Cayenne, Turmeric and Ginger

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Jhumpa Lahiri’s, The Lowland is a complex and fascinating novel, set in a section of Calcutta called Tollygunde. The title refers to the geographical region where two brothers take up their rendezvous with destiny. Maureen Corrigan of N.P.R begins her review with this sentence: “Geography is destiny.”
Tollygunde fills up with water during the monsoon season and there it sits, home to water hyacinths giving it a striking green color, but robbing any passerby of firm footing. Some creatures lay eggs in the mud, and manage to survive by hiding in it until it is dry and firm enough for them to escape. The lives of the two brothers seem similarly perilous. Subbash, the elder, is responsible, studious and cautious. His younger brother Udayan is the polar opposite, finding adventure and risk in the burgeoning Naxalite movement of the sixties in India. There is high tension in the description of these times. As a decidedly western observer, it struck me as an impossible and thoroughly unlikely dream to bring  Maoist society, with all inherent rigidity, to the multitude of contrasts that make up the rich and complex social structure in India.
While one son goes off to America to study Oceanography, the other ends up leaving a pregnant and lonely widow on the reluctant hands of his parents. Subbash offers to marry his brother’s former wife and bring her to Rhode Island. Adapting to the new country, we see her become strangely distant. She eats an entire package of cream cheese, mistaking it for a candy bar. This image will remain with me forever.  Her interest in studying philosophy is thwarted by the demands of motherhood. It is not a tale of passions flaring, but one rather of quiet resolve on the part of a steadfast man to remain as such, alongside a woman who takes the only way out she can find at the time. As in so many novels depicting different cultures coming together, this is crafted brilliantly. Would someone from New England ever attempt to describe the region’s fall colors in terms of “vivid hues of cayenne, turmeric and ginger pounded fresh every morning?”
Jhumpa Lahiri is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Interpreter of Maladies. The Lowland was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Here is a glimpse of her lovely prose:
“The city was called Kolkata now, the way Bengalis pronounced it. The taxi traveled along a peripheral artery that bypassed the northern portion of the city, the congested center. It was evening, the traffic dense but moving quickly. Flowers and trees were planted along the sides of the road. New flyovers, new sectors replacing what used to be farmland and swamp…
It was Durga Pujo, the city’s most anticipated days. The stores, the sidewalks were overflowing. At the ends of certain alleys, or in gaps among the buildings, she saw the pandals. Durga armed with her weapons, flanked by her four children, depicted and worshiped in so many versions. Made of plaster, made of clay. She was resplendent, formidable. A lion helped to conquer a demon at her feet. Se was a daughter visiting her family, visiting the city, transforming it for a time.” page 315In contrast, here is a description of life in Rhode Island:

“Both places were close to sea level, with estuaries where fresh and salt water combined. As Tollygunge, in a previous era, had been flooded by the sea, all of Rhode Island, he learned, had once been covered with sheets of ice. The advance and retreat of glaciers, spreading and melting over New England, had shifted with bedrock and soil, leaving great trails of debris. They had created marshes and the bay, dunes and moraines. They had shaped the current shore.

He found a room in a white wooden house, close to the main road of the village, with black shutters flanking the windows. The shutters were decorative, never opening or closing as they did throughout the day in Calcutta, to keep the rooms cool or dry, to block rain or let in a breeze or adjust the light.” Page 35

If geography is destiny then it would be safe to say that Jhumpa Lahiri’s path has been transcendent.