When a novelist of Lahiri’s Pulitzer-Prize winning repute decides to tell the story of the country’s burning issue of Naxalism, combines it with the identity crisis of an Indian abroad and ties it together with humane elements of brotherhood, parenthood, feminism, abandonment and reconciliation in a story that spans almost five decades, it makes for a book that not only resonates with the times it is published in, but manages to evoke a sense of timelessness through it’s narrative.
The book begins with the relationship of contrasts between two brothers Subhash and Udayan and their journey through a post-Independence India struggling with it’s identity. Udayan is portrayed as the free-spirited and idealistically willful sibling who insists on breaking-in the forbidden golf course, making radio transmitters and later, taking up a more ideal and revolutionary cause that requires every bit of his natural recklessness and refusal to comply with automatically accepted truths. Subah, on the other hand, is the antithesis to his brother’s character. A grounded and subservient yin to his brother’s more authoritative and willful yang. Together, the two brothers were inseparable even as their paths would diverge later.
The political uprising in the town of Naxalbari, a town where peasants had been killed by the police for protesting and demanding land and the subsequently revolutionary climate of Kolkata in the 1960s serves as the backdrop of the story, which brings out nuances, subtle and blatant, of both brothers. Udayan’s growing involvement with the Naxalist movement leads him to shady meetings, clandestine activities and ultimately, to the darker parts of himself. Subhash, meanwhile, finishes college and moves for further studies to USA. Both brothers, in their own ways, become the voices of the disenchanted youth of the young India-“overqualified but unemployed”-of the 60s.
Lahiri captures the revolutionary air of “Calcutta” from a hitherto unknown perspective, more personal than political. Subhash’s experience of being a first generation immigrant to the USA is also well captured ala The Namesake. His struggle to cope up with the new world, along with his transition to a bolder and more decisive self is handled seamlessly.
It is with Udayan’s sudden and timeless demise that Lahiri propels the pace of her characters’development. His death and it’s effects are reminiscent of an incident earlier on in the book where Udayan disobeys his parents in an attempt to cross a porch with wet cement, leaving the imprint of his feet as the cement dried off. His imprints echo through the pages as a solitary stone in the lowland where he dies stands reminder to his death. How his death haunts the life of his family and influences choices indirectly, makes up for the rest of the book.
Gauri, without a doubt the book’s most complex character, is introduced as Udayan’s wife. A woman engrossed in philosophy and thoughts far beyond her time finds attention in the eyes of the explosive and restless Udayan who, after wooing and wedding her, brazenly proclaims to his parents “either you accept us willingly or we go and live separately”. Udayan’s insertion of Gauri into his parents’ lives makes her an unwelcome and never fully accepted intrusion, as a pregnant Gauri is treated as a widow. Udayan’s death leaves a haunting void in all the characters’ lives. While Subhash loses what he considered his other half, his parents try to uncomfortably ignore his brother’s absence. Subhash is drawn to Gauri by the sense of losing the person they both loved. We see Subhash leave his compliant former self behind as he marries his sister-in-law despite his parents’ protests and takes her to America with the hopes that she will come to love her.
Gauri completely reinvents herself as she is shaped by events uncontrolled by her. After the birth of Udayan and Gauri’s daughter, Gauri and Subhash’s relationship becomes more mechanical. The absence of Udayan once again moulds her as she becomes withdrawn and even though she tries being a good mother, she fails. Independence, to her, is paramount, as she decides to abandon every sign of Udayan, when she leaves Subhash and Bela, her daughter, behind. The woman who didn’t belong anywhere leaves a similar legacy to her daughter who is forced to live with the same sense of abandonment.
Bela is raised by Subhash who never tells her the truth that he isn’t her father. Bela and her profound love for her ‘father’ is enchanting In it’s innocence and serves as a testament to Subhash’s largesse and devotion to his brother even after his death. Subhash remains afraid of confessing the truth to Bela and sees her turn more reclusive and withdrawn as she grows up. After psychiatric treatment, Bela is seen transforming.
We see Bela face her insecurities and turn herself into an independent anthropologically inclined student and worker, reflecting her true father’s character as she comes to terms with her own existence. With the knowledge of her father’s true identity she understands her mother’s abandonment of her and sees her in retrospect until fate brings them face to face.
Gauri though, has the most distinct transformation as she chooses to live individually and dedicates her life to intellect as she could never quite fill the void that Udayan left behind. Her lesbian affair and ultimate feeling of loneliness compel her to review her life, as a letter from Subhash jolts her to reality, She decides to confront him and make amends only to find herself face to face with her daughter.
It is here that Gauri realizes the effects of the choices she had made. While Subhash, Bela and her daughter are able to reconcile and find love in each other and move on, Gauri is left alone as she goes back to Kolkata to find answers.
It is in the end that we learn the true incidents of the fateful night of Udayan’s death and the horrific truth that preceded it and forces us to rethink the entire story and characters with this reality in tow.
Lahiri’s writing is understated even as the most dramatic events in the book happen off-screen. The pace is fluidic as she paints a varied canvas of feelings, contradictions and events. She manages to evoke an uncanny sense of familiarity with the characters as she lays each one bare by showing them to us in splendid detail. Minute details such as vocabulary and everyday chores make the otherwise silent characterization come alive. For a story spanning five decades, it is kept brisk and short without being curt or hurried all while providing explosive background detail about the most influential political movement of post-1947 India. The book contains sensitive description of immigrants in a pre-9/11 USA and deeply haunting depths of characters strong, weak and conflicted.
Read it for a vivid portfolio of seemingly unrelated spheres coming together in a manner which makes us question, re-think and ponder about the choices and accidents which influence an entire generation.