Friday, April 10, 2015

My thoughts on Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland

I remember reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake a few years ago and thinking: “Wow, I wish I could write like that. I want to write like that some day.”
It became one of those books I enjoy going back to and re-discovering every once in a while. I love everything about it – the characters, the setting, the plot, the conflicts; even the movie adaptation of it.  

More recently, a friend gave me Lahiri’s debut, Pulitzer-prize winning short-story collection - The Interpreter of Maladies - and although I liked it, I felt that a lot of the stories were just too similar in mood and context to The Namesake. I like my authors to be versatile so it became a bit tiresome to read about Indian immigrant lives all over again, even though - of course - the plots were gripping and beautifully penned.

And now, I have just finished reading The Lowland - which was a nominee for the Man Booker – and am disappointed, to say the least. Here’s why:

1. Immigrant life. AGAIN.
I wouldn’t mind reading about people who relocate to the US. In fact, I am quite fascinated by immigrant life and trying to write a novel of my own based on this theme. But there’s something about Lahiri’s stories that make life abroad seem just so depressing. Her narrative is infused with a sense of nostalgia and loneliness that make me wonder why anyone would move to America at all. The characters seem to be perennially brooding and leading empty lives that make me wish they would just pack up and move back to India already. I doubt real-life immigrants are such sad empty shells of people. When you move to a new country, aren’t you going to be excited about the new start, happy to settle into a new life? Of course, nostalgia would strike now and then but you would hopefully be too preoccupied with the business of living to let it overwhelm you so. The character of Subhash in The Lowland is about the most dull, monotonous character I’ve ever encountered in a story. And he makes the most stupid moves which drive the plot to its sad inconclusive, deeply unfulfilling end.     

2. Too much description (about natural surroundings and weather)
I’m sorry but I don't see how knowledge of what trees and plants are growing around the protagonist’s home helps the plot. Why do I need to know how much it rained in June? It’s not like the characters are meteorologists, for heaven’s sake! I can’t stand over-descriptive passages in any book. (It’s the sole reason I abandoned all attempts to read The Lord of the Rings.) So I found myself skipping over a lot of the unnecessary stuff in The Lowland, mentally urging the author, "Oh, for god's sake, move on! Get back to the point, the plot!”

3. Stupid, selfish immigrant children  
Why are the children in Lahiri’s books so utterly detached from their parents? It’s as if she’s trying to say that being born American by default makes you an automaton with absolutely no empathy/sympathy for family ties! I’m pretty sure no regular kids anywhere behave the way Lahiri’s young characters do – like heartless monsters that deserve a good whack around the head with a cricket bat. Like, have a heart, guys. I grew up in a foreign country too but it was never a reason to be cut off from my roots, to not learn my native language and to behave like I owe nothing to Mom and Dad.

4, Trans-generational story (if that’s the right term for it)
I hate books that encompass several generations of characters at once. (This is one of the reasons I didn’t quite like the ending of Harry Potter. – I didn’t need to see Harry’s kids when in my head he was still a teenager for god’s sake!)   
I mean, that’s what television soaps are for. That’s why they go on for years, so you can grow at least a little bit with the characters. In the case of books like The Lowland, within a few hours, characters have become grandparents while I’m still exactly the same and wondering, what the hell just happened?
Moreover, such stories are depressing because you have to witness the protagonist age, often not so gracefully, and in worst cases, even die. Like how does that help me? I’ve just connected with a bunch of imaginary people and they died before I could even fully get to know them! Bah.

So, all in all, I think that The Lowland is one of the most depressing books I've ever read despite the illusions of happy endings the author weaves in towards the ends. I don't think I'll be reading Lahiri again, or maybe I will, just to see if she ever changes her style. Don't get me wrong; I still think she writes brilliantly and I have immense respect for the fact that she has won the Pulitzer Prize(!!) and was shortlisted for the Man Booker(!!!), but I also believe some happy non-immigrant stories would do her readership a lot of good. 

On a scale of five, I’d give the Lowland a 2.5 solely for the un-put-downabale way in which it’s written. It takes a lot for me to complete a book after I’ve already decided I don’t like it, yet I stuck with The Lowland till the last page! 

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