Cruel, Depressing Love

Standing there, unable to find him, she felt a new solidarity with him. The bond of not existing.

Published in 2013, The Lowland: A Novel was Jhumpa Lahiri’s fourth book after The Namesake, Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth.

It starts back in the sixties when inseparable brothers Subhash and Udayan part as Subhash moves to USA for studies and Udayan decides to stay in Calcutta and participate in the Naxalite movement.

In Calcutta, Udayan has a grave secret that is buried when he is killed one afternoon. However, before his death, he made his wife Gauri a party to it.

Gauri spends a lifetime guarding their secret from the rest of the world. It nauseates her, eats her up, annihilates all her relationships including the one with her daughter and leaves her alone for most of her life, but for some short flings and experiments here and there. In her self-induced solitude, she forges solidarity with her dead husband. Despite Udayan being dead since she was twenty three, she spends a good four or five decades with their lamp of love burning strong, the flame getting firmer and stronger everyday, without ever compromising their secret.

People have always raised concerns regarding Jhumpa Lahiri’s inability to describe Calcutta, calling out her citizenship. I always find these claims preposterous. Not only does she accurately describe life in Calcutta, there are even some accurate geographical and climatic descriptions at times.

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The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer is Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning novel published in 2016.

Mr Nguyen has set the narration in a fabulous manner so as to depict the war and its after-effects from both the imperialist and Vietcong points of view. The trick he has applied is to present it through a narrator who apparently works for the military and, all at the same time, is a mole implanted by the Vietcong. Also, he is Vietnamese and is European as well, being the love-child of a Vietnamese mother and a European father. His mixed blood reflects in his appearance as well. Besides, having studied in the US, he speaks English like a US native.

The author has maintained an even face throughout the novel, vindicating the absurdities in both sides’ approach to the war. As he tries to portray throughout the novel, none of them is an army of saints. There is massive breach of human rights across both ends. Both sides’ objectives are also absurd in their own ways. Towards the later part of the novel, the narrator even observes that the leader of the imperialist-backed force looks exactly like the Vietcong leader Ho Chi-Minh.

Through its 384 pages, it carries us across Vietnam, US and even Philippines on a sympathising journey. While the narrator ends up as a sympathizer for both the warring sides, we sympathise with him.

An Efficient Storytelling

I ended up reading 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad as I learnt that it is a compilation of 13 detached stories rather than a continuous novel. It didn’t disappoint me that way. It depicts an initially fat girl’s life by picking up thirteen random set of days spread across almost those many years.

It starts in Mississauga, which she fondly refers to as Misery Saga, where we meet Elizabeth and her friend Mel. Here Elizabeth/Liz/Lizzy is the fat girl and Mel is the not so fat one. It is clear right from here that Liz is a regular teenager depressed about her obesity and the book is not about changing people’s perception regarding beauty. She is not here to offer a discourse regarding beauty not being skin deep and neither is she going to shame the body-shamers. What she rather does is far more amazing as, in the course of the book, she scraps a huge chunk of her flesh to gradually transform into a slim “moderately fuckable” woman. It takes years of self-motivation coupled with an extremely disciplined life to achieve this. Through the quaint stories scattered across the book, the writer shows us the colossal effort that Liz applies to achieve the transformation.

While her life remains disciplined and centred around gym, Pilates, aerobics and salads that bring about the extreme transformation, the timid insecure teenager simultaneously transforms into a callous haughty woman unable to handle relations. When the end is near, she tries to cling on to her husband. The author paints an eloquent depiction of the way she attempts to clutch on to a last straw to save her sinking relationship.

The next chapter is a kind of a gradually dwindling hope of a reconciliation, and the subsequent chapters sketch her moderately dull life post divorce.

The second chapter is magnificiently narrated in second person.

The book itself is an overall nice effort.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. So started Exit West: A Novel by Mohsin Hamid. It took me a while to recall more than two novels with opening lines so strong. The legendary It was the best of times. It was the worst of times and the naughty cat that ate the mouse opening from Doctors by Erich Segal were all I could think of.

What followed was a very intricately thought about plot where two carefully crafted charecters come close in a disturbed city. Their thoughts and beliefs differ yet they match at certain pockets. While the shy and somewhat pious Saeed is smitten just a few pages into the novel, the cautious yet carefree Nadia takes a while to reciprocate.

The conditions in their city gradually worsen and take an ugly turn. So much so that Saeed’s mother gets killed one day. Interestingly, this brings them even closer and they start living under the same roof. They are ultimately left with no choice but to flee their homeland together and start living in a Greek island as refugees. The transportation to Greece is beautifully enabled by a magical use of magic realism.

In Greece, and subsequently in England, they face a new set of hardships. The story beautifully hovers on how they work through such troubles and ultimately triumph.

Once they leave the shores of Europe and their lives become somewhat easy, the narration loses pace. I presume the author did it intentionally to depict how stale their lives became.

It is a beautifully executed story and the use of magic realism is amusing. It did leave a hangover once finished.

…for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.

 

The God of Utmost Happiness

I was eighteen or nineteen when The God of Small Things mesmerised me. Could a novel with only one mid-plot death – not murder – and practically no twisted tale leave such a deep mark on its reader? Can a mere memoir turn a hard hitting novel? Can a resident Indian create such an English language induced storm in your mind?

She had not written since. We eagerly waited for The God of Small Things part 2. Numerous short non-fictions came up, the Narmada agitation and subsequent arrest happened, Kashmir happened and the second novel eluded us.

At last after waiting almost seventeen years, a Facebook notification caught me (it was indeed seventeen years, as I read TGOST a couple of years after they published it). The second instalment of The God of Small Things was on the way.

I initially thought of pre-ordering a signed copy, and then I realised it would stretch the wait by two or three days. I waited till 6th June and bought the Kindle version instead.

The opening line cleared the air of all elusions about another TGOST. It started with an immensely researched depiction of old Delhi. An intricate insight into the lives of a particular set of social outcasts followed, and once the plot gathered a precariously fast pace, she brutally flipped a switch and transported us to the beautiful Kashmir valley. The story thereby lost steam: as if it started from scratch.

What followed was an intricately researched depiction of the Kashmir insurgency; a seemingly insider’s view of the people’s movement there. While I hoped that she would take us back to the world of Anjum and self-proclaimed Saddam Hussein, I inadvertently fell in love with Tilottama as well. Somehow, Tilottama seemed like a diluted portrayal of the author. A don’t give a damn attitude matched with bizarre dressing style and falling for the supposedly wrong guy.

The two worlds ultimately intersected, in a graveyard, around a baby that signified new hope. Whatever we lost, whatever was snatched from us would come back some day. With this notion, the story ended.

It is an immensely experimental work, frequently hops between third and first persons, there are close to a dozen poems in Urdu and it also describes a brief history of room-afza.

I would love to end by saying I will wait another twenty years for her next novel. However, since our author is so predictably unpredictable, I will say instead that I will simply watch out for what she does next.