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.


Dispatch from JLF on Asymptote blog


(L-R: Rahul Soni, Carlos Rojas, Jerry Pinto, Sachin Kundalkar, Geetanjali Shree)

A look back on the “Woodstock, Live 8, and Ibiza” of world literature

“The Jaipur Literature Festival, which just hosted its tenth edition, has been called “the Woodstock, Live 8 and Ibiza of world literature, with an ambience that can best be described as James Joyce meets Monsoon Wedding.” In 2013, over a quarter of a million footfalls were recorded, with 2014 promising even higher numbers. Travelling to the JLF this year (my third festival visit) from Kathmandu on a work-related trip, I attended days two, three and four. The full programme, over the course of five days, featured over 200 sessions in six venues. This year’s poor weather may have dampened things (quite literally) thanks to chilly thunderstorms throughout north-western India on day five and cold temperatures and fog on the other days—but the uncomfortably large crowds continued to congregate, turning the Diggi Palace grounds into something akin to Tokyo’s Shinjuku train station during rush hour.”

Read the rest at the Asymptote blog.

Jaipur Literature Festival 2014- Day 2

The biggest perk of my job in Kathmandu so far has been a last-minute trip accompanying my boss to the 2014 Jaipur Literature Festival. I returned from a three week holiday to Australia and Cambodia fully expecting to wallow in the rest of the Kathmandu winter, barely enduring tepid bucket showers and twelve-hours-a-day power cuts, missing my partner, with few lights on the horizon expect the monsoon season and hot showers again.

Less than two weeks later I’m in Jaipur, staying in 5 star luxury at the ITC Rajputana! And doing two of my most favourite things–being in India (all the better, Rajasthan) and being bookish.

(The lobby of my home for four nights, the ITC Rajputana hotel)

Being a work trip, we haven’t come for the full five days of the festival, and I’m busy jumping around between sessions so haven’t been able to do the same amount of reporting as I did for the 2013 JLF (see day 1 here, day 2 here, day 3 here, day 4 here, and day 5 here). My experience of the festival this year has been somewhat different, but I think that’s worth reporting in itself.

Our first day at the festival was day 2, Saturday. The crowds are even worse this year, and there are 6 different stages at the Diggi Palace, as well as a separate publishing event, Bookmark, being held at Narain Niwas a short drive away. The crowds have been crippling: it was always the case that if you weren’t early for a session, you wouldn’t get a seat, but now there isn’t even standing room if you don’t arrive early. Surely the organisers will have to start seriously thinking about this for future years, either by setting it in alternative or parallel venues, or perhaps introducing some kind of token fee system for some sessions.

Day 2 began, for me, with an interesting session on the global novel, featuring Ethipian-American writer Mazaa Mengiste, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Franzen, Jim Crace, and Chinese-British Xiaolu Guo, and moderated by Chandrahas Choundhury. The whole gamut of perspectives on that slippery term ‘global literature’ were put forward. Jhumpa Lahiri stated the common opinion (among literary and academic types, anyway) that ‘global’ is a current marketing term for literature and music, and that perhaps ‘international’ or ‘universal’ is more apt for the kind of literature being discussed. Mazaa Mengiste shared a different opinion, telling the audience about a cousin of hers who moved from their home country to Italy, and then Bulgaria, and finally the US, and is now a filmmaker. This kind of ‘global’ citizen is the person writing truly global literature, sharing experiences and entering language worlds that are beyond simple marketing categories. Jim Crace held a much more simplistic perspective, stating that, to him, global literature is that which intrigues readers from outside, that gives the broader world an insight into Nigeria or Poland or Brazil. But, as Jonathan Franzen rightly suggested, this perspective runs the risk of being simply a nostalgic exoticisation.

Other highlights of day 2 were the horrendously cliche-titled panel ‘Behind the Veil’ which brought together women writers from Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Somalia, moderated by the ever-wonderful Urvashi Butalia; and a discussion between talented Nepali author Manjushree Thapa, new Bangladeshi author Farah Ghuznavi (see my review of her short story collection Fragments of Riversong in The Asian Review of Books), and Indian feminist publisher Ritu Menon. Someone had pointed out to me earlier in the day that it seemed as if women writers were being put together, leaving the ‘general’ or ‘mainstream’ panels male dominated. This may be true to some degree, but these panels consisting entirely of women were very well attended, and one young lad was brave enough to ask “why don’t more men support feminism?” A good question, which prompted just wry smiles.


