I wrote a review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland for Forbes India. Had I not read Sathnam Sanghera’s just before Lahiri’s novel landed on my desk, I’m not sure I’d have noticed the parallels between the two books. It’s interesting to see how starkly differently these two authors depict the Indian diaspora. So this is what I wrote on The Lowland and Marriage Material. This was first published in Firstpost.
A man leaves home and goes to a far away land. There, he finds a few others like him and sets up a new home. His family joins him some time later. The old homeland becomes the stuff of memories, and like this, a diaspora is born.
It’s an ugly and awkward sounding word, but communities that are diaspora fascinate us. They live in a curious intersection of belonging and unbelonging. With every generation, they change and renegotiate their relationships with both their origins and their present. The shifting nature of a diaspora offers a chance to watch individuals and communities build identities rather than inherit them. This self-determination can be a fabulous source of stories, but all too often, the retellings tend to create inflexible stereotypes. Think of how often the arranged marriage appears as The Crisis in films about NRIs.
Literature has traditionally done a better job of depicting the diaspora, thanks to storytellers like Jhumpa Lahiri and Sathnam Sanghera. Both Lahiri and Sanghera have ancestral roots in India and this informs their writing, though the authors don’t consider themselves desi. To them, their resemblance to Indians is literally only skin deep. Despite this, Lahiri and Sanghera have chosen to delve into the experiences of the South Asian diaspora in their work. Their books are not about India, but contain characters whose identity is pivoted upon being Indian even while they live in Britain or America.
Sanghera’s first book, The Boy With The Topknot: A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton, was about his own Punjabi Sikh family. Marriage Material is Sanghera’s second book and his first attempt at fiction. The novel, about a Punjabi family in Wolverhampton, is set in terrain similar to that of his memoir. Similarly, Lahiri’s short stories and novels are mined from her own memories and those of her family. Sanghera and Lahiri may not wear the desi badge as authors, but their writing certainly does.
There are a number of parallels between Marriage Material and The Lowland, which was longlisted for the Booker prize even before it was out in the market. Both novels have significant chunks set in the 1960s and collect stories of two generations. Therelationship between two siblings forms the emotional heart of both books. Violence committed in order to right social wrongs is another shared theme and in both, one male protagonist must figure out whether or not his pacifism betrays his family. The two novels have a woman character who is unconventional in her outlook towards marriage and motherhood, and cuts off ties with her family in order to establish herself. A family secret festers in both and it falls upon the present generation – Arjan in Marriage Material and Bela in The Lowland – to gather together the different, flapping aspects of their identity.
Despite these thematic resemblances, the two books have nothing in common in terms of plot and storytelling. The pace, tone and content of The Lowland and Marriage Material are all very different.
The Lowland is about how desperately people ran from the spectre of Naxalite resistance that haunted Calcutta in the 1960s. Subhash and his brother Udayan grow up with the closeness of twins. But as young men, a distance develops between them when Udayan becomes increasingly enamoured by militant Communism. Subhash, unenamoured by politics, escapes thegrowing unrest in Calcutta with a scholarship to America. Udayan is killed by the police for his political activities. His death casts an ever-lengthening shadow over the lives of Subhash, Gauri (Udayan’s widow who marries Subhash soon after Udayan’s death) and Bela, Gauri’s daughter.
Lahiri’s strength lies in her command over the technicalities of writing. Neat, precise descriptions make certain parts of the world – from Tollygunge Club in Kolkata to storms in Rhode Island – vivid to the reader. As a narrator, Lahiri lingers upon moments, memories and objects from her characters’ largely unremarkable lives, turning them into touchstones for the grief, disillusionment and guilt that are intrinsic to The Lowland. For all this attention to detail, the novel covers four decades in 340 pages without seeming jumpy. It’s easy to follow Lahiri’s lead as she elegantly leaps across oceans to another continent and a different decade.
Yet, The Lowland is a book that is easy to abandon halfway. The novel begins powerfully but soon unspools. One of its significant shortcomings is Lahiri’s inability to depict the charisma of the Naxalite ideology that so charmed Udayan. Lahiri comfortably depicts Subhash’s immunity to the Naxalite rhetoric but her understanding of how it wooed some of Bengali’s brightest minds feels inadequate. There isn’t really a cerebral tussle between different ideologies or points of view in TheLowland, and this is what robs the novel of tension.
