Crisis and Quest in Relationships in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Lowland” : Prof. AJ Sebastian sdb

Crisis and Quest in Relationships in  Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland : Prof. AJ Sebastian sdb


  1. Introduction

 Shortlisted  for Man Booker Prize 2013  and US National Book Award 2013 in fiction,  Jhumpa Lahiri has  proven her uniqueness as a   dominant diaspora  writer    depicting   the complexities   of  human relationships   in her   The Lowland (2013). The novel is   a  well   thought-out     addition  to her  oeuvre of  fiction writing, including Pulitzer Prize winner Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and The Namesake (2003). naccustomed Earth (2008) (“Jhumpa Lahiri”

The Lowland  recounts the  story of two  inseparable brothers, Subhash and Udayan Mitra. However, the circumstances  in the 1960s make them part ways in choice of life. Subhash who is intelligent and  sober in character moves to US for higher studies in oceanography and settles there.  His younger brother, Udayan, though becomes a school teacher, is led by Marxist ideology. He marries Gauri, but is shot dead by police for his involvement in terrorist activities. The  story examines  human predicaments in the lives of her characters, focusing on their   sense of   alienation and broken familial relationships.  Being  essentially autobiographical in her writing, Lahiri includes details from her Bengali community  and personal experiences in her fiction. Portraying  life of the Indian migrants to America, Lahiri has been very poignant in capturing the diasporic spirit of her characters muddled in multiple emotional tangles. Lahiri herself  reveals what inspired her to write  the story:

I learned of an execution that had taken place in Calcutta in the early 1970s, in the part of the city where my father was raised, where my paternal grandparents had lived and where I had spent a good deal of time as a child: Tollygunge, which is where the book opens. Eventually, I began to hear allusions to an incident in which two brothers who lived very close by, who had become involved in the Naxalite movement, were killed during a raid by the paramilitary. I learned that they had taken refuge in a body of water, to protect themselves and hide from the police, and that they had been pulled out and shot in front of their family members, who had been lined up to witness the event (“Interview with a writer.”

            Naxalite or Naxalism is an informal name given to radical, often violent, revolutionary communist groups that were born out of the Sino-Soviet split in the Indian communist movement. Ideologically they belong to various trends of Maoism. Initially the movement had its epicentre in West Bengal in the 1960s. The  movement takes its name from a peasant uprising which took place in May 1967 at Naxalbari –   situated in the state of West Bengal. It was led by armed Communist revolutionaries, who two years later were to form a party – the CPI (M-L), or the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). Under the leadership of their ideologue, a 49 year old Communist, Charu Mazumdar, they defined the objective of the new movement as ‘seizure of power through an agrarian revolution’. The strategy was the elimination of the feudal order in the Indian countryside to free the poor from the clutches of the oppressive landlords and replace the old order with an alternative one that would implement land reforms. The tactics to achieve it was through guerilla warfare by the peasants to eliminate the landlords. Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) in West Bengal, became the center of Naxalite urban violence from the beginning of the 1970s. Young cadres of the CPI(M-L) targeted police personnel and political rivals   (“Naxalite movement.” 

         Lahiri further speaks of the reason for her establishing  a deep bond between the two brothers:   

 I have a sister who’s quite a bit younger[…] so our experience of growing up wasn’t shared in the same way. I think what I was drawing on more in portraying these two brothers was my own experience of being a mother. I have two children, a boy and a girl, who are two and a half years apart. They don’t have the same dynamic that these brothers have; that was something I invented for the sake of the drama. But it does interest me, as a parent observing my children, the degree to which my son and daughter are really sharing a life right now.At eight and eleven years old, they have the same set of experiences and they do the same things. They’re separate people, but by and large their lives are communal. And when I think about how they are now, and then I fast forward in my mind years from now, I realize that, however close they remain emotionally, that physical closeness will go away. It changes and evolves as we grow up and become more individual. So, I was interested in capturing that moment for siblings. That passage from feeling as if you’re practically one person to what inevitably happens. (“Interview with a writer.”

Being acclaimed primarily a   diaspora writer,  Lahiri herself speaks of the eroding cultural links in diaspora creating problems of identity. 