And the Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini (2013)

And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini. New York: Riverhead Books, 2013. (Borrowed copy).

I am not a fan of Khaled Hosseini’s first book, The Kite Runner, but sometimes I feel that I’m the only person in the world to dislike the book (its convolution, implausibility, opportunism…) as it was so immensely popular. Sometimes you have to wonder if your own taste is flawed, particularly when people whose opinions on books you usually value can have such differing perspectives. But after reading And the Mountains Echoed I can confidently say that I am not a fan of Khaled Hosseini as an author. Much of this has to do with what I think he represents for western (particularly American) readers, a sort of “native informism” that isn’t properly ‘native’ (to put it very crudely) or informative. But that is a different rant and a different essay. Meta-criticism aside, And the Mountains Echoed was too sprawling and eventually flat.

It started very powerfully, demonstrating that on some levels, Hosseini can be a good storyteller. The narrator tells an old Afghan tale of a family forced to give up its youngest, most beloved child to a demon. The father goes mad with grief, but discovers in time that his lost child has been given a better life, and the rest of the family prospered, through the act of sacrifice. The moral is that sacrifice for the greater good is sometimes necessary, but also that one’s desires for possession can be selfish and that perhaps letting go of attachments is the right thing to do, if not always the easiest. And the Mountains Echoed brings this fable into the twentieth century, beginning in 1950s Afghanistan when a young village girl is bought from her family and beloved brother by a wealthy, bored, childless Afghan couple. She is promised a better life with her adoptive parents, which she does receive, but the ramifications of the displacement echo throughout generations. The search for lost history, roots, and family travels across continents–to the US, unsurprisingly, but also to Greece and France–and time, bringing the novel into the twenty-first century with a lot of meandering and jumping across the decades.

This search for that which has been lost is at the heart of the novel, but there is little else convincingly tying the 400 pages together. A non-linear narrative, as Hosseini has used, can be an effective way of creating suspense and keeping the narrative interesting. It is, though, an over-used device employed when there is not enough substance to the plot, characters, or other aspects of the novel to retain the reader’s interest. This felt like the case with And the Mountains Echoed. The more creative, surprising thing for Hossein to have done would have been to employ a linear structure. The power of the story, particularly the psychological traumas various characters face over many years, could have been retained this way, in fact heightened. This narrative ‘experimentation’ (and I use scare quotes because narrative non-linearity is hardly novel) is not a lone example of Hosseini being needlessly ornate. A large section of the novel is narrated through a letter, and the frequent references to and invocations of the reader of the letter, a Greek man implicated in the plot, are very tiresome and unnecessary. Hosseini seemed reticent to employ an omniscient narrator throughout his novel, even though the complex history and multiple characters and locations really called for one.

Multi-generational sagas that span continents can be impressive books, but only when they are done flawlessly. Hosseini, in And the Mountains Echoed threw in so many irrelevant characters that didn’t plausibly have any reason to care for the separation or reunification of the central family that, ultimately, I didn’t understand why I was being asked to care for this family, either. The potential emotional power that And the Mountains Echoed began with was completely lost through too many poorly executed literary flourishes.


The Space Between Us, Thrity Umrigar (2006)


I’m always a little wary of novels written by teachers of creative writing; Dan Brown is an example of why one may need to be. The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar, a teacher of creative writing in the US, exhibited that slightly forced, something-less-than-organic type of writing that I believe characterises a lot of literature by such professionals. This was evident from the opening lines: 

“The thin woman in the green sari stood on the slippery rocks and gazed at the dark waters around her. The warm wind loosened strands of scanty hair, pulling them out of her bun. Behind her, the sounds of the city were muted, shushed into silence by the steady lapping of the water around her bare feet.”

The woman is thin, the sari is green, the rocks are slippery, the water is dark… Reminds me of a high school creative writing assignment, where we were told to add adjectives to make our images more vivid. This opening got The Space Between Us off to a formulaic start that it doesn’t quite recover from. But neither does it try to.

