Sunday, 20 November 2016

The Lowland: Jhumpa Lahiri

The LowlandThe Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Really liked the book. It was 'Namesake' by the same author that i had read before this one and had hated it. This book was a gift to my sibling and i, with an inscription from Sethuvamma reading 'on 11/3/16 the corridors of Dharamthala opp Rajbhavan Kolkotha reminiscent of British buildings.
We have given you books only as usual & as always. Love both of you'. Trust mothers to make sentimental even a pirated book.
I was skeptical when i started due to my bad experience with 'Namesake'. This one, but from the beginning, impressed me. It was very much like some of the short stories i had read of the author in my teens. Also pirated books, from an old books store in Kozhikode.
I don't know what it is about me but looks like when i start, i will have to start with a sentence i did not like in the book. Often wonder where this cynicism crept inside me.
He had not seen so many egrets in one place, flying off when he came too close. The trees threw afternoon shadows on the lawn. Their smooth limbs divided when he looked up at them, like the forbidden zones of a woman's body.

...They began to relax, discovering a series of flags planted along the course. The holes were like navels in the earth, fitted with cups, indicating where the golf balls were supposed to go.

It was interesting to note how the author also followed films. I made a point to mark all the places mentioned in the book so that i can visit them later and make sketches. The last time i did it was with 'The Calcutta Chromosome' by Amitav Ghosh. Of course, the lines remained marked and the sketches never made. And here i am, still marking when i am almost out of this favourite city.
At one point, because Udayan suggested it, they began to linger outside Technicians' Studio, where Satyajit Ray had shot Pather Panchali, where Bengali cinema stars spent their days. Now and then, because someone who knew them was employed on the shoot, they were ushered in amid the tangle of cables and wires, the glaring lights. After the call for silence, after the board was clapped, they watched the director and his crew taking and retaking a single scene, perfecting a handful of lines. A day's work, devoted to a moment's entertainment.

So much of history behind every alley.
It was 1964. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorized America to use military force against North Vietnam. There was a military coup in Brazil.
In Calcutta Charulata was released in cinema halls. Another wave of riots between Muslims and Hindus killed over one hundred people after a relic was stolen from a mosque in Srinagar. Among the communists in India there was dissent over the border war with China two years before. A breakaway group, sympathetic to China, called itself the Communist Party of India, Marxist: the CPI(M).
The English started clearing the waterlogged jungle, laying down streets. In 1770, beyond the southern limits of Calcutta, they established a suburb whose first population was more European than Indian. A place where spotted deer roamed, and kingfishers darted across the horizon.
Major William Tolly, for whom the area was named, excavated and desilted a portion of the Adi Ganga, which came also to be known as Tolly's Nullah. He'd made shipping trade possible between Calcutta and East Bengal.
The grounds of the Tolly Club had originally belonged to Richard Joshnson, a chairman of the General Bank of India. In 1785, he'd built a Palladian villa. He'd imported foreign trees to Tollygunge, from all over the subtropical world.
In the early nineteenth century, on Johnson's estate, the British East India Company imprisoned the widows and sons of Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore, after Tipu was killed in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War.
The deposed family was transplanted from Srirangapatna, in the distant soutwest of India. After the release, they were granted plots in Tollygunge to live on. And as the English began to shift back to the center of Calcutta, Tollygunge became a predominantly Muslim town.
Though Partition had turned Muslims again into a minority, the names of so many streets were the legacy of Tipu's displaced dynasty: Sultan Alam Road, Prince Bakhtiar Shah Road, Prince Golam Mohamad Shah Road, Prince Rahimuddin Lane
Golam Mohammad had built the great mosque at Dharmatala in his father's memory. For a time he'd been permitted to live in Johnson's villa. But by 1895, when a Scotsman named William Cruickshank stumbled across it on horseback, looking for his lost dog, the great house was abandoned, colonized by civets, sheathed in vines.
Thanks to Cruickshank the villa was restored, and a country club was established in its place. Cruickshank was named the first president. It was for the British that the city's tramline was extended so far south in the early 1930s. It was to facilitate their journey to the Tolly Club, to escape the city's commotion, and to be among their own.

If history was taught like this in school, i would have been good at it. Sigh.
By page 19 of the book i was thinking how the relationship between the brothers was so reminiscent of Estha and Rahel in the God of Small Things. Different, but alike in ways only siblings can be. Every time i promise myself not to think of that book again, it thinks of me.
Siblings through letters moved me as well. Like here in this letter Subhash writes to Udayan,
They call the marsh grass spartina. I learned today that it has special glands for excreting salt, so that it's often covered with a residue of crystals. Snails migrate up and down the stems. It's been growing here over millenia, in deposits of peat. Its roots stabilize the shore. Did you know, it propagates by spreading rhizomes? Something like the mangroves that once thrived in Tollygunge. I had to tell you.
In 1967, in the papers and on All India Radio, they started hearing about Naxalbari. It was a place they'd never heard of before.
It was one of a string of villages in the Darjeeling District, a narrow corridor at the northern tip of West Bengal.

