The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri (2013)

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. (Purchased for Kindle, Amazon Australia).
The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. (Purchased for Kindle, Amazon Australia).

I enjoyed Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, flew threw it like I have all of her books, but was ultimately not very impressed. She creates real, empathetic though not always likable characters, yet everything within the novel is so intensely banal. Even the beautiful is banal–the renditions of little things that make certain relationships important or painful are rendered exactly, identifiably, but so much so that although one might admire Lahiri’s ability to identify such minuteness, one also wonders whether it was worth identifying at all. Romantic love, disappointment, parental care and abandonment are such universal acts and emotions that perhaps any attempt to identify their essence becomes redundant. We know those feelings already, we don’t always need to read them on paper. There seems never to be any shock or excitement of the new in Lahiri’s work.

Readers of Lahiri’s past novels and short stories will already know much of the plot and themes of The Lowland: middle-class, professional Bengalis migrate to the north-eastern US and settle in university towns; cultural dislocation, and eventually acceptance, ensues. Where The Lowland departs from this predictable narrative is that a large portion of it is set in Calcutta. Two brothers grow up in Tollygunge during the 1960s and ’70s, a politically troubled time in West Bengal with Naxalite politics on the rise. One brother leaves for university in the US; the other becomes embroiled in radical politics. Disasters occur, and one brother ends up taking responsibility for parts of the other’s life.

I have visited Calcutta several times, but some commentators more intimately knowledgeable about its middle-class colonies than I have stated that Lahiri’s descriptions of Tollygunge are spot on, that she perfectly recounts its environment and mood. There is no doubt that much of Lahiri’s writing is beautiful in its sparseness, it propels the reader onwards because there is little to get mired down in. Yet a dissatisfying aspect of her writing is that much character development is telescoped. Only details necessary for plot development are retained, which could be a strength in short stories but in a novel the practice makes some characters seem one-dimensional, even harsh at times. I am reminded of a review I read of Lahiri’s work, in which the reviewer called her a “competent writer–nothing more, nothing less”. I feel that much more care and effort has gone into her writing than the label ‘competent’ suggests, but this adjective is illustrative of the accumulative effect of her efforts.

Undoubtedly the politics that appear in The Lowland are important and have rarely been discussed in English-language Indian writing (Mahasweta Devi covers much of the same ground in her large corpus, as does a memoir I reviewed a couple of years ago, Joya Mitra’s Killing Days). I feel that the communist politics have been used as a marketing tool for this novel, in both India and the west, ‘Lahiri is breaking out of the world of professional America’. But the Naxalite movement only serves as a backdrop in The Lowland; it may be interesting to those coming to the topic afresh, but to readers who know a bit about post-colonial Indian history there is nothing new here. The main focus is the interiority of the characters, the successes, failures and nuances of inter-personal relationships. The ‘lowland’ of the title is a patch of ground near the brothers’ home in Tollygunge that floods during the rains. It is used as a metaphor for everything in this novel, but by the end becomes a tired motif burdened by the weight of its own symbolism.

I wish Jhumpa Lahiri would do something different. Yet whatever she comes up with next I will likely devour, as will so many other readers.

Burmese Days, George Orwell (1934)

Burmese Days, by George Orwell. Harcourt: 1962 (1934).
Burmese Days, by George Orwell. Harcourt: 1962 (1934). (Purchased in Cambodia).

When I was about nine or ten years old my family bought its first video player, my parents got it for Christmas. But the only video we had to watch that Christmas was a cartoon version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm–my dad being an English teacher, he had brought it home from school. I’m the oldest child in my family, so my brother was about eight, and my sister would’ve been about five. Animal Farm is NOT a story for young children, not even in cartoon form, and I know we all have frightened memories of that Christmas, of the horse being taken to the glue factory! A few years later, Orwell’s 1984 is the first adult book I can remember reading, aged 13. I had been reading Sweet Valley High until then, much to the annoyance of my father (see how they turn out?)! I’m not sure I entirely understood the novel, but I had been told the storyline by my mum, so understood the concept, if not the execution. But despite Orwell filling in a couple of these firsts, I hadn’t read anything else of his until I picked up this copy of Burmese Days in Phnom Penh.

