Jhumpa Lahiri: “Brotherly Love” from TNY 6/10-17/13

TNY art by Timothy Goodman & Grant Cornett

TNY art by Timothy Goodman & Grant Cornett

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.

The Second Person Study, part 6: Jhumpa Lahiri: “Year’s End” and “Going Ashore” from Unaccustomed Earth

I wanted to ask my father what on earth had possessed him to marry an old-fashioned girl half his age.

I think I am finally beginning to really understand the connection between voice and distance, and the effect it can have on a story, on a reader.

These two stories are the second and third parts of the trio I began as part of the Second Person Project; the first piece was “Once in a Lifetime” and we met Hema and Kaushik and followed them up to the death of his mother. “Year’s End” picks up with Kaushik in college. He comes home for Christmas vacation to learn he has a stepmother and two stepsisters now! I found this story a lot less engaging than the first, and I think that is because it is much less intimate. It is in first person, with only two places where he addresses “you,” Hema. At first I was not even sure it was Hema he was addressing! He mixes in a very brief references to “your family” or “your house” but there is nothing like the sustained “you” from the first story, when Hema was talking to him. This is how they are different.

That does not mean there is not a great deal of emotion here! It is a big-brother emotion, not a thirteen-year-old-girl-with-a-crush emotion. He takes his stepsisters for donuts, and it is a lovely scene. He wonders about their father, if they miss him. And then at the end, he is baby sitting them and discovers them looking through photographs of his mother, they were stored in a shoebox in his room where they are staying. He is outraged they would look at those pictures! The pictures were put away after his mother died! He is quite cruel to them, and I wondered if they were too young to perceive just how cruel he was being, but no, they get it. He storms out of the house, leaving them alone (they have been taught the world is full of danger) and drives up to Maine.

He calls his father the next day and is scolded for leaving without saying goodbye. Kaushik does not get scolded for yelling at the girls; he realizes they did not tell! More girls keeping secrets! And they were in his room, just like Hema had to give up her room for him over that time when his family came back.

Here he goes into a more extensive “you” section, and remembers: “But I remembered you not much older than Rupa, and I remembered a day after a snowstorm, when something I’d said caused you, like Rupa and Piu, to cry.” I am not sure what this means – maybe he does not remember what he said! He’d said “something” – does he not remember he told Hema the secret about his mother being sick at that time? Or maybe he does remember and he is just skirting around it. He is extremely fragile when it comes to his mother and her death, this would be plausible too. I do not know! But it is a link, making girls cry, snow, borrowed rooms, Hema, and it peaks here in this very intimate, if very brief, passage, using person-and-a-half voice.

The third story is mostly in third person. Hema catches us up. She is in Rome twenty years later. She is a professor of classics. She is to marry Navin. It is an arranged marriage. She has just had her heart broken by a married man who was stringing her along, and she is quite shut down. We switch to Kaushik, still in third person, but his pov. Kaushik is a photojournalist (the photos, they are very important, see?). He and Hema meet. They spend about six weeks travelling around Italy researching those darn Etruscans (if you do not watch Jeopardy, you will not understand that, but never mind) and having an affair. She falls in love. He falls in love, too, as much as he can. He even asks her… not to marry Navin. To come with him to Hong Kong, his next destination. Hema notices this is not a marriage proposal and it does not allow her to continue her work. So they part. He is angry! What does he have to be angry about?! Hema goes to India for her wedding, and as she leaves Italy she forgets a bangle bracelet in security at the airport – it can not be retrieved in time so she leaves it behind.

And then he goes to Thailand for a little break, where he finally swims, as his mother loved to do – another thread that weaves these stories together. And it is Christmas. Well, I lost track of the exact timeline, but it seems it is 2004 (for some reason I thought it was the late 1990s but I guess not). Get it? As soon as I saw Phuket and swimming in the same story I knew what was coming.

For the last few paragraphs of this part of the trilogy she switches back to that very intimate Hema person-and-a-half voice. Hema is in India, preparing for her wedding, and she sees the tsunami from her viewpoint, not that she is in danger, but as it affected much of India. She knows “you” are in Thailand but not really where. Months later:

“A small obituary ran in the New York Times. By then I needed no proof of your absence from this world. I felt it as plainly and implacably as the cells that were gathering themselves in my body….It might have been your child but this was not the case. We had been careful, and you had left nothing behind.”

