Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
Knopf Publishing, Toronto, 2013, 340pp.
Reviewed by Don MacLean
A scene in the early pages of Jhumpa Lahiri’s marvelous novel The Lowland is formative for the story’s two main characters. Suhhash and Udayan are young brothers, separated by only 15 months, growing up in India not long after the country achieved independence. After learning of the location of a private golf club not far from their home, they decide to scale its walls and walk along its fairways and greens. They are struck by the severe contrast between the cramped space in which most Indians live and the golf course’s manicured lawns and lush, open expanses. As the two sneak out under the cover of darkness they are confronted by a police officer who knows they have trespassed. He takes the older brother aside. The beating is short but punishing enough to teach the intended lesson: the golf club is a place to which they do not belong and cannot enter. Although it is only Subhash who suffers physically, the episode is most significant for Udayan. He is appalled by the sight of his brother at the mercy of the officer, wilting under the blows. Privilege in India, Udayan now understands, is protected by violence.
Although The Lowland explores many themes, at its heart it’s a story about the relationship between two brothers. Udayan and Subhash strike the reader as archetypes, created by Lahiri as a way of exploring competing responses to India’s predicament. They are close and, when young boys, inseparable. Both are brilliant science students whose academic success will give them choices not available to most of their contemporaries. Yet every highlighted feature of their respective childhoods is meant to illuminate their differences. From a very young age, Subhash is uninterested in challenging authority. He is content to respect his parent’s wishes, even as he senses it’s Udayan they prefer. He is older than Udayan and yet it is he who often follows his younger brother’s lead. Uduyan, by contrast, is rebellious, a risk taker. He loves his parents but grows scornful of their conservative tendencies. The brothers’ divergent dispositions fuel different personal choices, the effects of which ripple long into the future.
Through Udayan especially, Lahiri explores the complex connections between philosophy and the world that discipline attempts to understand. Despite his gift for the subject, Udayan cannot fathom committing himself to physics. Not when India is coming apart at the seams. The country is rife with sectarian violence. Economic injustice fuels landlessness, poverty and even starvation. When landless peasants in a remote Indian village attempt to organize the state’s response is ruthless in the extreme: people are shot to death, the protest squashed. When authority is challenged elsewhere the consequences are even more severe: women are raped, dead bodies left on the road for others to see. Udayan is revolted by the needless suffering, by the horrible injustice of it all. Philosophy – and not physics - allows him to understand the world, provides a framework with which to make sense of India’s colonial past and its authoritarian, unjust present. As Marx once famously wrote, however, the point of philosophy should not be to simply understand the world, but to change it. It is a maxim Udayan takes to heart. He is intoxicated by the example of those who, inspired by the promise of a better world, set out revolutionize it. Chairman Mao is an inspiration, so too is Castro and Che Guevera. Mao has been at the vanguard of revolution in China, he tells his skeptical brother. There’s no good reason, he insists, something similar can’t happen in India.
As for Subhash, he is sensitive to the suffering and injustice that so enrages his younger brother. Still, he remains detached from the world of clandestine meetings and revolutionary fervor. Like his parents, he is wary of blueprints for wholesale social, political and economic transformation. He takes exception to how Udayan’s revolutionary politics puts their parents at risk. And unlike his brother, he believes he should pursue a career in science. He excels at it, after all, and what he’s spent his youth preparing to do. He enrolls in graduate studies at a prestigious American university located on Rhode Island. The island is small, but to Subhash the world now seems vast. India’s political turmoil recedes from view. Only the occasional letter from his brother asking him to someday return acts as a reminder of what he’s left behind. He begins a relationship with a woman. He knows his parents would not approve, but does not care. So long as he lives on the other side of the planet, he is untroubled by such considerations.
Subhash’s choice to study in America is important for a number of reasons. It’s the basis for the sprawling quality the novel eventually assumes. At some point, the reader feels, the story becomes less about two brother’s contrary responses to Indian politics and more of a family drama played out in two countries and spanning generations. A child is born, a dysfunctional family started. A daughter-in-law grows estranged from her in-laws. Resentments build and tears are shed. Secrets are revealed. Lahiri’s luminous prose sustains our interest throughout. Nevertheless the transition is bound to disappoint some readers. Indeed, the story has a more urgent quality in its earlier stages. The palpable threat of political violence gives it an ominous, suspenseful quality that fades too soon. We want more.
Yet Lahiri is always careful to draw the reader back to a time when Subhash and Udayan are either young boys or young men and India is politically charged in a way hard to imagine today. Lahiri’s point seems clear. No matter how divergent their paths and temperaments, the two remain inextricably linked by their shared upbringing and brotherly love. Similarly both are touched by the tragedy of India’s zero sum politics. Udayan expects as much: for all of his idealism, he is acutely aware of the lurking threats to his well being. Subhash believes otherwise: the world of science and the promise of America was to be his deliverance from the sectarian, unequal and authoritarian world in which he grew up. But even half a world away, he cannot escape the pull of family and the dangers of radical political hope.
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