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

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(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.

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(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)

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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)

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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)

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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.]

A Change of Skies, Yasmine Gooneratne (1991)

A Change of Skies

Yasmine Gooneratne’s portrayal of the immigrant experience is as funny and poignantly ironic as Jhumpa Lahiri’s work on a similar topic is earnest. That is not necessarily a criticism of Lahiri’s work, but it demonstrates that not everything about the meeting and clashing of cultures need be deadly serious. A Change of Skies is the Sri Lankan-Australian academic and author’s first novel. Bharat and Navaranjini Mangala-Davasinha move to Australia from Sri Lanka in the late 1960s/early 1970s, initially temporarily, for Bharat to take up a lecturing position at Southern Cross University in Sydney. Friends and family warn them that Australia is a complete backwater, the ends of the earth, a cultural wasteland, and that soon they will be pining to return to the centre of civilisation, Sri Lanka. What was a five year stint becomes a permanent move. Bharat and Navaranjini even change their names to Barry and Jean Mundy, to fit in in Australia.

What makes Gooneratne’s style so appealing to me in this novel is that it is clear that her tongue is firmly in her cheek as she writes from both perspectives: she both mocks and praises aspects of both her adopted country and her homeland. I read A Change of Skies while leaving Australia, my own adopted home, and travelling to Asia, first Malayasia and afterwards India. It held so many parallels, perhaps inverted parallels, with my experiences of travelling to a place where social and public behaviours are different from those I have internalised. As a westerner (whatever that means, I am somewhat allergic to the term), descriptions in travel accounts of arrival in exotic Asia are all too familiar to me. I am bored of reading the clichés of the assaults on the senses that arrival in India (or China, or wherever) brings about. So Gooneratne’s inversion of this amused me. On arriving in Australia, Bharat observes, rather panicked:

“I became suddenly aware of a series of white lines that divided the road we were on into lanes. With a file of cars before and behind us, with similar files on our left and right, we seemed to speed along at an alarming rate in complete silence, the cars on our left and right now drawing level with us, now leaving us behind, now falling back, so that it seemed to me we were like racehorses all coursing onward together, separated from one another but moving with one consent towards a single goal.” (p. 58)

Just the other day I was complaining with an American woman about the incessant honking in Delhi. It’s enough to give anyone a headache, and frequently does me. But she was saying that Indian friends of hers in the US had expressed that when driving without the horn, they initially felt at risk, like other drivers wouldn’t know they were there…. Makes sense as long as all drivers do the same.

Stories of being horribly conned and ripped off in India are shared like greetings about one’s health, or the weather, between western travelers in India, and the result can often be a horrible over-defensiveness that leads to behaviour that nobody would ever consider acceptable at home, like telling a shop owner to f@#$ off when they invite you into their shop, or simply never trusting anyone and therefore missing out on kindnesses that would never occur at home (I was a couple of thousand rupees short of being able to pay in cash for something I wanted in a Kashmiri shop today, and my credit card declined–instead of me coming back later, the shop keeper told me to take my purchase and come back tomorrow to pay. I am still astonished). Again, Gooneratne’s descriptions of her characters’ return to Sri Lanka seemed to mirror my experiences at the moment. Bharat and Navaranjini are determined not to act like expats: “Expats make scenes, expats complain about the food being ‘off’ in expensive hotels, about faulty air conditioning, about the absence of toothpaste, about the dubious cleanliness of sheets, about the disgusting state of public lavatories. Expats make fools of themselves by losing their tempers. Nationals don’t do any of these things.” (p. 262) Replace “expat” with “tourist”, and you may get my point.

A charming and amusing quirk is Gooneratne’s naming of her Anglo-Australian characters after fish. As well as the main characters changing their names to Jean and Barry Mundy, Bharat/Barry’s workmates include Maude Crabbe, John Dory, Angel Fysshe, Pat Whitynge, and so on. Credit to Gooneratne, I picked up on this rather late. As well as having a comic effect, this is also a postcolonial writing back; Gooneratne explains in the Author’s Note: “For my Western characters I have used an ichthyic code modelled on what appears to have been a colonial tradition of naming natives of a colonised country after animals, vegetables, or articles of food” (p. 327).

I’m not sure how easy A Change of Skies is to get hold of these days; I noticed at least one online bookseller saying it was out of print, though I can’t confirm the accuracy of that. I picked up my copy at the legendary Canberra Lifeline Book Sale, and I strongly recommend others try to do the same.

After Love, Subhash Jaireth (2012)

After-Love

Indian-Australian geologist Subhash Jaireth’s After Love, published by Australian press Transit Lounge in 2012, is very different from much contemporary Indian writing. That is, if one could or should call this Indian writing. Jaireth is originally Punjabi, but lived in the USSR for almost a decade in the 1960s and ‘70s, and has lived in Australia since the 1980s. Set primarily in Russia and India, with Italy and Australia also making appearances, After Love is effortlessly cosmopolitan, in a way. It is not diasporic literature in the sense of Jhumpa Lahiri or Bharati Mukherjee, but neither is it really grounded in India.