The return to this intimate, whispered, “through the wall” voice makes this all the more heartbreaking! I have been reading for years about how voice and distance work and this is the first time I have read a story and thought, “Oh, now I see!” But it is distance between characters, not between narrator/character and reader!

And I understand better the use of person-and-a-half in the first part as well, I understand why she is telling this now (I said I thought there would be some tragedy), it makes much more sense to me now – it is a funeral prayer, a memorial service! This is a lovely trilogy!

Second Person Study, Part 3: Jhumpa Lahiri, “Once in a Lifetime”

"Secret Twins Business" by John Platt

Photo: "Secret Twins Business" by John Platt

I had seen you before, too many times to count, but a farewell that my family threw for yours, at our house in Inman Square, is when I begin to recall your presence in my life. Your parents had decided to leave Cambridge, not for Atlanta or Arizona, as some other Bengalis had, but to move all the way back to India, abandoning the struggle that my parents and their friends had embarked upon. It was 1974. I was six years old. You were nine. What I remember most clearly are the hours before the party, which my mother spent preparing for everyone to arrive: the furniture was polished, the paper plates and napkins set out on the table, the rooms filled with the smell of lamb curry and pullao and the L’Air du Temps my mother used for special occasions…

I loved this story (which is available online) – it is full of little surprises – but I do not think it is technically second person! Again, I have to take a story off my list! I am beginning to wonder if any stories on the original list are second person! But I am not positive. It is, as so many second person issues are, slippery!

The definition given by Richardson (and I am using him as a kind of bible, though I am sure there are other paradigms out there) specifically excludes a “monologue addressed to a real or imaginary homodiegetic [in the story] audience.” The narrator (who turns out to be a girl named Hema) is speaking to Kaushik, the young man in the story. He is not present in much of the story; she narrates what happened to her and her family while he was in India, and then picks up with when he re-entered her life. Who is the story about? I think it is about Hema, and how she is affected by, among other things, Kaushik. And the story is told from a later time, by an older Hema; he does not appear to be present while she is actually recounting the story. So I am not positive, maybe this allows it to be considered second person. I think it reads like first person, though. The “I” is the narrator! The “I” is the main protagonist! “You” is a crucial character, but is present for very little of the actual story. So it could maybe go either way. Maybe she is talking to an older Kaushik, who is not actually in the story any more than the older Hema is in the story. See? Slippery! The “you” voice, whatever it is, is important to the story in any case! Addendum: Two days later, while reading another story, I just realized: this is in past tense! Maybe that is why it feels so distinctly not second person, because most “standard mode” second person is in first! That is not definitive, though. I still think the crux is: whose story is it? And in this case, it is the “I”.

But classifying a story is not as important as enjoying it! I will start with the beginning, a very good place to start… what, you never watched The Sound of Music?

Look at the opening quote – that is the first paragraph. It conveys so much exposition! Time, place, ages, persons, all nailed down in a paragraph. And it is not a boring paragraph at all! A lot is going on, a family is leaving, one is staying behind. And here is something I love: Hema begins to recall his presence in her life on the occasion of his departure from her life! That is downright twisted! But I understand it completely. She was very young, and a slightly older boy who was always around would perhaps not be noticed but a party would call attention to him. I can remember when I was very young, maybe 8 or 9, some of my family was going on and on about a baseball game and I said, “From now on I will watch baseball!” and they told me it was too late, that was the last game of the World Series and I would have to wait until next year (a posture I grew quite familiar with when I lived in Boston in the 70s and 80s). How many of us never paid attention to that old guy who works in Accounts receivable until he retires, or the lady at church who suddenly turns up dead? So I do not find it odd that she notices him as he is leaving, but I do find it poignant.