Umrigar’s novel revolves around the character of Bhima, an elderly maid who has served a Parsi family in Bombay for many years. At the beginning, Bhima’s seventeen year old granddaughter Maya, who she has brought up and, with the generosity of her employers, educated, is pregnant. Not only is this shameful to Bhima, but it looks to disrupt Maya’s education, a heartbreaking loss for an illiterate grandmother who wanted to see her family move out of the slums into a middle-class existence. The other life that The Space Between Us follows is Sera, Bhima’s middle-aged Parsi employer. Though benefiting from wealth and privilege in ways that Bhima never could, Sera’s life has not been happy, with an abusive husband and manipulative mother in law. Despite the enormous gulf in experience and opportunity between the two women, a kind of friendship has developed between Bhima and Sera over many years, forged through common gender-based struggles. The Space Between Us looks at how all of this unravels.

Like Umrigar’s prose style, the characters, too, were rather formulaic. I do not doubt that people exactly like Bhima, Sera and their offspring exist in Bombay and elsewhere. But it was all too obvious. Bhima was naive, and though not ignorant, her decisions were too blindingly stupid to be of much interest. Similarly, Sera’s middle-class angst over the treatment of servants, but at the same time her complete inability to behave ethically, was so obvious as a literary trope that it was boring. The Space Between Us was not without its positive points, and some scenes were certainly poignant, particularly when Bhima lamented the inability of those without money, education, and connections to ever really drag themselves out of poverty, no matter what they do. But some subtlety, or unpredictability, would have made this a better novel.

I don’t generally like to enter into that strand of pseudo-criticism that admonishes Indian English language writers for writing to a foreign audience. I think it’s futile, unproductive, and beside the point. But Umrigar’s blatant writing for a US audience became grating. For instance, in a government hospital that Bhima visits, she is verbally abused by the arrogant doctor on duty:

“”It’s a hopeless situation,” he said to himself but just loud enough that Bhima heard him. “This whole hospital–everything–it’s all hopeless. Should’ve gone to ‘M’rica when I had a chance. At least they have respect for human life there.”” (p. 150)

Of course, this could be added ironically by Umrigar, a comment on how the grass always seems greener on the other side. But the lack of a tone of irony elsewhere leads the reader to suspect not.

At other points the over-the-top cultural commentary almost prompted me to put this novel down and not pick it up again:

“”This joint family system is a curse on India, I tell you,” Jehroo said. “Countless women have been sacrificed to its cause.” She looked out of the restaurant to where a young white man wearing baggy, floral pants and printed, loose-flowing shirt, stood talking to a woman in a cotton skirt carrying a backpack. “You know, we Indians talk about these Westerners and how they kick their children out of their homes when they turn eighteen, how they put their elders in old people’s homes, how they don’t have the same love for family that we do. But sometimes I wonder if we’re really as superior as we think we are. What’s the point of everyone living together if all it does is cause kit-pit at home? Better to go your own separate ways than always fighting-fighting.” (p. 190)

Granted, this passage depicts a minor character in conversation, and does not necessarily represent the author’s views. And the critique is largely of Indian cultural norms, not “western” ones. But these types of unnuanced generalisations about cultural practices are completely unhelpful, as well as being generally very wrong. Reading parts of this book reminded me of a friend’s anecdote about reading in a Chinese student’s essay that when a “westerner’s” child falls over, they (we) are likely to just leave it there, because they (we) don’t care about family. I am not suggesting that Umrigar’s novel endorses these types of damaging falsehoods, but there could have been a more sophisticated way of exploring issues around modernity and changing conceptualisations of the family in contemporary, urban India. 

Similarly, the characters themselves are frequently just vehicles for social messages, and rather blunt ones at that. Bhima is meant to be an illiterate slum-dweller. Sometimes she expresses knowledge and opinions that are entirely out of keeping with her educational status, and yet at others she expresses ignorance beyond belief for any grown woman with a degree of innate intelligence, uneducated though she is. For example, Bhima is thinking about the “white-skinned ferangas” in Colaba, the south Bombay neighbourhood where tourists congregate:

“Serabai had once explained to her why these people had yellow hair and skin the color of a hospital wall–about how something was missing from their bodies and how they had to come to warm places like Bombay to darken their skin. She felt sorry for them then, seeing their long hair and shabby clothes, wanted to give them money, but Sera laughed at that and said she needn’t pity them, they actually were very proud of their white skin. How can you be proud if something is missing from your body? Bhima wanted to ask, but before she could, Sera said that they didn’t need money from her and that they came from places far richer than she could imagine. Now Bhima was sure that Sera was lying to her because one look at their dirty hair, faded shirts, and torn blue pants, and any fool could see that these untidy, colorless people were very poor.” (p. 93)

No doubt the ignorance of the world required to generate these types of comments certainly exists, but I’m not convinced that the character of Bhima needed to express them. The inconsistencies in her worldview ultimately make her into a caricature of a lower class, lower caste, urban slum dweller.

