(A Quarterly International Peer-reviewed Refereed e-Journal
Devoted to English Language and Literature)
In Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, there is a procession of new women who are not ideals but types. They are free but there is no joy of life in them. They suffer from self-chosen deprivations. Most of them are women of Indian origin, living in India or America. Their actions are considered as social aberrations in India; never ideal for Indian womanhood. But then, life is what it is; they have acted and reacted in circumstances surrounding their lives. Lahiri seems to have given a message of woman’s Lib in ultra modern Indo-American society. The trend of modern feminism is also reflected in the women presented in this novel. Women from other countries and India converge in American permissive society.
Keywords: Feminism, Womanhood, Deprivation, Convergence, Permissive Society
The story in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, begins with two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, and their parents living in Tollygunge, Calcutta, in the forties of the last century. The brothers with a difference of two years in age grow up in the same room like twin brothers. From their teens they begin parting ways in ideas and ambitions. While Subhash, the elder one, migrates to United States for further studies as a young man, Udayan, the younger one, is impregnated with communist ideas and joins the Naxalite movement in Calcutta during the seventies of the last century. Falling in love he marries first and is killed within two years by the police. The unfortunate pregnant widow is unwelcome to her parents-in-laws but her would-be child is welcome. Hearing the news Subhash comes and marries Gauri, his younger brother’s wife. More the story unfolds through the characters more we know the complexities of their life.
Before meeting Gauri Subhash had some affairs with a married woman, Holly, with a child, having differences with her husband. It was a love making affair for a while. Neither of them was deeply drawn to the other though Subhash felt jealous of her husband when she reconciled with him.
Subhash and Gauri shared a bed at night, they had a child in common. Almost five years ago they had begun their journey as husband and wife, but he was still waiting to arrive somewhere with her. A place where he would no longer question the result of what they’d done. She never expressed any happiness, she did not complain. (The Lowland 159)
Subhash’s suggestion to Gauri to have a child with him to give a sibling to their child, Bela, didn’t find favour with her. She said that she would think of it in a year or two as she wasn’t thirty yet.
The writer makes Gauri’s place explicit in respect of her deceased husband, “Nor was her love for Udayan recognizable or intact. Anger was always mounted to it,” (The Lowland 164) because of his betraying her in dying at a young age giving her a child to raise, depriving her of all happiness in life. Eventually, while continuing to live in the same house Subhash turned away from her. “He no longer wanted to touch her in bed” (The Lowland 176).
Though she cared for Bela, kept her clean and combed and fed, she seemed distracted. Rarely did Subhash see her smiling at Bela, rarely ever kissing her spontaneously. Once pulled by her mother before other school going children and their parents, Bela was so grieved that she publicly said, “I don’t like you . . . I’ll never like you, for the rest of my life” (The Lowland 170).
After a long journey back from India to Rhode Island, father and daughter found that Gauri had left forever in their absence. A letter on the table said:
I have not made this decision in haste. If anything, I have been thinking about it for too many years. You tried your best. I tried, too, but not as well. We tried to believe we would be companions to one another. . . . Around Bela . . . all the ways I’ve failed her . . . . I believe you are a better father than Udayan would have been. Given what I am doing, it makes no sense for her connection with you to undergo any change. (The Lowland 211)
She left the name of a University which hired her and the place name, California. Subhash didn’t try further to find her.
Gauri lived alone feeling erotically for a man for some days, self-indulging in activities to quench her hunger. Once she faced a lesbian in one of her ex-students, in a sense, Lorna, younger to her. “She had no recollection of crossing a line that drove her to desire a woman’s body. With Lorna she found herself already on the other side of it” (The Lowland 238). She was forty-five with a body already breaking down. Before that she had never a lover younger to her. It was suddenly for a day as chosen by Lorna, even in the campus that she indulged with her in love making, as they call it. After some days Lorna left for distant place and it was forgotten.
The writer summarily tells us that though she had her relationship changed from a wife to a widow without a choice, she deliberately changed her role in quick succession thereafter from a sister-in-law to wife, then a lone woman as if divorced and from mother to childless woman. With the exception of losing Udayan, she had actively chosen to take the other steps. Though Gauri didn’t expect killing of Udayan by police she knew at the time of marriage what dangerous path he had been crossing in life. But that was a compulsion for being loved and loving, occurred only once in her life. “She had married Subhash, she had abandoned Bela. She had generated alternative versions of herself, she had insisted at brutal cost on these conversions. Layering her life only to strip it bare, only to be alone in the end”, narrated the writer The Lowland (240). Events came one after another depriving her of all traditional woman’s wealth. She lived almost a deserted life.