Some of the culture goes by the wayside, or the link is never made. I was aware of that myself when I had my  kids. I really felt a sense that I was the end of a line, and that it was a very short line.  I knew my parents had parents and so on, but to me, the universe was my parents and they were the far end and I was the near end. There were certain intensities to the experience of that first generation and their offspring that don’t carry over. I’m very aware of my parents’ experience, how I grew up, and now how my children are growing up. There is such a stark difference in those two generations   (Bookforum April/May 08). 

        Lahiri deals with a multicultural society both  from ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, seeking to find her native identity as well as an new identity in the adopted country. This  brings in a clash of cultures  and dislocation and displacement  (Kadam 121-22). This is the lot of people in diaspora which Lahiri attempts to  prove through her  stories. She also  dwells on  ‘acculturation’ and ‘contra-acculturation’ which the  second generation Indian-Americans experience (Majumdar 24).  They are able to  get  accultured in the new country, embracing its  socio-cultural values, at the same time experience  a sense of nostalgia for the  Indian culture and sensibilities, experiencing alienation and uprootedness. Such  a feeling of in-betweeness  experienced, the fictionist portrays through her characters.

In The Lowland, Lahiri moves out of her usual diasporic predicament and concentrates on the crisis in familial relationships between the central characters.

The fictionist  lets her characters   grow  on their own while   she  accompanies them.   Relationships  do  not  preclude  issues  of  morality…When  I  sit  down  to  write, I  don’t  think  about  writing  about  an  idea  or  a  given  message. I  just  try  to  write  a  story (which  is  hard  enough)  and  there’s  obviously  a  message,  or  a  moral,  or  something. I  think  that’s  good – but  it’s  not  something  I  actively  think  about,to  be  honest  with  you (Jhumpa Lahiri.

 Application of the theory of love
       Applying  Sternberg’s theory of love, this paper as it traces the crisis and quest in  relationships between the  central characters.  Sternberg  examines  love  from three components:  intimacy, passion, and decision/commitment. These  may operate  in combination or separately from one another.   Accordingly,  love can be classified into seven distinct  kinds as shown in the chart below.  The different kind of loves lets individuals to understand and communicate the types of emotional behaviours they express.  Consummate love is the ideal and complete love, combining intimacy, passion and commitment (Sternberg. 
                The  characters in their interpersonal relationship   can be analysed applying the triangular theory of love   which is characterised by  three different components.
  1. Intimacy – Which encompasses feelings of closeness, connectedness, and bondedness.
  2. Passion – Which encompasses drives that lead to romance, physical attraction, and sexual consummation.
  3. Commitment – Which encompasses, in the short term, the decision to remain with another, and in the long term, the shared achievements and plans made with that other (Sternberg.   

           Different types of love can be classified either individually or in combination of these components. A particular  type of love can in course of time  be transformed into another type as shown in the characters in their multiplicity of relationships.

    Various types of love among the characters:

       Gauri’s love for Subhash begins in empty love as it is  characterized by commitment without much intimacy. Ultimately she decides to leave him.   Gauri is  set in the nonlove category in her relationship with her daughter Bela. Bela, on her part, cannot relate with her mother as she experiences rejection from childhood.   Subhash’s love for Gauri begins in  empty love as it is  characterized by commitment without much intimacy. But in course of the novel, he attempts to   be  more compassionate in developing a companionate form of love for his wife.    Mutual  love of the siblings, Subhash and Udayan is very deep  Consummate Love, which could be termed ‘agape love.’

      Though the love between the central characters is the focus of this discourse, other minor characters  come into relationship with Subhash, Gauri, and Bela viz., Holly, Elsie, Lorna, and  Drew. These  are  brought in to  show, how, when familial relationships  crumble, other peripheral  relationships/affairs  develop, giving  emotional fulfilment. 

  1. The Crisis and the Quest in Relationships

       As the story progresses, after the brutal  killing of  Udayan,  Subhash returns from USA to  fill the vacuum left.   He  decides to marry Gauri, the widow of Udayan,  who was carrying his brother’s child.  “The only way to take her away was to marry her. To take his brother’s place, to raise his child, to come to love Gauri as Udayan had” (Lahiri 115). She readily agrees despite bitter  opposition from his family. He takes her along with him to Rhode Island to begin a new life. But, he comes to know that Gauri and his brother never planned to raise a child in their affiliation to Naxalite ideology.  He didn’t want to be married breaking tradition, before his brother.