His family returns seven years later, and now Hema is thirteen and Kaushik is sixteen, a very different thing! He and his family come to live with her family until they find a house, which turns out to take longer than expected. Hema and Kaushik do not speak much. Hema has a crush on him, but of course does not tell him. She is moved from her bedroom to sleep with her parents (which is fine with her, she likes it, she does not understand the American standard of children sleeping in their own rooms) so he can have her room (she is a little resentful) and there is this recurring image: “The bed where you slept was just on the other side of the wall, and if I had been able to stick my hand through it I could have touched you.” That is both distance and closeness! What a feeling for a love-stricken thirteen-year-old! There is something very poignant about this image.

And these visitors: “Bombay had made them more American than Cambridge had, my mother said, something she hadn’t anticipated and didn’t understand. There were remarks concerning your mother’s short hair, her slacks, the Johnnie Walker she and your father had continued to drink after the meal was finished, taking it with them from the dining room to the living room.” They are much more well-off; they flew first-class, a “once-in-a-lifetime” luxury, because it was her forty-eighth birthday! They are very fussy and demanding about the house they want: it must have a pool or room for one, water view, be elegant, and so on. Nothing is good enough! And they are still visiting, it is getting tiring! Kaushik seems like a typical teenager, disdainful of everything. But on one day he and Hema go into the woods behind her house (where she has been forbidden to go) and he shows her an old graveyard there, and tells her a secret: his mother came back to America because she has breast cancer and is probably going to die and she wanted to be here: “It was not so much for treatment as it was to be left alone. In India people knew she was dying…”, that is what this is all about! No one knows except Hema! It is such an intimate secret, and it is full of so much, his fear for his mother, his resentment at having been moved around, his isolation. Hema keeps his secret, does not tell her parents, who continue to complain about these people living in their house and being less than friendly, and after they find a house they do not stay in touch!

For a time my mother and father continued to complain, feeling snubbed. “After all we did for them,” they said before drifting off to sleep. But I was back in my own room by then, on the other side of the wall, in the bed where you had slept, no longer hearing them.

This continues this image of the wall, of not being able to talk to whoever is on the other side (now it is her parents and the secret is different), it is so beautiful here in this last sentence of the story!

To me, the use of “you” here is like she is talking through the wall – she is whispering, “Here, Kaushik, this is how it was for me, how I had such a crush on you and you were so distant, and your parents were not the same as when we knew them before they went to Bombay. Here, Kaushik, you told me a secret back then, and I kept it, and now I will tell you a secret, through the wall, and I can reach through the wall.”

Now, I wonder: why is this story being written now – why has Hema chosen this time, some years after all the events have passed, to talk to Kaushik? I do not think this would be such an issue she addressed him as “him”. Many stories are told in that “memoir voice” which is the term Marko used for it in his article, and they do not make me wonder, well, why are you telling me this now? Because here, we have a narrator is is actually talking to someone. Not just a story! A conversation! Why now? It sounds like the sort of thing she would have done after his family left and she was alone with her secret and then his mother died and she started telling him this (if this were a Hollywood picture, the opening scene would be her at the funeral), but that is not the case, it is much later than that! I do not know, but I understand this is the first in a trilogy of stories that are included in her collection Unaccustomed Earth and when I read the other two stories, maybe I will understand! This story with its “you” draws me into the suspense! I suspect the relationship between Hema and Kaushik deepens at some point as they encounter each other again in a later time, and something tragic happens between them that starts this entire recollection.

But why not just use “I” and “he”? Because that would lose the quality of telling secrets back and forth! The more I think about this element, the more important it is, more important than the issues of clashing immigrant cultures that really are central to the story, such as:

Whatever the reason you were coming, I gathered from my parents’ talk that it was regarded as a wavering, a weakness. “They should have known it’s impossible to go back,” they said to their friends, condemning your parents for having failed at both ends. We had stuck it out as immigrants while you had fled; had we been the ones to go back to India, my parents seemed to suggest, we would have stuck it out there as well.

But in the end, when I think of this story, it is not this cultural issue, or the differences between the families, that I remember. It is very interesting that one couple has Americanized in Bombay and the other has preserved their Bengali culture in Cambridge. The tension as they share a house is built up wonderfully! These are two very interesting families! But I end up remembering a young girl, touching the wall that isolates her and finally speaking through it. And I think that is because she uses “you”.

But I still do not think it is technically a second-person story!