Made a mental note to visit the place. It's not going to happen, but no harm making notes. In 4 years of being in Kolkata i have not been to Darjeeling or the North East. Yes, i am a loser.
Just making a note of how things are different and easier for men. When the brothers go to paint 'Long live Naxalbari' on the wall, you will also get to know why women were never doing such things. It's simple logic. They couldn't go out at night. For example,
Subhash held the flashlight. He illuminated a section of the wall. It was close to midnight. They'd told their parents that they were going to a late show of a film.
Such a thing could never happen with girls. This might seem silly but it's not. In my interview i was asked why i had not watched great malayalam films like that of Adoor and Aravindan. I could never watch them because i never got the chance to attend film screenings conducted at night or in totally male spaces.
Most of her writing, as i have seen deals with people and their emotions when away from home. I relate a lot to this because i too, am a 'home' animal. I define home and try to spend a lot of energy simply longing for it. So references to 'home' when you are away from home always make me feel good. Like here. Subhash in America.
The Jamestown Bridge was prominent, the Newport Bridge, a few miles in the distance, more faint. On cloudy days, at intervals, the sound of a foghorn pierced the air, as conch shells were blown in Calcutta to ward off evil.

He paused, then uttered Udayan's name for the first time since he'd arrived in Rhode Island.

A few days later, in his mailbox at his department, Subhash found a letter from Udayan. Paragraphs in Bengali, dark blue ink against the lighter blue of the aerogramme.
A collection of so many such letters with me which make me cry when i read them to indulge in some of my mother's sentimental nature.
Subhash and his helpless love, a feeling i know too well.
It was the heron taking flight over the water, its great wings beating slowly and deliberately, looking at once encumbered and free. Its long neck was tucked in, dark legs dangling behind. Against the lowering sky the silhouette was black, the tips of its primary feathers distinct, the forked division of its toes.
He went back a third day, but was unable to see it anywhere. For the first time in his life, he felt a helpless love.

And something i used to do when i had a working radio. Holly and Subhash, one day,
Did you forget to shut it off? he asked her, as she turned down the radio's volume.
I keep it on. I hate coming back to a quiet house.

I really liked the portion where she writes about Udayan'd murder.
He thought of Durga Pujo coming again to Calcutta. As he was first getting to know America, the absence of the holiday hadn't mattered to him; but now he wanted to go home. The past two years, around this time, he'd received a battered parcel from his parents, containing gifts for him. Kurtis too thin to wear most of the time in Rhode Island, bars of sandalwood soap, some Darjeeling tea.
...This year no parcel came from his family. Only a telegram. The message consisted of two sentences, lifeless, drifting at the top of a sea.
Udayan killed. Come back if you can.

I am someone who believes that death should be shown or written only this way. This is how death is, all the time. It's nothing fancy needs no embellishment or flowery writing. He/she died. That will do.
While talking about Calcutta and Durga Pujo let us also not forget that it is casteist. Not all hindus celebrate puja. There are other narratives which are never so celebrated because they are not brahminical. Like this.
Every year at this time, Hindu Bengalis believed, she [Kali} came to stay with her father, Himalaya. For the days of Pujo, she relinquished her husband Shiva, before returning once more to married life. The hymns recounted the story of Durga being formed, and the weapons that were provided for each of her ten arms: sword and shield, bow and arrow. Axe, mace, conch shell, and discus. Indra's thunderbolt, Shiva's trident. A flaming dart, a garland of snakes.
Very easy tip for authors and filmmakers. Things that the dead use while they are living should be shown again if they die. Like here, after Udayan's murder, when Subhash goes back to Calcutta,
This was the enclosure where he and Udayan had played as children. Where they had drawn and practiced sums with bits of coal or broken clay. Where Udayan had run out the day they'd been told to stay in, falling off the plank before the concrete had dried.
Subhash saw the footprints and walked past them.

I could so see this as a shot in a film. The footprints set on the cement forever and the remaining one of the siblings walking past them after its owner's death. And again,
He pressed the buzzer that Udayan had installed. It still worked...Finally he heard his father clearing his throat, seeming to loosen the secretions of a long silence.