Jaireth’s Russian connection is largely responsible for this uniqueness in tone, I would say. I attended Canberra’s Asia Bookroom’s discussion between the author and Claudia Hyles in November 2012. Jaireth said that as a young Punjabi student in Moscow in the 1960s, Russia seemed like a wonderful paradise: the people were friendly and welcoming, the food was cheap, cultural events were of high quality and accessible, healthcare and education were free. He touched upon the flipside of these positives—the lack of freedom of thought, speech and association, and this also features in the novel—but one got the impression that Jaireth still holds an overwhelming affection for the place he lived for so long, however changed it may now be. As Hyles commented, nine years is a lifetime.

After Love revolves around Vasu, an Indian student of architecture in Moscow, and Anna, his Russian wife. We see less of their courtship and love than we do of their lives parting. Hyles asked Jaireth about the title: should it be read as “in the pursuit of love”, or rather “once love has ceased”. The author commented that he had not considered the first meaning at all, that he had in fact meant the latter. What fills life once love has departed, love for a woman, or a place. But having read After Love, I think the former, rather more optimistic interpretation, should also be considered. Their wants and needs take them in different directions, they realise that their expectations of each other are too incompatible, but once their love for each other has dissipated, after love, they pursue love in different forms, in other avenues. Their lives are not devoid of love once their marriage ends.

Jaireth emphasised that the character of Vasu was not based upon himself, though there are some immediate parallels. Vasu was inspired by the author’s own experiences, but does not mirror them. Jaireth’s other interests also underpin much of the novel, particularly music and archaeology. It is a very rich and intricate novel, deceptively measured on the surface, but harbouring immense emotional tension and passion. I hope that this beautiful book is made available to readers outside of Australia, because it adds a unique voice and style to contemporary South Asian writing.

Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri (2008)

 

Jhumpa Lahiri seems to know death very well, and the fact that surrounding death, before and after, is irrepressible life. Loss is infused through all these stories—loss of a parent, of a relationship, of a friendship, of a lover. Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of eight short stories: five stand-alone, and three that are interconnected. Like her previous books, The Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, Lahiri writes about the Bengali immigrant milieu that she knows best, and the tone here is overwhelmingly melancholic.

In the title story, “Unaccustomed Earth”, Ruma is the mother of a young child, whose own mother died shortly before. She grieves for her own sake, but also for her son, Akash, who will not remember his grandmother:

“Akash had no memory of her mother. She had died when he was two, and now, when she pointed her mother out in a photograph, Akash would always say, “she died,” as if it were something extraordinary and impressive her mother had done. He would know nothing of the weeks her mother had come to stay with Ruma after his birth, holding him in the mornings in her kaftan as Ruma slept off her postpartum fatigue.” (p. 17)

The emotions Lahiri describes are not extraordinary, they are mundane, but in this insignificance lies their significance—it is very difficult to capture such raw, simple emotions in words:

“With the birth of Akash, in his sudden, perfect presence, Ruma had felt awe for the first time in her life. He still had the power to stagger her at times—simply the fact that he was breathing, that all his organs were in their proper places, that blood flowed quietly and effectively through his small, sturdy limbs. He was her flesh and blood, her mother had told her in the hospital the day Akash was born. Only the words her mother used were more literal, enriching the tired phrase with meaning: “He is made from your meat and bone.” It had caused Ruma to acknowledge the supernatural in everyday life. But death, too, had the power to awe, she knew this now—that a human being could be alive for years and years, thinking and breathing and eating, full of a million worries and feelings and thoughts, taking up space in the world, and then, in an instant, become absent, invisible.” (46)

Lahiri’s attempts to represent the ordinary emotions and events of living also constituted one of my problems with the collection, however. After the first couple of stories, it all seemed a bit samey. All of the protagonists were Bengali, middle class, immigrants (or second generation) in the US (all in the northeast, too), professional, and between 20 and 40 years of age. I get it, this is Lahiri’s background, and she writes what she knows, but I felt that the repetition of this stock character type in Unaccustomed Earth got rather boring. The short story genre didn’t particularly help here—as soon as I got used to one of these characters (all were different in temperament or ambition) it was time to move on to the next one. Overall I preferred Lahiri’s The Namesake, which explores very similar life situations, but without the jarring change necessitated by the short story. Despite being exemplary examples of the genre (I hope she is taught at high school around the world), Unaccustomed Earth also proved to me why I have always found this form unsatisfying.

But despite these hesitations, Unaccustomed Earth is a devastatingly beautiful book. Just when things were starting to feel a bit banal again, Lahiri returned to some finely-tuned emotional insights. The final lines of the final story (one that I had been finding slightly irritating) left me reeling: “It might have been your child but this was not the case. We had been careful, and you had left nothing behind.” (p. 333)