It’s easy to see why some readers and reviewers of Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel dislike its female protagonist, Gauri.
In a story about nice people, ready to sacrifice their future for the sake of others, who believe in family, togetherness, and being there for one another through good and bad, Gauri appears starkly egotistical. A selfish and heartless woman, she seems to care little or not at all for those closest to her. Lahiri draws a woman so intent on making a life on her own, alone, that she’s willing to break hearts, shatter minds, and screw up futures…fully aware of the intense pain her desire for independence causes those in her immediate entourage.
Gauri also stands apart another way—as by far the most interesting character in The Lowland...or most of Lahiri’s other fiction.
Lahiri brings much talent to the page, expending little more effort, it feels, than the writing equivalent of a few strokes of a pencil on a blank sheet of paper to sketch her characters (the colors fill themselves in). The simplicity of her storytelling sets her apart from other writers of south Asian heritage.
Still, to this reviewer, Lahiri’s characters prior to The Lowland always seemed too stereotypical. (Full disclosure here: Perhaps because I, like Lahiri, am of Indian heritage now living in America, I know all too many people like the ones in her stories.) Still, whether Lahiri writes about Indians, Americans or a mix of the nationalities, she tended in prior work to fit her characters neatly into customized little boxes, no parts of them stretching over the boundaries.
In her first collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, and her first novel, The Namesake, we got to know her favorite type of people: The Indian academic and his wife. Lahiri favors a male doctoral student who will end up making a career in the U.S. Her female cleaves to tradition, wears saris, whips up delicious curries with minimal equipment and ingredients. Together they accept life in America without compromising their origins. They take the best this country has to offer immigrants—education, material comfort—and live here making do with those benefits.
Lahiri’s second collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, pushed the envelope a bit, with characters that occasionally broke out of the cookie-cutter mold. We met Indians suffering from suicidal tendencies, depression, alcoholism. These creations had more depth, felt more real. They went beyond conventional, one-dimensional ideas that many Indians hold of themselves even today.
So now Lahiri has given us this woman, Gauri, unpredictable and hell-bent on breaking out of her assigned box of Good Indian Wife/Mother/Daughter-In-Law. As an Indian woman reading The Lowland, I personally admired Gauri’s daring, her willingness to trample on the life that tradition and custom demand. Without fear, she strikes out to live on her own terms—a truly American notion.
Gauri prefers to hack off her long, black hair in favor of a monkish bob. Despite being married, she openly desires an unknown man she encounters at a bus stop, to the extent of masturbating in a public bathroom (not your typical Lahiri scene—it took me by complete surprise). Gauri leaves her young child alone in an apartment for hours, or allows her to wander outside alone, apparently without one iota of concern. Is she worthy of the purported ultimate honor that society bestows upon a woman…Motherhood?
Still, though Gauri feels more realistic than any of the other women I have encountered in Lahiri’s writings…and admirable for her unique resolve and independence…she ends up a loser in this story. Defying convention and reneging on duty leave her with a life that ultimately, Lahiri suggests, means nothing.
Was it worth it? What reward did it bring to strike out solo, to stand apart? Does Lahiri mean that convention, so ingrained in all of us Indians as the “right” thing to do, represents the only path to a meaningful life? Does the author hint that only by doing our duty and following tradition in the ways of our mothers can Indian women find happiness?
Alas, you won’t find right answers—only right questions—in this family saga. The novel spans several decades and moves mostly between Calcutta, the Indian city Lahiri’s parents left, and a university campus in Rhode Island, where they emigrated and where Lahiri grew up. (Much of the author’s work takes place in this comfortably familiar setting.)
Clearly, you can’t create love where it doesn’t exist—Lahiri cedes this to Gauri. Following tradition, the woman marries Subhash, the brother of her dead husband, Udayan, at the brother’s request.
Gauri knows from the beginning that she will never love her new spouse, Subhash. He, too, probably knows this, and yet Subhash hopes that by doing his duty toward his brother—a man shot to death by Calcutta police for his involvement with a radical communist group, the Naxalites—he and Gauri might be able to build a life. The marriage can be seen as an act of kindness: Gauri carries her late husband’s child. Also, a widowed daughter-in-law in India must live with the parents of the late husband. Gauri’s in-laws never cared for her, so Subhash’s marriage offer saves Gauri from a life of domestic persecution.
So Gauri joins Subhash in Rhode Island, where he’s—guess what?—a doctoral student. There, Gauri gives birth to Udayan’s child, a girl. Subhash names her Bela.
In this circumstance, Gauri soon discovers a desire for freedom and independence consuming her, ravaging her mind and body like an incurable virus. She progressively cuts herself off from Subhash and Bela. As Bela prepares to begin seventh grade, Gauri completely dumps them, leaving husband and child shocked, angry, bereft, broken.
Subhash and Bela have no choice but to rebuild their lives. It takes time, and in the process, they drift away from each other too. Bela becomes something of a nomad, wandering the country, surviving job to job. Subhash lingers on the edges of her life, providing unacknowledged support, the promise of home that Bela needs every now and then. Subhash hopes that Bela will someday let him back into her life…even as he wonders if she actually has one.
In the end, ironically, the one important detail that Subhash always feared would break them—the knowledge that he is not Bela’s real father—brings them back together. They eternally seal their bond…a bond that firmly locks Gauri out of their lives forever.
Beautifully written, The Lowland (the book’s name comes from a marshy stretch between two ponds in Calcutta, a wasteland to some but to others, a repository of memories) keeps a reader turning pages, always keeps one wondering what happens next. Like real life, nothing will happen…though everything does.
Lahiri’s great strength as a fiction writer lies in that elegant, effortless-to-read writing, plus the respect she holds for each of her characters…even Gauri. She casts no judgment on Gauri’s decisions, offers no condemnation for what might be seen, even lived on its own terms, as ultimately no life at all. She simply poses the questions.
As a reader, at book’s end one feels neither triumph for Subhash, surrounded by loved ones and family, nor pity for Gauri. One leaves the characters of The Lowland with the same level of respect and empathy that their creator gave them, understanding that their choices might just as well be ours.
Savita Iyer-Ahrestani is a freelance writer based in State College, Pennsylvania. Her articles have appeared in Saveur, Vogue (Mumbai, India edition), CNN.com, Business Week, and Dr. Oz’s Youbeauty.com, among others. She co-authored “Brandstorm: Surviving and Thriving in the New Consumer-Led Marketplace” (Palgrave Macmillan 2012) and is currently working on a novel.