        Once, Gauri settled down in America, and given birth to her daughter Bela, she began to take interest in pursuing  her philosophical studies, attending regular classes in the  University.  She lost all interest in spending time with Bela or Subhash. Bela felt dejected  when   parents came to  fetch their children at the school bus  stop.  “I don’t like you, Bela cried out, shaking herself free. I’ll never like you, for the rest of my life (170).

        When Subhash found her  indifference, he kept quiet for a week, refusing to speak to her. “…refusing to acknowledge her, just as her in-laws had ignored her after Udayan was killed. Living in the apartment as if she were invisible, as if only Bela were there, his fury contained. The day he broke his silence he said. My mother was right. You don’t deserve to be a parent. The privilege was wasted on you” (175). He began to withdraw from her and  no longer wished to touch her in bed and never thought of having a second child. He never discussed  the option of separation, thinking of Bela. Having no income of her own, Gauri needed him to survive.

       When  Gauri began her work on her PhD dissertation, Bela wondered what it meant. When her mother explained that it meant writing a report absorbing all her time. “The reality had disappointed Bela. She’d thought until then that it was some sort of  secret, an experiment her mother was conducting while Bela slept, like the experiments her father  monitored in the salt marshes” (201).  Her mother began to liken   the  manuscript of the dissertation to an infant, telling Subhash that she was worried about the pages being blown out or being destroyed by fire and she  worried to leave then unattended. Bela began to  feel that the  dissertation had replaced her.  Her father had bought a cabinet to put all her mother’s  manuscripts. One night she dreamed that her house was charred in a devastating fire, leaving secure only her mothers manuscripts in the cabinet.

         Bela’s visit to her father’s village Tollygunge,  for the first time, was memorable in the absence of her mother.  When she returned to their house  at Rhode Island, she found everything  as they had left. The house and its surrounding  had a total abandoned look. But to her surprise, her mother was not there to open the door for them. She  thought that she was playing a game on her as she used to do earlier, hiding behind the curtain.   But to their shock,  she had left them for good, leaving a message on the table:

 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 I am only reminded of all the  ways I’ve failed her.  In a way I wish she were young enough simply to forget me. Now she will come to hate me (211)

         She had stated that she got a  teaching job  in California. She asked him  to tell Bela the truth  about her real father,  whenever he felt it appropriate. She confessed that she had failed being a mother to her while he had been better father than Udayan.  She didn’t want anything from him any more and wrote, “…You are no doubt furious with me…  I hope  that in time my absence will make things easier, not harder, for you and Bela… In exchange for all you have done for me, I leave Bela to you” (212). Her gift of Bela in exchange for his goodness to her sounds rather bizarre as she never loved her daughter, nor him.    Though, Bela couldn’t understand the letter written in Bengali, she understood what  went on between them.  It was Bela who began to console him, putting her arms around him. He had thought of separation when Bela would be old enough to be independent and went off to college some day.

          For  Subhash it was a life of freedom from Gauri as his effort of being with her was no more. “In its place was a fatherhood that was exclusive, a bond that would not have to be unravelled or revised He had his daughter;  alone he maintained the knowledge that she was not his. The reduced elements of his life sat uneasily, one beside the  other. It was neither victory  nor defeat” (214). For Subhash, Gauri’s absence brought  deeper his consciousness of not possessing Bela.  He married Gauri only to  give her and Bela protection; now after her departure, life  comes full circle as where it started.   “She was establishing her existence apart from him. This was the real shock. He thought he would be the one to protect her, to  reassure her. But  he felt cast aside, indicted along with Gauri. He was afraid to exert his authority, his confidence as a father shaken now that he was alone” (214).  Bela trying to establish her own identity by a secluded life, moving into Gauri’s study. Her eventual  retreating from him with indifference  and marked silence, made him feel more and more disconnected from her. Though Subhash had sought the  assistance of a counsellor to solve the problem, he began to feel more and more replaced.

         Bela began to involve herself in social service, collecting discarded food and contributing it to shelters, to find meaning in life. Lahiri takes the narration to focus on the  distance created between them which was not merely physical or emotional, but intractable.

        After she majored in environmental science, she decided not to become like her parents, immersed in research in a university, instead decided to join Peace Corps. Lahiri  makes a pertinent comment in on the fractured relationships. “On either side of the  enormous country they lived apart, Bela roaming between them” (222).

        On her part, Gauri,  lived in confusion too having lost her identity in relationships:  “From wife to widow, from sister-in-law to wife, from mother to childless woman… She had married Subhash, she had abandoned Bela. She had  generated alternative version of herself…only to be alone in the end” (240).