There is another layer of The Space Between Us that is more potentially interesting, and that is its representation of Bombay. Like so many other works of fiction that the city features in, Bombay is more than just a setting, it is an active presence that influences and interferes with the characters’ lives. But, this novel’s contribution to this sub-genre (if we can even call it that) is perhaps more interesting as one of several, as an example within a larger body of contemporary work, than as a singular piece of work. Rashmi Varma’s The Postcolonial City and its Subjects: London, Nairobi, Bombay that I reviewed for the academic journal Modern Fiction Studies earlier this year uses The Space Between Us as one if its Bombay case studies, and after having read the novel I am inclined to revisit that chapter. This is certainly a flawed novel in many ways, but perhaps one of enduring interest because of its faults.

(The Space Between Us, Thrity Umrigar, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Harper Perennial, 2007)


Gods Without Men, Hari Kunzru (2011)


I am a big fan of Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist (reviewed in January 2012), but I do remember things taking quite a while to fall into place, for my question of “where is this all going?” to be answered, and spectacularly at that. Patience is not my strongest asset (ie, I don’t possess any) as an all-round person, let alone as a reader, so I found myself asking the same questions about how the multiple strands might eventually tie together in Gods Without Men. This is an intriguing novel, clever and broad, but ultimately perplexing and deeply strange. 

The blurb on the back of my paperback edition reads, simply: “In a remote town, near a rock formation known as the Pinnacles, lives intertwine, stories echo, and the universal search for meaning and connection continues.” And that just about sums it up. The novel jumps between the 1940s, the late 2000s, the 1950s, 60s and ’70s, and the 1770s, all set in the Californian desert, with the bulk of the narrative centering on events in 2008. This all seems a bit gratuitous at first, a structuring device to settle on for want of better structure. And I do still think this is partly true, but as the various strands over the centuries and the decades came together, it proved less jarring. The core of the story, though, revolves around a young family from New York, Sikh second-generation immigrant dad Jaz, his Jewish wife Lisa, and their four year old, autistic son, Raj. Because of the multiple narratives, it’s likely that not all readers would consider this the central story. It is, certainly, one of them though.

Raj’s developmental problems have put enormous strains upon his parents, both personally and as a couple. Tensions arising from their different cultural backgrounds had lain dormant until the stress of having an unwell child brings them to the surface. On a family holiday to California, their relationship becomes explosive, and shortly afterwards Raj mysteriously disappears out in the desert. I won’t give away the rest of the plot, but what transpires is that the desert is a weird, ancient place with stories and pulls that most people cannot hope to understand. All they can do is interact with it on the terms that it allows. 

I have limited knowledge of American literature, and I suspect that this kept much of the novel inaccessible to me. Kunzru is a British Indian writer, not American, but Gods Without Men is so firmly rooted in its place, the Californian desert, that I can’t help but feel there must be a lot of intertextuality going on with the literature of the western US, or at least the films and music of it. I would be interested in hearing anyone’s thoughts on this.

The part that was familiar to me, though, was that recounting Jaz’s second-generation Punjabi immigrant angst:

“This was how you did it. Work hard; keep away from the blacks; remit money home for weddings, farm equipment, new brick-built houses whose second or even third storeys would rise up over the fields to show the neighbours that such and such a family had a son in Amrika or UK. Wherever in the world you happened to be, in London or New York or Vancouver or Singapore or Baltimore MD–you really lived in apna Punjab, an international franchise, a mustard field of the mind. All the great cities were just workhouses in which you toiled for dollars, their tall buildings and parks and art galleries less real than the sentimental desi phantasm you pulled round yourself like an electric blanket against the cold.” (p. 53)

Jaz grew up in Baltimore, but his large extended family clung to their Indian origins, disapproving of his marriage to a white Jewish girl, and his decision to shave his beard and cut his hair. Jaz’s feelings towards his family become frustrated in his early adulthood, and quite venomous later on. After Raj goes missing, they suggest that it is a blessing, a chance for he and Lisa to try again for a “normal” child. Despite Jaz’s own ambivalent feelings towards his son, he is disgusted by their attitude. 