And the mother of the dead
She stopped at the marker by the edge of the lowland, rinsing the stone clear with water she drew from a small brass urn, the one she had used to bathe him and Udayan when they were small,...

And the trauma that the state leaves on people. Udayan was killed by the state after a raid. His father, after the death,
Though the combing raids had ended, his father still kept the key to the house under his pillow when he slept. Sometimes at random, sitting at the top of the padlocked house, he shone a flashlight through the grille, to see if someone was there.

And Gauri, Udayan's wife, in Udayan's room now, widowed,
...He [Subhash] watched as she retrieved an old section of newspaper and began to wrap the cover of the book he'd given her. He and Udayan used to do this together, after buying their new schoolbooks for the year.
All middle class siblings too.
About the state sponsored murder the author says,
...He was pointing a rifle at his back. Gauri and her mother-in-law were instructed to turn around, to walk back downstairs. So there was no opportunity to go further into the house to see the rooms that had been overturned. Clothes knocked off the lines strung along the terrace where they had been hung to dry that morning, wardrobe doors flung open. Pillows and quilts pulled off the beds, coals dumped from the coal basket, lentils and grains tossed out of Glaxo tins in the kitchen. As if they were looking for a scrap of paper and not a man.
The last line says it all. The rest of it is what is done to terrorize.
And Gauri who watched her husband walking towards death thinks,
Gauri remembered all the times she'd watched him from her grandparents' balcony in North Calcutta, crossing the busy street, coming to visit her.
After his death,
...She shut the door and the shutters to preserve whatever invisible particles of him floated in the atmosphere. She slept on the bed, on the pillow Udayan had used and that continued to smell for a few days of him, until it was replaced by her own odor, her greasy skin and hair.
This is one of my worst fears too. The odor of a person disappearing from things they used. Remember in 'Perfume: The Story of a Murderer how the hero frantically tries to preserve the smell of the woman he first killed? That.
And the depression which follows,
...She was unableto cry. There were only the tears disconnected to feeling, that gathered and sometimes fell from the corners of her eyes in the morning, after sleep.

In the first page of part IV i've jotted down this: 'the book makes me feel i'm here after the severest break up i have had. Crying without knowing why and sadness filled within me even though i'm at one of the happiest periods in my life so far. It's strange.'
Like in films, using objects repeatedly works really well too. Like how Gauri comes to America draped in the turquoise shawl Subhash gave her.
Glad that the author noted how even the most radical politics is sexist in nature because they too opposed Gauri's marriage to her dead husband's brother. Here:
...The party had opposed it, too. Like her in-laws, they expected her to honor Udayan's memory, his martyrdom.

Reminding us of Udayan's cement footsteps again, in Rhode Island, Subhash and Gauri
She looked back at the set of footprints they had made in the damp sand. Unlike Udayan's steps from childhood, which endured in the courtyard in Tollygunge, theirs were already vanishing, washed clean by the encroaching tide.

Something i hated again. I believe this sort of descriptions of the body of a woman both in literature and in films is equivalent to saying how clothes provoked, the shape of the body led to the sexual assault etc. I believe an arousal should not be depicted as arising from a change in clothes. Like here.
...Her hair hung bluntly along her jawbone, dramatically altering her face. She was wearing slacks and a gray sweater. The clothes covered her skin, but they accentuated the contours of her breasts, the firm swell of her stomach. The shape of her thighs. He drew his eyes away from her, though already a vision had entered, of her breasts, exposed...
...That night, asleep on the couch, he dreamed of Gauri for the first time. Her hair was cut short. She wore only a petticoat and a blouse. He was under the dining table with her. He was astride her, unclothed, making love to her as he used to make love to Holly. His body combining on the hard tiled floor with hers.
So the first fantasy of Subhash comes after Gauri wears clothes which accentuates her body's contours. Not okay for me.
I thought of my short film for which i had to make letterboxes. We had to construct a set and these letterboxes were everywhere in Kolkata. See this description.
In calcutta the names were painted onto wooden boxes with the careful strokes of a fine brush.
I did this myself, writing some bengali names in white paint. Memories of a shoot.
Motherhood: Gauri and Bela. I liked this relationship because it was not the perfect mother. She did not love Bela in the way mothers are supposed to. Sometimes she put her work ahead of her child.
With Bela, she was aware of time not passing; of the sky nevertheless darkening at the end of another day. She was aware of the perfect silence in the partment, replete with the isolation she and Bela shared. When she was with Bela, even if they were not interacting, it was as if they were one person, bound fast by a dependence that restricted her mentally, physically. At times it terrified her that she felt so entwined and also so alone.
...She waited for Subhash to take over, to allow her to leave, to attend her class or to study at the library. Fore there was no place to work in the apartment, no door she could shut, no desk where she could keep her things.