Bela was educated as an environmentalist on her own choice and inclination; concerned for the society, plant life and surrounding environment; living economically without the least of fashion. She had shown her role as a social worker, inheriting the tendency of her real father, as the novelist wishes to inform us. That Udayan was a social worker, teaching children and helping other helpless persons is mentioned in one paragraph, in passing. The writer wants to show that helping the poor is a part of communist character. Bela grew up very practical unlike her bookish mother, not caring for a career as an educationist. She plunged into her job, living in community.
Bela lived nearly half her life on her own besides the first 18 years with her father. She craved for a different pace sometimes, different from what she became; not knowing in full what else she could be; sort of aimlessness. She liked to live with her father, her only family and sometimes felt drained. On a visit to her father she asked, “How is Elise?” (The Lowland 262) Elise Silva, originally a Portuguese settled in Rhode Islands, a widow with brown complexion was a newly introduced friend of her father who he knew as a history teacher of Bela, narrates the novelist. After a smiling interlude which her father took to be a good news of her meeting a good friend happening of which he expected some day or the other in her life. But no,
“She took a deep breath, exhaled.
“I’m pregnant’, she said.
“She was more than four months along. The father was not a part of her life, nor aware of her condition. He was simply someone Bela had known, with whom Bela had been involved, perhaps for a year, perhaps merely for an evening. She didn’t say.” (The Lowland 263)
She wanted to come home again and give birth to her child in Rhode Island. She wanted him to provide the same home for her child that he had provided for her. She wanted not to have to work for a while.
The coincidence coursed through him, numbing, bewildering. A pregnant woman, a fatherless child. Arriving in Rhode Island, needing him. It was a reenactment of Bela’s origins. A version of what had brought Gauri to him, years ago. (The Lowland 264)
There was an upheaval in the father’s world. Both of them stayed up in the dark. Whole night. When light broke the father tried to explain or confess,
“I’m not your father.
“Who are you, then?
“Your stepfather. Your uncle. Both those things.’” (The Lowland 266)
Then she heard what was necessary. In autumn her daughter was born. And she expressed more love for her father for what he had done.
Bela could not neither blame her father nor her mother for not telling her the truth of her birth. For the same reason her child might one day blame her for not disclosing the secret of her birth. As if by the turn of events, she could realize why her mother was never happy with her and the writer explains that for a moment Bela had some compunction in her heart for her mother. But see how she reacted when once her mother came to see them on purpose.
“The sliding door was shut. Now she and Bela were alone.
“Bela walked over to where Gauri was standing. She came up close. So close that Gauri took a small step backward. Bela raised her hands as if to push Gauri away further still, but did not touch her.
“How dare you, Bela said. Her voice was just above a whisper. How dare you set foot on this house.
“No one had ever looked at her with such hatred.
“Why have you come here? . . . .
“I came to give your father the papers. Also . . .
“I wanted to ask him about you. To find you. He said he was open to our meeting.
“And you’ve taken advantage of it. The way you took advantage of him from the beginning.
“It was wrong of me, Bela, I came to say-
“Get out. Go back to whatever it was that was more important. Bela shut her eyes, putting her hands over her ears. (The Lowland 312)
When Gauri was walking towards the front gate, telling that she wouldn’t again bother her, Bela shouted at her back, “I know why you left us”. . . . I’ve known for years about Udayan, I know who I am.” (The Lowland 312)
The writer tells us that Bela’s emotion rose very high seeing unexpectedly her mother, remembering the scene in August heat when they returned from Calcutta to find that she had walked out on them, that she considered to be a dead body. “Even now Bela felt the urge to strike her. To be rid of her; to kill her all over again.” (The Lowland 314)
While going back Gauri crossed the room and coming to the table where Bela’s child was sitting placed her hand over her head and then on her cool cheek. It was she who opened the door to her. Caressing her granddaughter she said that she enjoyed meeting her and with tearful eyes entered into her car.
Meghna carries the name of a river in Bangladesh. People from that country, speaking in the same tongue as her parents, masons and construction labourers, eating rice by hands and praying in a mosque, were Bela’s neighbours at a place she lived for a considerable time. Bela was curious about them. What Bela indicated about the father of her child to be born to her father seems to be one of such labourers from Bangladesh. Child’s name seems to carry the memory of her association with such a person who was lulled by the river. It was a biological meeting which gave birth to Meghna but Bela could not disclose it as her mother never disclosed who was her father. Pretentions were the weapon they charged with each other.