        Bela began to define her own life of independence and would tell her father “I am who I am…, I live  as I do because of you” (259). The surprise comes when she tells Subhash that she was pregnant and  wanted to raise her child alone as she had been  neglected and abandoned by her mother. He was her model and inspiration in  taking such a decision.

        When Subhash finally reveals  himself to be her stepfather, she refused to  believe, but didn’t revolt. Though she walks away from his life for some time, returns to live once again with him, happily raising her daughter Meghan.

        The story climaxes  when Gauri returns  to Rhode Island to sign the documents of formal divorce. But, her meeting  Bela and Meghna  doesn’t connect them in  reconciliation. Bela remains stiff in her  sense of rejection.  The fictionist makes the encounter typical of Lahiri in style:

 How dare you, Bela said… How dare you set foot in 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…I can’t stand the sight of you…

I’m sorry,  Bela.  I won’t bother you again..

I know why you left us… I’ve known for years about Udayan…

Nothing will ever excuse it. You are not my mother. You’re nothing.

…You’re as dead to me as he is. The only difference is that you left me by choice. She was right; there was nothing to clarify, nothing more to convey (312-13).

           Bela’s total rejection of the past  doesn’t bring  a lasting solution to crisis in familial relationships. Hence, as the novel winds up, the fictionist very adroitly makes Bela write a letter to her mother,  to bridge the brokenness to establish connectedness through Meghna:

 Meghna asks about you. Maybe she senses something. I don’t know. It’s too soon to tell her the story now. But one day I’ll explain to her who you are, and what you did. My daughter  will know the truth about you. Nothing more, nothing less. If, then, she still wants to know you, and to have a relationship with you, I’m willing to facilitate that. This is about her, not about me. You’ve  already taught me not to need you, and I don’t need to know more about Udayan. But maybe, when Meghna is older, when she and I are both ready, we can try to meet again (324-25).


         Unlike her other fictional  works based entirely on diaspora concerns and characters trying to establish their identity in multiple relationships, in The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri, gives a twist to her fictional narrative   in the  backdrop of Naxalite movement,  where  Udayan is brutally killed.  Responding to the crisis, Subhash, decides to marry his brother’s widow,  to raise  his child.  His plans crumble as Gauri  fails to respond to his gestures of affection and sympathetic love.  The novel ends open ended with the hope of reconciliation and resolution of the conflict in interpersonal relationships. Lahiri  attempts to resolve the crisis with Bela’s quest to reach out  to her mother,  leaving  the possible  option of  getting connected through her daughter Meghna. 

       Lahiri seeks for her  protagonists, living  in-between-lives, with hope and determination,  merging  the past with the present,  in this superb family saga.  Her intricate dialogues, with detailed observation,  renders the narration  powerful and universal in application. The novelist is able to let the readers enter into the interior of the characters. She has successfully touched the  hearts of her readers with the  losses and uncertainties probed in The Lowland.  Her narration is simple, engrossing and straightforward; and  her  subtle nuances with psychological undertones,   defines her greatness as a fictionist of high calibre.


 Works Cited:

 Bookforum. “Migration, Assimilation, and Inebriation”.Jhumpa Lahiri talks with Bookforum. April-May 2008. Downloaded on13/09/2013. Downloaded on 15-09-2013.

 “Interview with a writer.”

 Jhumpa Lahiri, . “An interview with Jhumpa Lahiri by Arun Aguiar”. 20 Nov 2008   Downloaded on 15-09-2013. 

Jhumpa Lahiri” Downloaded on 26-09-2013.

Kadam, Mansing G. “The Namesake: A Mosaic of Marginality, Alienation, Nostalgia and Beyond.”Jhumpa   Lahiri: Critical Perspectives. Ed. Nigamananda, Das. New Delhi: Pencraft, 2008. 121-130.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Lowland. Noida: Random House  India, 2013.Majumdar, D.M. and T.N. Madan. An Introduction to Social  Anthropology. Noida: Mayur Paperbacks, 1995.

“Naxalite movement.”

  Sternberg, Robert. “Triangular theory of love”  theory_of_love. Downloaded on 12-09-2013.

Wagner, Kendra Van. Theories of Love. loveandattraction

       /a/theoriesoflove.htm. Downloaded on 11-09-2013.