Last night I stayed up late to finish The Lowland, a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. My poor husband had to listen to me yelling at the characters by the end of the book, and the ending left me affected but dissatisfied in a way that powerful-but-not-great writing sometimes does.
I’m still reflecting on the book this morning, and after reading several worthless analyses and goodreads reviews, I decided to write a blog post. While this is obviously not a book blog, I decided to write here because: 1. I began to write a review and realized that one of the reasons a character offends me so is because of my morality, so I can tie this in with my worldview as an atheist, 2. I HAD TO WRITE SOMETHING SOMEWHERE and thought it’d be an interesting topic, and 3. It’s a personal blog so I can write about what I like!
So I triumphantly told my husband this morning, “I can write about it in my blog because of how the book relates to my morality, because as an atheist…” and he filled in, “…you have no morals?”
But if I had no morals, would I warn you about the MAJOR SPOILERS you will encounter in this post? You have been warned.
Where to begin with this book? The writing, in my opinion, is beautiful. I was able to fill my mind with images from the streets of Kolkata (Calcutta, at the time the book is set) and Rhode Island beaches, beautiful scenes of characters interacting. I loved some of the characters. I hated one, and was indifferent to others, but the two characters I loved (Subhash and Bela) were enough to keep me reading.
The book follows members of a family with a complicated story. 2 brothers grow up, inseparable. One brother, Udayan, gets involved in the Naxalite movement, committing acts of terrorism that ultimately lead to his death (execution, though without a formal trial, and by being shot in a field, so it could also be viewed as murder). Before he dies, he marries a woman who never believed she would get married, an isolated, academic, bookish-type, completely unable to fit into the mold that society prescribed for her, named Gauri. This is the character I hated, because she had so much potential to be a fantastic character, and instead burned bridges, ruined families, and never found fulfillment in her life.
Before his death, Udayan impregnated Gauri, but she didn’t find out until after his death. I understood from the beginning of this situation that Gauri never wanted to be a mother, though this fact is more-or-less spelled out directly by the end of the book. It is also revealed later that Udayan explicitly told Gauri he did not think he should be a father. So, her pregnancy is complicated, and I’m sure she felt despair, hopelessness, and fear about the situation. She is also living with her in-laws, who do not accept her, and her mother-in-law intends to sort of take over the raising of the child. So, when the opportunity arises for her to marry the other brother (Subhash) and move to the US with him, she takes it. Since Gauri also contributed to multiple acts of terrorism (though never fully informed about what she was doing, she got information or delivered messages and knew enough), escaping from India to escape her potential execution/murder also seems logical. The fact that she was involved in the terrorist acts also seemed obvious to me, though this was “revealed” later in the book, with details about specifically what she had done.
This is where everything went wrong with Gauri. Here’s Gauri, pregnant with Udayan’s child, and Subhash marries her. But guess what never happens? SUBHASH AND GAURI NEVER HAVE A DTR. (DTR = determine the relationship, meaning a conversation in which the terms of the relationship are frankly and openly discussed). Here’s step one of how this book offends my moral sense. I’ve mentioned before about consent-based sexual ethics. Part of this means: open and honest conversations about how both parties feel about a sexual relationship, that occur frequently as the relationship progresses.
I remember when my husband and I started dating, and on our second date when things were getting physical, I asked him how he was feeling and what he was thinking about the relationship. Basically, his response amounted to, I like you but I just met you and want to spend more time with you before we decide if this is going to be a long-term exclusive thing. And I agreed, felt the same way, and consented to continuing our physical relationship on these terms. When we started getting more emotionally invested and had spent more time together, we had another DTR, and the terms changed to becoming an exclusive relationship with a higher level of commitment, that we both still consented to. This is my understanding of consent-based ethics: everything is out in the open, if either party starts to feel differently and wants to change the terms, there is a discussion, and everyone involved understands the terms and can leave anytime the terms change to something they don’t like or want. Yes, it takes guts, but it’s SO MUCH BETTER THAN MYSTERY. I can’t fathom having a relationship with mystery, and the guessing game involved with dating is absurd. But that’s probably something I should dive into in another post.
Back to Subhash and Gauri. Gauri completely closes herself off and gives no hint to her internal emotional state or mental understanding of the situation. Subhash assumes that one day she’ll learn to love him. Subhash takes on the role of father to the child, Bela, and fully devotes himself to this task. Gauri does not like being a mother and closes herself emotionally to the child, in addition to remaining closed to Subhash. The child grows up assuming her parents are her biological parents, never dreaming her father is actually her uncle and that her parents do not love each other, that the marriage was only for convenience.
