Subhash wondered if his placid nature was regarded as a lack of inventiveness, perhaps even a failing, in his parents’ eyes. His parents did not have to worry about him, and yet they did not favor him. It became his mission to obey them, given that it wasn’t possible to surprise or impress them. That was what Udayan did.
I remember Jhumpa Lahiri fondly from her Unaccustomed Earth collection, so I was very happy to see more from her (available online) in the TNY 2013 Summer Fiction Issue. It’s longer than most TNY fiction – fifteen pages – and yes, it’s an excerpt, from her upcoming novel The Lowland. I have to admit, though, I didn’t realize it was an excerpt until the last sentence, which leaves things up in the air and ready for the next chapter.
It’s the highly readable tale of Subhash and Udayan, two brothers who grew up in the Tollygunge district of Calcutta. We join them in progress as young teens in the early 60s when they sneak into a segregated golf course to play. Udayan, a few years older, is the leader, the daredevil, the instigator, and the younger Subhash the loyal adoring follower. It’s a great way to establish the pattern which will in some ways be continued, in some broken, as they mature.
Udayan becomes involved in the clandestine Naxalite movement while Subhash is the dutiful son. When Subhash is accepted at a PhD program in the US, he and Udayan have a great conversation about selfishness that reveals the deeper nature of their relationship:
But none of this impressed Udayan. How can you walk away from what’s happening? There, of all places?
It’s a degree program. It’s only a matter of a few years.
Udayan shook his head. If you go, you won’t come back.
How do you know?
Because I know you. Because you think only of yourself.
Subhash stared at his brother. Lounging on their bed, smoking, preoccupied by the newspapers.
You don’t think what you’re doing is selfish?
Udayan turned a page of the newspaper, not bothering to look up. I don’t think wanting to make a difference is selfish, no.
This isn’t a game you’re playing. What if the police come to the house? What if you get arrested? What would Ma and Baba think?
There’s more to life than what they think.
What’s happened to you, Udayan? They’re the people who raised you. Who continue to feed and clothe you. You’d amount to nothing if it weren’t for them.
Udayan got up and strode out of the room. A moment later he was back. He stood before Subhash, his face lowered. His anger, quick to flare, had already left him.
You’re the other side of me, Subhash. It’s without you that I’m nothing. Don’t go.
It was the only time he’d admitted such a thing. He’d said it with love in his voice. With need.
But Subhash heard it as a command, one of so many he’d capitulated to all his life. Another exhortation to do as Udayan did, to follow him.
It’s a nicely turned piece with lovely scenes that leads back and forth from India to Rhode Island, and considers what it is to leave a place and what it is to go back, what it is for two brothers to diverge – even to resent each other – and still remain connected.
The story strikes me as very… relevant, if you’ll forgive me for sneaking in 60s terminology. As I read, I was thinking as I read about the family conflicts that arose in the US during this time period, as young people challenged the generally-accepted ideas of authority and conformity their parents had grown up with. In her Page-Turner interview, Lahiri denies any connection to 9/11 – she began the book in 1997 – but she makes an even more contemporary connection: “It wasn’t until just a few months ago, when I learned about the Boston Marathon bombings, that it struck me that those brothers could have been a version, forty years on, of Udayan and his comrades.”
The excerpt ends – and I’m guessing the body of the novel begins – with tragedy, blame, and guilt, a family in ruins, and a strong hint at a new connection, with the last sentence serving as a cliffhanger of sorts.
This wraps up the TNY 2013 Summer Fiction issue, themed “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” at least for me. There’s a Cormac McCarthy screenplay excerpt from the upcoming Ridley Scott film”The Counselor” (available online), and a Dashiell Hammett story, but I’ve had enough of Crime and Punishment for now. Overall I think this issue worked better for me than last year’s science-fiction theme.