A loved one long gone survives in our memories. Does the loved one ever actually go then? Is the loved one painfully present? Does that mean bygone never actually departs? If yes, the palpable emotion emanating from one would be happiness – happiness of never losing who are thought as lost. Is it always happiness? I had never contemplated on it until I came across The Lowland – the swampy patch between two ponds in old Calcutta that harbors the memories of a loved one whom a family loses in a tragedy. Jhumpa Lahiri, the mind behind The Lowland made me traverse from Calcutta to Rhode Island with two members of this family – Gauri and Subhash between whom Udayan lives forever long after he dies in the lowland. Did Udayan’s unsaid presence make them happy? Lahiri’s family saga doesn’t answer this and perhaps no one can. Why? Because happiness can’t be defined. We all have our own versions of happiness, and so did Gauri and Subhash. Udayan, the seam between Gauri and Subhash when he was alive becomes the breach between them after his death. None can be impugned for none can be ascribed for life’s unpredictable circumstances.
It’s said marriage is an institution in which interpersonal relationships are acknowledged. Are they, always? If yes, then for what? Why does Subhash marry Gauri? To acknowledge his duty towards his brother Udayan’s widowed? To pacify his guilt for being away from his brother when he was tangled in Mao-inspired political upheavals? To protect Gauri from the tentacles of his mother’s disapproval and hatred for her and take her away abroad to lead a life of respect? To let his secret admiration for Gauri get a chance to bloom into love? If I look from Gauri’s point of view, a different set of questions confront me. Why did she marry her dead husband’s brother? To escape from the bondages a single mother-to-be is subjected to? To abandon in-laws who never accepted her as she wasn’t chosen by them for their son? To live a better life in a far-off country rather than her own where she lacked freedom to live her life on her terms? The society that we live in demands a name for a relation between a man and a woman not bonded by blood; and marriage possibly is the most easily affordable name that can be had. Subhash and Gauri sought its resort too; convenient and workable as most would think. So, marriage can be about convenience and work-around as well. Lahiri’s characters seem to be silently mocking at this societal norm.
Marriage is workable perhaps, but what about love? Is it workable too? Surely not. You cannot create love as much as you may try. It’s instinctive and buds on its own. You needn’t work on it. And if you are working your way out then it’s purely an affair of adjustment. Lahiri concedes this through the life that Subhash and Gauri build up in Rhode Island. They are together as husband and wife, as mother and father of Gauri and Udayan’s daughter yet they are far apart as lovers. Are they friends? No. They are two complete strangers after years of living together. There’s a bridge that separates them. Gauri doesn’t want to cross it, and Subhash is both tired and afraid of crossing it. Amidst this turmoil, Gauri finds solace in her own world – her new world free of obligations with which she had to live in her own country. She yearns for a new independence now – independence from her identity as a wife and as a mother. Was Gauri unable to forget Udayan, you may ask. Could she? Was she wrong if she couldn’t? Udayan’s death was pinned to her soul. It’s a love that succeeded to live beyond death.
Have you heard this popular adage?
Tis a lesson you should heed:
Try, try, try again.
If at first you don’t succeed,
Try, try, try again.
Until when should you keep trying? And at the cost of what? The philosophies of sacrifice and standing through thick and thin for family cannot force all to give up desires. The school of thought that preaches living for others cannot buy off idiosyncrasy. Quitting and abandoning don’t always measure courage of an individual to endure. They also mean letting go things that instill pain and bring in suffering. Gauri is looked upon as self-conceited by many. But I would ask for what? She wouldn’t have lived a life had she been the emblematic sacrificing mother and wife. Her choice of solitude may look impulsive. However, had her choice been togetherness, it would have still brought in seclusion for her. You make ask, what did she gain by standing out solo? I would ask what would have she gained by joining the crowd? She took the road not taken. Tradition is so entrenched in us that unconventional and conceited seem synonymous.
Love doesn’t recognize blood and stark realities cannot remain in shadows for long. To build a relationship, you simply need two ingredients – love and truth. Subhash loved his daughter unconditionally, not out of duty or love for his brother but only for the sake of love. He always dreaded truth – the truth behind fatherhood of his daughter. When he confronts his fear one fine day, he realizes that he had lived with an anxiety that he needn’t have to bear after all. We complicate our lives way beyond what they actually are. We keep hiding our faces behind masks, and sooner or later the masks fall off. We give different names to this falling of masks – realization, renunciation, reincarnation, and many others. It is much easier to look at life the way it is. As always Jhumpa Lahiri gives us characters who are real, and who make you feel that their choices could be yours. They dwell questions in your mind, and their beautifully crafted sentences leave a hint or two for you to find answers in the maze of words. I kept unfolding the pages in The Lowland in the wake of knowing what happens. Nothing really happens, just like life where everything happens yet it seems nothing happened.
I don’t count Lahiri as one of my favorites for no reason. Go to The Lowland and make a journey to and fro between Calcutta and Rhode Island, and you will have reason enough to fall in love with Lahiri.