Simple things. Like a room of one's own. So necessary for women and yet never thought of. Taken for granted that she will find some space somewhere. Why does she need space anyway, to keep her things? What things? There is nothing called 'her things'. Precisely the problem. There are things called 'her room' and 'her things' and 'her space' and these are important things. Later we are told,
...the long task of raising Bela, was not bringing meaning to her life.
She was failing at something every other woman on earth did without trying. That should not have proved a struggle. Even her own mother, who had not fully raised her, had loved her; of that there had been no doubt. But Gauri feared she had already descended to a place where it was no longer possible to swim up to Bela, to hold on to her.

Caste again:
Water was pumped manually from the tube well, a series of bluckets filled up for the day's use, drinking water stored in urns. Sometime in the fifties they'd gotten a spetic tank. Before that there had been an outhouse by the entrance, and a man had come to carry their daily waste away on his head.
The author is talking about manual scavenging, performed by 'lower' castes. People carried other people's shit on their heads and it was considered normal.
She talks about the famine here
A cyclone the year before had destroyed paddy crops along the coast. But everyone knew that the famine that followed was a man-made calamity. The government distracted by military concerns, distribution compromised, the cost of war turning rice unaffordable.
She remembers dead bodies turning fetid under the sun, covered with flies, rotting on the road until they were carted away. She remembers some women's arms so thin that their wedding bangled, their only adornment, were pushed up past the elbow to prevent them from sliding off. Those with energy accosted people on the street, tapping strangers on the shoulder as they begged for the clouded starchy water that trickled out of a strained pot of rice and was normally thrown away. Phen.
It's called 'kanjivellam' in Malayalam. When i was in the habit of eating at home, i used to drink this with salt. I love it. Never knew that this was perhaps what helped people thrive in another part of the country when nobody had anything to eat because some people thought some human lives could be so worthless. Something someone i dearly loved used to do and which i would like to use in a film,
She'd extracted the bones from a single piece of fish, lining them up at the side of the plate like a set of her sewing needles.
Really liked this portion where Bijoli is upset after seeing Udayan's memorial stone desecrated by some neighbours.
Come forward, she calls out to those who are watching from their windows, their rooftops. She remembers the voice of the paramilitary, speaking through the megaphone. Walk slowly. Show your face to me. She waits for Udayan to appear amid the water hyacinth and walk toward her. It is safe now, she tells him. the police have gone. No one will take you away. Come quickly to the house. You must be hungry. Dinner is ready. Soon it will be dark. Your brother married Gauri. I am alone now. You have a daughter in America. Your father has died.
Want to make a sketch of this sight which is very common.
There was no dining table. On the floor was a piece of embroidered fabric, like a large place mat, for her to sit on. Her grandmother squatted on the flats of her feet, her shoulders hunched, arms folded across her knees, observing her.
Also this sight:
He saw his mother hunched over the black sewing machine she used to operate with her feet, pumping a pedal up and down, unable to talk because of the pins she held between her lips.
The slabs are uneven, forced up here and there by the roots of the trees.
The first time i went to buy sarees for my mother from Kolkata this was what i saw. It was different from home, sarees were never stored like that there.
One day they went into a sari store to buy saris for her grandmother and Deepa. White ones for her grandmother, colored ones for Deepa. They were made of cotton, rolled up on the shelves like fat starchy scrolls that the salesman would shake out for them.
A failed marriage described so beautifully
Though their marriage had not been a solution, it had taken her away from Tollygunge. He had brought her to America and then, like an animal briefly observed, briefly caged, released her. He had protected her, he had attempted to love her. Every time she had to open a new jar of jam, she resorted to the trick he'd taught her, of banging the edge of the lid three or four times with a spoon, to break the seal.
Finally, in Gauri's return to Calcutta, she does what a lot of people including me do whenever they think of their sad past. Imagine themselves in places in those times. A third person view of themselves. Like here,
She sat in the car, in snarled traffic, the atmosphere heavy with smog. She saw a version of herself, standing on one of the crowded busses, hanging on to a strap, wearing one of the cotton saris she'd worn to college. Going to meet Udayan somewhere he'd suggested, some tucked-away restaurant where no one would recognize them, where he would be waiting for her, where they could sit across from one another for as long as they liked.
Felt that the book resembles the God of Small Things in the way it ended as well. Memories, a chapter very much like The Cost of Living. The sun shining on Gauri's hair, when she was in love, when Udayan was alive... Please read this book. You need to feel it once.

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1 comment:

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