The novel is based in a small-town British jungle outpost in Burma in the 1930s. The  main protagonist is John Flory, a close-to-middle-aged single man who doesn’t fit in with the other imperial bureaucrats and military-men in town, but can’t quite bring himself to defy them in the ways he would like to:

“In the end the secrecy of your revolt poisons you like a secret disease. Your whole life is a life of lies. Year after year you sit in Kipling-haunted little Clubs, whisky to the right of you, Pink’un to the left of you, listening and eagerly agreeing while Colonel Bodger develops his theory that these bloody Nationalists should be boiled in oil. You hear your Oriental friends called ‘greasy little babus’, and you admit, dutifully, that they are greasy little babus. You see louts fresh from school kicking grey-haired servants. The time comes when you burn with hatred of your own country-men, when you long for a native rising to drown their Empire in blood. And in this there is nothing honourable, hardly even any sincerity. For, au fond, what do you care if the Indian Empire is a despotism, if Indians are bullied or exploited? You only care because the right of free speech is denied you. You are a creature of the despotism, a pukka sahib, tied tighter than a monk or a savage by an unbreakable system of tabus.” (p. 69)

Burmese Days critiques the arrogance and debauchery of the waning years of empire, and also serves as a good period piece, reminding us how British women were treated as chattel, ‘natives’ as little more than animals, and dissent within the ranks was not tolerated. I was also surprised by how entwined in ‘India’ Burma was back then: I knew it had been administratively treated as part of British India, but it was interesting to note the intermingling of the Burmese and Urdu languages in the life and administration of British Burma.

Burmese Days is an enjoyable and readable book, but there are good reasons why this, his first novel, doesn’t have the iconic status of Animal Farm or 1984. Like these novels it, too, is prescient and biting, but Burmese Days’ twilight-of-the-empire critique is overshadowed by its near-contemporary, A Passage to India. The plot and sense of place evoked in E. M. Forster’s classic is just more memorable. Nevertheless, Burmese Days is an intelligent book, and perhaps unfairly out-of-fashion these days. There are still discernible truths within it, appearing in private discussion in neo-post-colonial ex-pat culture in the ‘third world’, if not the official line any more: “He had forgotten that most people can be at ease in a foreign country only when they are disparaging the natives.” (p. 118) Recognisable sentiments like this help the contemporary culturally-western reader resist the temptation to look back on the times narrated in the novel and think ‘how far we’ve come’.

Asymptote’s take on the Wendy Doniger case

Most of what I’ve been reading on Penguin India’s decision to withdraw and pulp Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History is fairly similar: outraged and persuasive. I even wrote such a piece myself. But Eric Gurevitch’s analysis on the Asymptote blog is something a bit different, putting the controversy in a much more focused literary context. Worth reading here.

Change, Mo Yan (2012)

Change, by Mo Yan. Translated from Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. London, New York and Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2012 (2010).
Change, by Mo Yan. Translated from Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. London, New York and Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2012 (2010). (Purchased in Nepal).

Chinese? Yes, a radical departure from what I normally read, let alone review. I spent far too many years restricting my reading while completing my PhD that expanding it to other places and genres and even genders still feels a bit naughty but also quite liberating. This short piece of autobiographical fiction/ fictional autobiography (?) by one of China’s pre-eminent authors was published by Kolkata-based Seagull Books, and it is really this fact that drew me to it (and motivated my inclusion of it here).

Seagull Books is a very interesting press specialising in publishing translations of radical writers, or non-fiction on ideas that many mainstream publishers overlook. They have published a large body of Mahasweta Devi’s work in English translation; produce a series on censorship (which includes a title on censorship and Islam penned by Kamila Shamsie); as well as curate the series that Mo Yan’s Change belongs to, provocatively titled “What Was Communism?” and edited by Tariq Ali.

Seagull Books deliberately positions itself as an international publisher based in India, rather than an ‘Indian publisher’ which, rightly or not, is a label that can suggest inferior quality to outsiders (though certainly less so these days, with the entry of many international publishers to India). Seagull’s production quality is not only good, it is excellent–eye-catching and innovatively designed. The cover art on their books by Mahasweta Devi is iconic, and this series on communism is just as distinctive, with bold red and yellow designs.

And what about Change itself? Described as a “novella disguised as an autobiography (or vice versa)” I’m not sure it was the best introduction to Mo Yan, who I had been intending to read for some time. The interest in an ‘autobiography’ of a writer whose other work one hasn’t read is limited. But it is certainly a title fitting to this series, as the narrator (whether that is Mo Yan himself, or some fictionalised avatar) recounts growing up in an often illogically rigid communist China. More of Mo Yan’s titles, translated by Howard Goldblatt, appear in the series.

