By Aglaia Staff

LAHIRI SHOT TO FAME when Interpreter of Maladies, her debut collection, won the Pulitzer. The nine stories in the collection were not necessarily connected, although they mirrored her experiences in New England. She liberally drew on the milieu she was most familiar with—the first flush of intellectually inclined young men who arrived at great American universities in the 1960s. These men dutifully married women their parents had chosen for them.

The women were bright and capable, but not yet beneficiaries of an American education, and by extension lacking the credentials which would allow them to work outside the home. They raised children who were expected to pursue professional careers, reinforcing the image of Indians as the model minority in America. Those wives were terribly lonely, lamenting what they had left behind, but managed stoically. In that first collection, academics who had come to a campus at the start of the fall term are shocked by the chill in weather even when the sky is bright. They had to learn to cope with winter, bleeding the radiators, servicing the heaters, testing the lawn mowers, and they had to get used to wearing layers of warm clothing. They opened their doors to other Indians, trying to create their community in a small town, where the smell of the curry and the shared joy in films and religious festivals became the ties that bound them. 

 

In the story ‘When Mr Pirzada Came to Dine’, Lahiri writes about the birth of Bangladesh, seen through the eyes of Lilia, whose parents invite their neighbour, the improbably named Mr Pirzada, to dine each night. Mr Pirzada is an academic on a small grant from the Pakistani government, anxious about his family left behind. He carries two watches—one set to the time in the US, the other to the time in the place that will become Bangladesh. Lilia notices their similarities—taking off shoes as he enters the house, eating rice with his hands, dipping biscuits in sweet tea, but is aware of the difference—he is Muslim, and he wants to go back to his family, and to his country, not yet born.

In ‘Sexy’ and ‘Mrs Sen’s’, Lahiri writes about children’s precociousness; ‘This Blessed House’, shows us an Indian couple excited by the Christian kitsch they discover in the house into which they have moved. In ‘The Treatment of Bibi Haldar,’ a story set in India, Lahiri shows, in her understated way, the pathos of a lonely, destitute woman’s life through a single sentence: “Apart from my X-rays, I have never been photographed.”

n 2003, she published her first novel, The Namesake, which Mira Nair made into a film in 2006. A highly promising novel, it felt contrived towards the end, as if Lahiri felt compelled to tie up the loose ends. The stories in her next collection, Unaccustomed Earth (2008), turned darker, a feat she achieved with deftness, masking the intensity with plain words that described the truth without explaining it. 

Lahiri has a fan following among Indian readers: a bookshelf of Indian fiction in most homes is likely to have at least one work of hers, besides Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Amitav Ghosh.

In The Lowland there are far fewer adjectives and adverbs compared to her previous work; in fact, she uses few punctuation marks in conversations. There are almost no quotation marks to indicate direct speech, leaving it ambiguous in some instances whether sentences were said openly or remained in a character’s mind.

This skill—of sharpening the narrative with skill and economy—is critical for a writer of short fiction. Novels get more room to breathe. A common view about her writing is that she is better at crafting short stories than novels.

In his novel Purbo Poschim (‘East West’, 1989), the late Sunil Gangopadhyaya tells a story similar to The Lowland, about two college friends, politicised by the partition of India and other tumultuous events, including the Naxalite period and the Bangladesh war. Then there is Dilip Simeon’s Revolution Highway (2010), set in Delhi but drawing on the Naxalite story to create a vivid portrait of that time. Pranav and Mohan, its protagonists, study at Mission College in Delhi, and they are inspired by the Vietnam War, the American civil rights movement, the Prague Spring, the Palestinian Struggle, and Sartre’s conversion to Maoism. Films, too, have dealt with Naxalites—Sen’s Calcutta 71, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas’s Naxalites, and Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi.

To see the magic and mystery in the ordinary is a gift. Lahiri knows how to unwrap that gift and share it. That gift does not smell of curry and pickles, nor does it stand out because of the red sari or the size of a bindi, but it appeals because of the familiar hybridity exile imposes. Here, the sandwiches aren’t made of peanut butter and jelly, but on rye bread with green chutney; the mishti doi is made with yogurt and condensed milk, and the flag in the porch is red, white and blue 

 History And The Author
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