Add to that the flatness of Lahiri’s characters, and you have a story that at times feels formulaic – two brothers, two opposing political beliefs. One is quiet and inclined to conform; the other is rebellious and idealistic. Their father is stern, their mother is partial towards the troublemaker. If you’ve read Lahiri’s other books, then the characters and their arcs feel all too familiar. We’ve seen them before in Lahiri’s older works: the shy Bengali man who finds solace in American academia, an awkward marriage, a sad woman who comes to America as a newly-wed, a child who enjoys a special closeness to the father.
Lahiri has a habit of shrouding her stories in a quiet gloom that feels subtly poetic (and blessedly, without lashings of the exotic), but two novels later, her storytelling feels repetitive. Everyone in Lahiri’s land of fiction is relentlessly moody. Even Bela as a little girl speaks with sphinx-like gravitas. Completely steeped in unhappy nostalgia, those who people Lahiri’s imagination seem incapable of even momentary joy. All they have is their isolation. In this cloistered imaginary space, her novel stagnates.
In contrast, you have the Bains and the Bangas from Sanghera’s Marriage Material. There’s no shortage of sadness in their lives. From illness to doomed marriages and racist attacks, it’s all there in this novel, but grief doesn’t overwhelm it. Sanghera as a narrator never loses his dry wit, which makes Marriage Material engaging even it its less gripping sections.
Sanghera based Marriage Material on Arnold Bennett’s novel, The Old Wives’ Tale. Bennett’s novel, published in 1908, followedthe lives of two sisters who worked in their mother’s drapery shop. In Marriage Material, instead of a drapery, it’s a convenience store in Wolverhampton that was established 40-odd years ago by an immigrant Punjabi.
The two sisters are Surinder and Kamaljit Bains. Surinder is sharp, curious and better integrated in England while Kamaljit is more obviously the Indian immigrant with her creaky English and homemaking skills. This could have resulted in the overused trope of one sister being docile and the other, a firebrand, but Sanghera is a better storyteller than that. He creates two terrific, strong women characters, both of whom you love, empathise with and admire as the novel progresses.
Sanghera has a gift for crafting distinctive voices by giving each character their own, recognisable lingo. You can practically hearthe “leh” with which Kamaljit peppers her observations and the Punjabi-flecked English of the immigrants’ children who have become Wolverhampton locals. His characters feel endearingly real. They have flaws and strengths, they laugh and make fun of others, they weep and they try to enjoy life.
As Kamaljit’s son Arjan recounts the past, discovers long-lost relatives and sorts his own head out, Sanghera presents a sensitive portrayal of how in the space of one generation, a foreign land becomes home. Affectionate but not indulgent towards his hometown and its characters, the author readily celebrates the South Asian community’s ability to rally around but doesn’t cast a blind eye to its failure to weed out toxic practices like misogyny and casteism.
It’s perhaps not surprising that even in the world of fiction, we can’t have a situation in which Bengalis have as much joie de vivreas Punjabis, but in contrast to Sanghera’s robust Punjabi men and women, the Bengali academics of The Lowland seem wan and affected. In The Lowland, Lahiri’s Bengali diaspora is almost static because of its inability to let go of the past. Even when one takes two steps forward, like Gauri does, they must eventually take four steps back. It’s telling that The Lowland ends with a flashback. Marriage Material ends with a wedding that happens in the present and contains hope for the future.
The diaspora in Sanghera’s novel has the ability to change and transform itself, which is what makes Marriage Material such a credible story. It’s beginning isn’t very assured, with Sanghera floundering a little when he has to imagine the Bains in their early years. But as his characters adapt and become more at home in England, Sanghera’s storytelling also finds its groove. Lahiri’s plot is arguably a better starting point since the Naxal era hasn’t been as extensively explored in English literature as it has been in Bengali. There are moments, like her description of Naxal leader Kanu Sanyal’s suicide, in which the steady, sad heartbeat of Lahiri’s writing is perfect. Ultimately, however, The Lowland fails both as a depiction of a diaspora and as a story about the effect of the Naxalite uprising because the novelist doesn’t allow her characters space to be anything other than melancholy. Rather than an anchor, the past is a ball and chain around their ankles.
It’s the dynamism of a diaspora that makes it distinctive from mainstream societies that are slower to change and adapt. It’s this quality that slips past The Lowland and is celebrated in Marriage Material. While Lahiri emerges out of The Lowland as an archivist of personal memories, Sanghera’s novel establishes him as an observer.