responsibilities of parents to children and vice versa, the struggle to forgive oneself and others, the ways guilt can shape—and thwart—a life. The novel is frequently heartbreaking. And in Guari, who ultimately abandons her daughter, she has created a deeply flawed character, one many readers will find impossible to like. It is a testament to Lahiri’s skill as a storyteller that readers find themselves sympathizing with her by novel’s end.
The Lowland is full of the kind of elegant, descriptive language that has impressed both critics and readers. About Subhash’s attraction to his brother’s widow: “It was like the light of the fireflies that swam up to the house at night, random points that surrounded him, that glowed and then receded without a trail.” She uses similarly poetic language to describe one of Subhash’s first autumns in New England, the foliage “vivid hues of cayenne and turmeric and ginger pounded fresh every morning.”
The novel was nominated for the National Book Award and shortlisted for one of Britain’s top literary honors, the Man Booker Prize. In her New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani praises Lahiri’s “ability to conjure the daily texture of people’s lives, her understanding of how their personal and cultural expectations have shaped their choices, her talent for mapping moods and inchoate emotions with pointillist precision.” The Washington Post review hails Lahiri’s prose as “a miracle of delicate strength, like those threads of spider silk that, wound together, are somehow stronger than steel.”
Leslie Epstein, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of creative writing, who taught Lahiri, recalls that as a student, she possessed an “innate dignity. One could actually see her head moving back and forth, like a radar dish, picking up thoughts and points of criticism from other students.” The Creative Writing Program director says that what struck him about her early writing was “how controlled and feeling it was, as if she had thought through the relationships and what she thought of them for many years.” Jin (GRS’94), who was a student in the program with Lahiri, says that everyone was “impressed by her limpid, elegant prose.”
Lahiri has said that in completing The Lowland, she feels finished. In an interview with Salon she notes that her first four books are about “visiting and revisiting a certain migration pattern, in terms of what the characters are doing,” but adds, “that is something I’m less interested in continuing to explore right now…I want to look elsewhere, and look at things differently.”
Bostonia spoke with Lahiri about The Lowland, her recent move to Italy, and the advice she gives aspiring writers when asked.
Lahiri: I knew from the beginning that The Lowland would be a novel, even though I had yet to write one. So it was a matter of intuition. I’ve almost always known right away whether something will take the form of a novel or a short story. Perhaps it’s a consequence of reading both novels and stories and being familiar with the advantages and disadvantages of each.
It’s not terribly different. I often spend years putting a short story together, developing the characters and working out the structure. In a novel, certainly, there are more pages to consider in the end. But a short story is equally capable of covering a vast amount of ground. Assembling a collection of stories can be more intense than tying up a novel, because each story has its own logic; each is a self-contained universe.
It took me 16 years in total. I started with a brief scene that I drafted and then put aside for 10 years. I felt wholly unprepared, at the time, to move forward and to write the book. When I returned to the scene 10 years later I was still pretty lost, but I felt slightly less intimidated and overwhelmed. The process was one of discovery, like opening a box sealed with an enormous amount of tape, bound tightly with twine. Slowly you undo the knots and peel back the tape and see what’s inside.
The novel was inspired by an execution that took place in Calcutta in the early 1970s, in the neighborhood where my father was raised. Some students who lived in that neighborhood were involved in the Naxalite movement—a failed attempt at Maoist revolution in India, which brought about a period of violent turmoil for the city. One evening during the repression of this movement two brothers were shot dead by the police in front of their parents and some other family members. It was a fairly common occurrence in Calcutta at the time.
The story, set in specific places and during a specific time, had certain demands, and I did my best to meet them. For me it was always a story not only about political violence, but also about emotional violence, especially within the context of a family.
I read both fictional and historical accounts of the movement, I watched films, and I spoke to people who lived in Calcutta during the Naxalite period. Toward the end of the writing I made a trip to Calcutta and spoke to some people who were involved in the movement. A number of my uncles had been involved during their university years. Many members of my extended family shared their experiences, their memories with me.
I remember Leslie Epstein talking about the importance of triangles, and how they create both tension and structure in a story. It was a revelation to me.
My year in the Creative Writing Program at BU was fundamental. I would never have dared to try to become a writer if it hadn’t been for the encouragement and support of Leslie, as well as the connection I felt to the other writers I met in the program. It was really the beginning of a new life for me.
After 16 years, I felt more than ready to part ways with them.
Initially I wasn’t sure what the next step would be. But as I was finishing the novel, I felt, instinctively, that I had come to the end of a certain creative phase, a certain approach, perhaps. Soon after, I moved to Italy and began experimenting with writing in Italian. And this is leading me, for the moment, in a very different direction.
It’s been extraordinary. It’s been the start of yet another phase both personally and creatively. The start of yet another life.
I’m writing a series of essays, in Italian, about the experience of learning to read and write in a foreign language, and about my relationship to language in general.
Try to spend some part of every day reading or writing, preferably both. I believe that all writing is born from reading, from the love of it.
Jhumpa Lahiri, this year’s Ha Jin Visiting Lecturer, will read from The Lowland tonight, Wednesday, February 19, at 7 p.m. at Morse Auditorium, 602 Commonwealth Ave. After the reading, Lahiri will take part in a conversation onstage with Daphne Kalotay (GRS’94, UNI’98), followed by a book signing; both are free and open to the public. Guests are urged to arrive early to secure a seat.
The Ha Jin Visiting Lecture series, made possible by a gift from BU trustee Robert J. Hildreth, brings internationally renowned fiction writers to BU to teach master classes and give public lectures. The series is named for award-winning novelist Ha Jin (GRS’94), a CAS professor of creative writing and a Creative Writing Program alum.