Jhumpa Lahiri Revisits BU To Talk About 'The Lowland'

Jhumpa Lahiri can tell you a thing or two about the Boston University English department. She has an M.A. in English, M.F.A. in Creative Writing, M.A. in Comparative Literature and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies. All that education, and local color, have been put to good use in her two collections of short stories and two novels, the latest being "The Lowland."

She returns to BU's Morse Auditorium at 7 p.m. Wednesday night to read from that novel and to talk with Daphne Kalotay. "The Lowland" ultimately didn't win the Man Booker Prize or the National Book Award and it didn't please every critic. But it pleased this one. Here's what I had to say when it came out.

Jhumpa Lahiri. (Marco Delogu)
Jhumpa Lahiri. (Marco Delogu)

The Jhumpa Lahiri story keeps adding intriguing chapters. She is now on the shortlist for the prestigious Man Booker Prize and a nominee for the National Book Award. Either or both would go nicely with her Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Hemingway Awards for her first book of short stories, “Interpreter of Maladies.” Born in London to Indian parents, raised in America, schooled at the University of Rhode Island and Boston University, where she has multiple degrees, Lahiri has been in the forefront of the assimilation-ethnocentrism literary dialogue since her 1999 debut.

She does, though, take issue with the term "immigrant fiction," noting in a recent New York Times interview that all American literature, except for Native American writing, has been the work of immigrants of one stripe or another.

True enough, though Lahiri brings such a unique vision of the 21st century iteration of the story that it’s easy to see her divorced from the Hawthornes, Cathers or Roths who preceded her. The issue is front and center in all her fiction, including the one that the Booker is looking at, “The Lowland,” her fourth book and second novel.

The focus is on Subhash, who as a young man leaves Calcutta for New England in the ‘60s while his brother, with whom he’s very close, stays behind, marries and gets involved in anti-government activities. Lahiri was taken to Calcutta by her parents and her evocation of both cultures is even more evocative and elegant than in the previous books.

Her tone is dispassionate but warm, making the narrative of the turbulent lives of the main characters seem more like a tone poem than a symphony. Here’s a sample of how she describes Subhash watching his daughter, Bela, distance herself, after his wife has walked out on them. (Subhash had rescued her from a dreary life in Calcutta.) There’s not a note of schmaltz although you can feel every bit of what he’s going through:

“The reduced elements of his life sat uneasily, one beside the other. It was neither victory nor defeat … She was on the verge of a new type of prettiness. Blossoming, in spite of having been crushed … She no longer sought him out … This new mood settled upon her swiftly, without warning, like an autumn sky from which the light suddenly drained.”

"The Lowland" cover. (Courtesy, Random House)
"The Lowland" cover. (Courtesy, Random House)

When you can write prose like that it almost doesn’t matter what the subject matter is, but that Zen-like ability to observe without commenting is even more effective in the passages of life in India amid the poverty and repression. It’s not just political repression, either, as Subhash’s parents are uncommunicative with him about crucial events that I won’t spoil here.

Back in New England, the issue of assimilation is never far from the door of Subhash and his wife, Gauri, but it’s never the issue. It’s not easy to pinpoint what is, though you certainly have a sense throughout of permanence vs. impermanence. How long can the brothers hold on to their bond, or Subhash and his daughter hold on to theirs? That the characters know they can't freeze time doesn't diminish their heartbreak.

Lahiri writes equally empathetically about Gauri, never really dissecting her brain but hinting at what might have driven her away from New England and her daughter. She becomes the intellectual of the family and as bewildered as she is at first by America she finds her way to the wired world:

“Too much is within her grasp now. First at the computers she would log on to at the library, replaced by the wireless connection she has at home. Glowing screens, increasingly foldable, portable, companionable, anticipating any possible question the human brain might generate. Containing more information than anyone has need for. So much of it, she observes, is designed to eliminate mystery, to minimize surprise.”

The rest of us are more fortunate. We have Jhumpa Lahiri to restore mystery, to maximize surprise.

More on 'The Lowland'

Listen to Lynn Neary's interview with Lahiri on NPR

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Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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