Subhash and Elise moved to a remote corner of Ireland for a honeymoon after the marriage ceremony had been over in a small church at home. The marriage was witnessed by their friends and family. By marrying the couple added to their family large numbers of children and grandchildren, mostly from Elise’s side.
Subhash’s mother, an orthodox Hindu widow and mother becoming an old lady, by chance got a maid servant who became her nurse and escort. Had she not come across such a person her position would have been precarious and utterly pathetic.
Gauri, a suppressed and depraved woman who remade her future has acquaintances within her academic circles only. She is very studious, a successful professor and scholar but what is her social status? In order to execute her choice in life she evaded her responsibilities towards her child and legal husband, otherwise telling that she never accepted him as such though he extended all help to her and wished to build a happy family life with her. She was tortured by life, yet it may be said how an independent woman might be in adverse circumstances in life. Many are tortured in life but she has the satisfaction of being tortured for exercising her freedom to live a life according to her own choice. Own choice does not lead to ideal choice always.
Bela, ill-bred but got her father’s affection and help in becoming a self-made educated woman. She behaved rudely and harshly with her mother defying all her understanding and education. She comes home pregnant and declares it to her father giving birth to a misbegotten child. She called by name almost everyone elder to her like her actual father and teacher. This seems to be mimicry of American practice. Bela doesn’t have many acquaintances in the society to name. Bela grew up and her daughter Meghna would be grown up in the society with one parent only. Meghna would never know her father which shall remain a stigma in her life. She would feel frustrated.
Holly, the woman Subhash spent a few days with, a French-Canadian, born in America, regained relationship with her husband. But that she strayed for some time with Subhash didn’t matter in any way in their conjugal life though her child Joshua knew of it; a sign perhaps that she’s a free woman.
Elise Silva, reacquainted with Subhash, strangely at the funeral home of Richards, with children and grand children living apart, felt interested about him and the two were engaged finally to marry with large numbers of off springs to Elise’s credit. Woman can decide to unite with any man anywhere and at any time of her life. And this happens in this novel not as a special case but as if normal.
Some of the leading women in this novel are not only frustrated but they chose to become unsocial by option following the circumstances in their lives and aggravating it. All the women in this novel are free thinkers and take their own decision. They may be called self-made. But they seem to have been bogged down in life; most of them aren’t happy. Some of them will be tempted to live a single woman’s life as they were born in the absence of any good guide or guardian to lead them. Single mother concept is gaining ground in society. In Veda Satyakam declared that he was the son of his mother only, Jabala. He was taken in by the Rishi as truthful and straightforward. Recently the Supreme Court of India has given sanction to the idea and status of a single mother. A mother is given all legal rights over the minor child but would the child feel free and righteous when he or she grows old? Did Gogol, in Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut novel, The Namesake, not change his name given by his parents when he grew up because it did not suit him? The right of the mother is legally accepted in certain extenuating circumstances but that cannot be the usual norm. Only a future society would decide the validity of it. Usually any individual wishes to know both his or her parents and their identity.
In spite of the happening of miseries in the lives of the women in The Lowland, none can say that men were the source of all such troubles. They were never meddled, tortured or ill-treated by any man. Yet all of them bled, remained frustrated and unhappy. If the novel is an experiment to show how the self-chosen life of a woman may be, it must be an aberration, not norms, such a life story cannot be standardized. Life at every step usually reconciles, adjusts its position and tries to get harmony and peace leading to happiness. One thing to remember is that the conditions of life created in this novel are very crucial in leading the persons through life. It is an area of human psychology, very aptly dealt with by the novelist.
Instead of criticizing the American way of life as she did in her celebrated debut novel, The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri, has remained neutral here except pointing her finger at each woman as she presents. Lahiri has written numbers of short stories dealing with the relationship among young men and women, has shown her special acumen in dealing with such characters, as in here. In Lowland she has placed her characters in situations, usually unheard of, and has tried to show how in such circumstances they may act pervasively. She has shown how a truncated life without guidance, hybrid life with two cultures mixed, may become. She has shown how free women may act like. But on the whole the novel depicts a dismal life story, specially of women, leaving no scope for respite and relief.
Lahiri Jhumpa. The Lowland. Noida: Random House Publishers India Private Limited, 2013.
About the Author:
Aju Mukhopadhyay is a bilingual award winning poet, essayist, fiction writer and critic. He has published two books of poems in Bangla and nine in English including two books of short verses (Japanese styles). His poems have been widely published, translated and anthologized in large numbers of Indian and International journals and Ezines in different languages. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.