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I have never really felt 100 per cent American: Jhumpa Lahiri

Last updated on: October 09, 2013 11:02 IST

I have never really felt 100 per cent American: Jhumpa Lahiri

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Unlike her earlier books, which dealt with immigrant angst, Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest novel grew out of stories she heard about the Maoist movement in India, during her childhood. Arthur J Pais finds more. Photographs: Paresh Gandhi.

Jhumpa Lahiri returned to New York to publicise her fourth book The Lowland, as part of the three-week long tour that will take her to over 20 cities in America and Canada.

It has been a year since, Lahiri, 46 -- who has a PhD in Renaissance Art and has been studying Italian for many years -- moved from Brooklyn, New York, her home for nearly a decade, to Rome.

The Lowland -- short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards -- is set in 1960s India and America, spanning five decades, much of it unfolding against the Maoist movement in West Bengal and police repression.

It is also a tale of two brothers bound by tragedy, a brilliant rebellious woman haunted by her past, and her daughter, who is a rebel of yet another kind.

Born fifteen months apart, Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable right from their childhood. They are often mistaken for each other in their Calcutta neighbourhood. Distinctly different futures are in store for them.

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Image: Author Jhumpa Lahiri interacts with the audience at Princeton, New Jersey
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi

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Udayan is drawn to the Maoist movement, an armed rebellion led by upper class men and women and waged to eradicate inequality and poverty.

Subhash, the dutiful son, does not share his brother’s politics. He leaves home to pursue a life of scientific research inAmerica.

When Subhash learns of his brother’s tragic end in the lowland outside their family home, he goes back to India.

He hopes to heal the wounds Udayan left behind -- including those in the heart of his widowed sister-in-law.

When he offers a new life to her, things look promising in the beginning, but more betrayals and tragedies are in store.

The Lowland grew out of stories, Lahiri said, she had heard about Maoists in her Rhode Island home during childhood.

The author was in conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jeffrey Eugenides at a Princeton, New Jersey, book reading.

She added that it took her many years to work on the plot and the structure of the book. ‘Even when I look back at my work, I feel frustrated, that it was too fussy. How many words do you really need to get your message across? I still feel that I have a ways to go before arriving at something that feels really … truly pure,’ she said.

Lahiri added she first heard the story of two Maoist brothers who were executed just a few hundred yards from her grandparents’s home in Calcutta.

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Image: Lahiri in conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jeffrey Eugenides at Princeton, New Jersey
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi

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I have never really felt 100 per cent American: Jhumpa Lahiri

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The men’s family had been forced to watch as they were killed.

‘That was the scene that, when I first heard of, it was so troubling and would never stop haunting me. It inspired me to write the book,’ Lahiri told Eugenides.

She added she made one brother (seemingly) apolitical and the other, a militant because it showed how certain kind of politics can seduce one, and leave the other untouched.

The device also helped her to create tension in the plot.

Among the many suspenseful scenes in The Lowland, there is an unforgettable moment during a police raid.

The police come looking for Udayan at his parents’s home and confront his wife Gauri, asking for his whereabouts: ‘We think he might be hiding in the water, the soldier continued, not removing his eyes from her.

No, she said to herself. She heard the word in her head. But then she realized that her mouth was open, like an idiot’s. Had she said something?

Whispered it? She could not be sure.

What did you say?

I said nothing.

The tip of the gun was still steady at her throat. But suddenly it was removed, the officer tipping his head toward the lowland, stepping away.

'He’s there, he told the others.’

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Image: The audience at Princeton, New Jersey
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi

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I have never really felt 100 per cent American: Jhumpa Lahiri

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The book, many readers may think, is a political novel, but it is also a story of a family, Lahiri said.

‘Whatever label you want to give to The Lowland,’ Lahiri told The New York Times recently, don’t call them ‘immigrant fiction.’

‘I don’t know what to make of the term,’ she added. ‘All American fiction could be classified as immigrant fiction.’

Why did she decide to make Rome her new home?

‘I was just about two when my parents moved from England to America,’ she said. ‘I never really felt 100 percent American at any time and my characters also often feel out of place in their towns and cities.’

She added that she has written a lot about people who leave one place behind and go to another. ‘But I never really experienced that. I have been to India many times, but I’ve never had to get to know another country in which I clearly don’t belong and to speak in a second language and to do all of those things that my characters do and that my parents did and that my husband, Alberto (who grew up in Guatemala) did. I am very excited to be in Rome and my children are excited and they are challenged as never before,’ she said.


Image: Fans pose with their copy of 'The Namesake'
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi

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