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  • A Cosmopolitan Reading
  • W. Lawrence Hogue (bio)
The Lowland
Jhumpa Lahiri
Vintage Contemporaries
www.upenn.edu/pennpress
415 Pages; Print, $15.95
The Cosmopolitan Novel
Berthold Schoene
Edinburgh University Press
www.upenn.edu/pennpress
200 Pages; Print, $35.95

In “Declaration of Independence” in the June 23, 1997 issue of The New Yorker, Bill Buford, commemorating the Indian novel and the 50th anniversary of India’s independence from Great Britain, discusses a photograph of eleven international Indian writers who write in English. The picture was taken in London, with Arundhati Roy coming in from Amsterdam, Vikram Seth, who lives in Washington, D.C., coming in from Vienna, and others coming in from Toronto, Boston, New York, and Cambridge, with only Roy living full time in India. These migrant Indian writers transgress national boundaries, as they move from India, to Europe, and to North America, experiencing different languages and social and cultural norms and being an integral part of a globalized world. Jhumpa Lahiri, who was born in London, grew up in Rhode Island, and went to college in India, belongs to this group of international, migrant Indian writers. Because of their globalized experience, and the subsequent intermingling with other cultures, these migrant writers belong to what Berthold Schoene in The Cosmopolitan Novel calls “cosmopolitan writers,” (writers who write novels not about the nation state but about “global culture”). They imagine the world rather than the nation.

In this sense, Lahiri’s The Lowland is a brilliant illustration of the cosmopolitan novel. Told as a “complex and complicated sense of the present, which is multi-causal and multi-perspective,” The Lowland, with the Partition, the Naxalite movement, Indira Gandhi’s Emergency law, and Bengali Hindu culture and traditions as historical backdrops, moves between India and the United States and across several generations, telling the story of a family caught up in the intricate drama of globalization. As its focal point, it chronicles the story of two Bengali Hindu brothers, Udayan and Subhash, who grow up middle class (the class enemy of the Indian subaltern) in the Tollygunge section of Calcutta, with the marsh lowland, the Tolly Club, and a mosque near their home, signaling British colonialism and the exodus of Bengali Muslims to East Pakistan/Bangladesh. The brothers grow up in the 1950s and 1960s listening to Radio Moscow, the Voice of America, Radio Peking, and the BBC and reading Marx and Fanon. Although the two brothers are very close, they are different and they follow different paths. After college, the passionate and outgoing Udayan remains in India, becoming a revolutionary, worshipping Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Mao, fighting for an economically and socially just society, rejecting arranged marriage, and becoming affiliated with the Naxalite movement, whose objective is to overthrow the Indian government. With changes in U.S. Immigration laws in 1965, the passive and more conventional Subhash comes to the United States (Rhode Island) to pursue graduate work in marine chemistry. When the police find Udayan, who participates in the killing of a policeman, hiding in one of the ponds in the lowland and execute him, Subhash returns to India, marries Udayan’s pregnant wife, Gauri, returns with her to the US, and raises his brother’s daughter Bela as his own. When Bela is twelve years old and is visiting her grandparents in India with Subhash, the independent Gauri, who has just received her Ph.D. in philosophy, leaves an unhappy and unfulfilled marriage for a job in California.

The saga of this complicated, international family drama is told from many points of views and perspectives, across two continents. Each major character tells his or her own story, with the novel intersecting, clarifying, amplifying, and juxtaposing the various perspectives against each other, without “a starry-eyed utopian or defeatist jeremiad.” What is particularly interesting and quite original in this well-written novel about Bengali Hindus is that, in the United States, they are not defined and do not define themselves as others or as minorities, with all of the psychological baggage of victimization and self-hatred, which can become the problematic of the text. Rather, they are presented as borderless migrants who...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2153-4578
Print ISSN
0149-9408
Pages
pp. 8-9
Launched on MUSE
2015-09-23
Open Access
No
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