My commentary on the Doniger “The Hindus” case

the_hindus_rescaled

My commentary in Himal Southasian on the disgusting case, in which Penguin India succumbed to the irrational, fundamentalist petition against the American scholar’s book:

“The recent case of American Indologist Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009) being withdrawn by Penguin India and committed to pulping is another example of India’s succumbing to regressive politics. An out-of-court settlement was reached between Penguin and the complainants, a right-wing Hindu group called the Shiksha Bachao Andolan (the Save Education Movement), while the Saket court in Delhi was considering the complaint that had originally been filed in February 2010.”

Read the rest here.

Cobalt Blue, Sachin Kundalkar, 2013

Cobalt Blue
Cobalt Blue, by Sachin Kundalkar. Translated from the 2006 Marathi novel of the same name by Jerry Pinto. New Delhi: Hamish Hamilton, 2013. (Purchased in India).

I picked up this book at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January after being impressed by author Sachin Kundalkar and translator Jerry Pinto discussing how the translation process worked between them, in a session that I blogged about here and here. Marathi (the language of Maharashtra state, where Bombay is located) is not a language I’d read many translations from–and by ‘many’ I really mean ‘any that I can remember.’

Cobalt Blue was an excellent introduction to Marathi literature, and while I can’t speak for the original, Pinto’s translation is sharp and spare, in a good way. The short novel explores the relationships of a brother and a sister with the paying guest who moves in upstairs from their family. Both siblings fall in love with him, and interact with the mysterious and often aloof character in different ways. They do not communicate with each other effectively, thus deepening the tensions and mis-steps in their lives as they negotiate their attraction.

I was immediately compelled by the narrative style of the first part of the book, in which the brother speaks directly to ‘us’, taking us, the readers, as the object of his affections. “That you should not be here when something we’ve both wanted happens is no new thing for me. Today too, as always, you’re not here” the novel begins. This direct form of address is fresh and uncontrived, though possibly in part a result of the translation process (Pinto writes in his translator’s note that he grappled with how to translate Kundalkar’s intimate form of address in Marathi). During the second half, in contrast, I lost interest somewhat, as the sister’s version of events is told through journal entries. This disappointed me, as the form seemed reminiscent of the kinds of books I read as an older child or young teenager, ‘dear diary’ type things. The content, of course, was a world away from Judy Blume or whatever else I was reading then, but after the immediacy and urgency of the first half of the novel, this style seemed stale.

Nevertheless, Cobalt Blue is an unusual and beautiful book to ponder, not least because it says something that should be obvious but unfortunately is not to all: that homosexual and homoerotic lives, desires, practices, identities, or experiments are an integral part of Indian society and culture. Literature and other artistic media have been representing them for some time, and will continue to do so–hopefully with renewed vigour–even after the Indian Supreme Court’s disgraceful upholding of Section 377 of the Penal Code in December 2013.

Goat Days, Benyamin, 2012

Goat Days
Goat Days, by Benyamin. Translated from the 2008 Malayalam ‘Aadu Jeevitham’ by Joseph Koyippally. New Delhi: Penguin, 2012. (Purchased for Kindle, Amazon Australia).

(Shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, 2014)

Living in Nepal, the issues of migrant labour to, and remittances from, the Gulf are often in the news. The exploitation of young South Asian men–on building sites, in the hotel industry–is terrible, and often amounts to little more than slave labour. Nepalis are particularly favoured because they are ‘docile’ and will do what they’re told. Of course, not all experiences of migrant labour are bad–whether to the Gulf, or Malaysia, or wherever–but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that most are exploitative, at best, and violent, at worst.

Finally, some fiction on the topic. Though not from Nepal–Benyamin is a Malayali based in Bahrain, and writes of migrants from Kerala–the story could be applicable to young men from across the region. The narrator and an acquaintance from a small watery town in Kerala end up in the Arabian desert, working with goats. The dryness, the labour and the treatment they receive from their Arab supervisors dehumanise them, and Goat Days is ultimately about the strength of human spirit. The novel is less about what happens than the psychology and endurance of the narrator.

The novel originally appeared in Malayalam in 2008, and the English version was published in 2012. I wouldn’t call Goat Days brilliant literature, but it is a readable translation that introduces to the English literary world the life experiences of so many working class people of South Asia. I was disappointed, though, by a comment in the author’s afterword. Benyamin writes that the story he told is a true one, and he had been encouraged by a friend to meet the man who is at the centre of Goat Days and hear his story. “I thought it to be one of the typical sob-stories from the Gulf,” he writes. I don’t know if this phrasing is perhaps a result of translation, but it seemed disappointingly dismissive. Benyamin continues that the narrator’s story is remarkable and was worth telling, but this seemed to be overly exceptionalising a tale which is far from individual. Perhaps the details of Goat Days are unique, but the story isn’t, and it is here that its strength lies.