Kunzru’s Wikipedia page (authoritative as it is!) states that he is fascinated with UFOs, and this is one of the threads running through Gods Without Men, centered on a 1960s new age hippy cult. But it also says that at a young age he rejected religion. This surprised me, as the ending felt like some kind of religious revelation, a post-modern meditation on the fine line between religion and spirituality. Yet, it could also be interpreted as a statement on the power of humans and nature and the landscape, as they are and as it is, rather than a suggestion that we were put here by anyone. Alien or god.

(London: Penguin, 2012. Paperback)


The Good Muslim, Tahmima Anam, 2011

The Good Muslim

Tahmima Anam’s The Good Muslim is her sequel to A Golden Age, which I reviewed in December 2011. But calling it a sequel doesn’t quite do it justice because it surpasses her earlier work in complexity and strength. And while it could be said that with A Golden Age the Bangladesh War of Independence of 1971 provided a ready setting to which the characters responded, in The Good Muslim, Anam had to create a setting with no prompt.

Anam returns to her central characters of A Golden Age, Maya and Sohail, thirteen years on, but prior knowledge of them is merely helpful, not essential, giving The Good Muslim stand-alone strength. One of Anam’s authorial skills is to make the reader empathise with unlikeable characters. Maya is headstrong to the point of arrogance; so independent that she shuts out those close to her; she is politically engaged, but so idealistic that it she actually reaches back around the corner to naivete. Sohail, in this novel, turns to religion as solace for the horrors of the war he was part of as a young man in 1971. He is the good Muslim of the title, but “good” refers to pious, devout, rather than other readings of the word, kind, generous, pleasant. His is a religion detached from this world. Maya, on the other hand, “had taught herself away from faith. She had unlearned the surahs her mother had recited aloud, forgotten the soft feather of air across her forehead when Ammoo whispered a prayer and blew the blessing out of her mouth. She had erased from her memory all knowledge of the sacred, returned her body to a time before it had been taught to kneel, to prostrate itself.” (pp. 205-6)

The Dhaka of 1984 is very different from that of 1971. Bangladesh is independent, but is at risk of losing much of what was fought for, as a dictator has taken over. Many people have chosen to wilfully forget the lessons of the war, but Maya is determined not to let this happen more than it already has:

“Thirteen. Her broken wishbone of a country was thirteen years old. Didn’t sound like very long, but in that time the nation had rolled and unrolled tanks from its streets. It had had leaders elected and ordained. It had murdered two presidents. In its infancy, it had started cannibalising itself, killing the tribals in the south, drowning villages for dams, razing the ancient trees of Modhupur Forest. A fast-acting country: quick to anger, quick to self-destruct.” (p. 103)

The knowledge of something that has been so hard-won slipping away with the realities of corruption, identity politics, and disenfranchisement is perhaps something that many who have been involved in revolutionary or socially transformative movements can understand, especially in this part of the world. I can understand Maya’s plight, intellectually and theoretically, but on a personal level, the level on which I reach her character, I cannot help but see her idealism as foolish. But perhaps this cynicism comes from never having been involved in something that has the potential to actually make the world, or a piece of the world, for some people, a better place. To see that slip away must be devastating.

Anam does not shy away from the big and painful issues, and she achieves power in this, I think, through her creation of such ambivalent characters. After the war, Maya had worked as a doctor performing abortions on women pregnant after rape. These abortions were not only sanctioned and encouraged by the government, but almost forced. Maya had seen her work as patriotic, as important as the guerrilla fighting that the men, her brother included, had done. The ethical question of the work aside—and this is not something that Anam treats lightly—Maya understandably wants to be given credit for doing what she could, as a young, educated woman, for her country’s freedom struggle, but is fighting dismissal from the men:

“When he [Sohail] asks her about her work at the Women’s Rehabilitation Centre, she snaps, what, you don’t think women are victims of war too?
He thinks of all the people who have died—the enemy combatants, and the people he didn’t save, and his friend Aref, and all the boys who went to war and were killed. Every day he thinks of them. How very selfish of her to want a piece of that.” (p. 125)

After reading A Golden Age I wouldn’t have expected it to have a sequel, but here it is. I wonder if Anam’s next project will be a third in the series? I think there is still room for movement and growth with these characters, so I wouldn’t be surprised if something along these lines is Anam’s next offering, and I will watch closely for it.

The Good Muslim was short-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and for good reason, though it didn’t win.

[The Good Muslim, Tahmima Anam, New Delhi: Penguin, 2012. First published in the UK by Canongate Books, 2011.]