What should have happened, in my version I’m rewriting in my head: Subhash and Gauri determine the relationship. Gauri explains her boundaries and expresses her gratitude to Subhash for making it possible for her to come to the US and escape India (in the book, I don’t recall her ever expressing her gratitude to him). She doesn’t need to expose her involvement in the terrorist acts while doing this, because it is enough for Subhash to understand that she did not want to live with in-laws who didn’t love her or accept her. Subhash understands that it is a marriage of convenience, and will not expect Gauri to come to love him one day. It is complicated in regards to the child (Bela). I think that either Gauri should have left when Bela was young so that Bela never knew her mother, knowing that her uncle was raising her, OR that Gauri and Subhash should have divorced when the child was very young and determined custody – either full custody with Subhash, or visitation rights for Gauri if she felt like she had anything, emotionally, to offer to the child. In either situation, Bela should have known the truth about her biological parents and that Subhash is her uncle, who loves and raises her like a father (and is her legal guardian).
INSTEAD, Gauri chooses the WORST POSSIBLE OPTION because apparently none of the characters in this book have the most basic interpersonal skills. While Subhash and Bela are in India visiting his parents… Gauri leaves. She leaves a note on the table to detail her actions and moves to California. SHE ABANDONS THEM… WITH A NOTE… WHEN BELA IS 12 YEARS OLD. TWELVE. I completely understand why Gauri wanted to abandon them. I get why Gauri chose an academic, career-driven life. BUT, this does not excuse or justify her actions. One, her choice to remain completely closed to Subhash and never have a conversation with him about how she viewed their marriage. Two, her choice to be around her daughter, not even functioning as her mother, more as an adult who supervised that she was getting bathed and fed and not hurting herself, then abandon her. Three, how she never, in her life, fully comes to terms with Udayan’s death, and she lets that one event rule her life and undermine her ability to form any kind of meaningful relationship besides the measured, limited, academic advisor-student relationship or colleague relationship.
I’m not asking Gauri to love Subhash. I’m not asking her to step up and become an emotionally available mother. She doesn’t even have to come to terms with Udayan’s death for all I care. But I want her to treat others decently and act on the simplistic perspective-taking skills she does have to recognize how her actions will affect others and have the courage to have a freaking conversation with someone. If you can’t have a conversation, WRITE A FREAKING NOTE. “Dear Subhash, I’ve been thinking about the terms of our marriage and I want to communicate to you my perspective.” It can be as clinical and direct as that, it’s better than shutting yourself off and then devastating people and almost destroying a relationship between father and daughter. THEY WOULD HAVE BEEN BETTER OFF WITHOUT YOU GAURI!!!!
I think the reason her actions offend me so much is because of how her abandonment affects her daughter, Bela. Abandoning Subhash is one thing – but he is an adult, with adult reasoning skills and emotional processing skills. He will, with time, be able to address the hurt and heal. Bela has a much more difficult time with it. When Gauri leaves, she leaves a note to Subhash, and says nothing directly to Bela. She doesn’t leave Bela her own note. She leaves the task of explaining her abandonment, and the reasons for the abandonment, to Subhash. She doesn’t even have the courage to address Bela directly.
Actions matter. Actions matter more than intentions. I used to think it was the other way around – that intentions mattered more than actions. Because, you know, God understands your intentions and can judge you based on what you wanted to achieve. But now I realize that your actions matter more. I can intend to be environmentally conscious, but if I don’t act on that, the environment will still suffer. It won’t change because I wanted to try. It will only change based on my actions. Gauri’s actions are horrible. Her intentions, perspective, and feelings are valid. It is OK not to want to be a mother. It was her responsibility to recognize that, communicate it, and then decide the best course of action with Subhash. Instead, she hid her feelings, tried to play a part, and ended up hurting everyone.
I wish Gauri had stepped up. I wish Gauri had said, early on, “Subhash, this life isn’t for me.” I wish she had followed a course that would have allowed her to pursue her academic, career-driven life, maybe never remarrying, maybe learning to deal with the death of Udayan and learning to love and trust again. But I wish she had done it in a way that caused the least harm to Bela and Subhash. I love the idea of Subhash being a single father, raising his niece as though she was his biological daughter, talking to her about her biological father and reliving the childhood memories by telling them to Bela. I wish Gauri had moved on with her life and either became a competent adult who learned to deal with the emotional trauma caused by Udayan’s death or not – maybe it haunted her the rest of her life and left her emotionally stunted. She still could have done the right thing by Subhash and Bela.
In life, I accept that I will make decisions that hurt others. I accept, now, that one day I will need to have the tough conversation with my parents to let them know I am an atheist. But, in my life, I try to take responsibility in understanding myself and understanding how to act in a way that hurts others the least. I am not perfect in this, but I have recognized when I have wronged others in the past and taken time to say, “What went wrong? What did I do to contribute to this situation in which others were hurt? What part in this was not my fault, and what part was?” When I hurt others, I try to understand and then act differently in the future. The reason Gauri’s character offends me is because she sees her actions, recognizing that she is hurting others, and neither apologizes nor tries to change. By the end of the book, there is hope of reconciliation between Gauri and her daughter Bela. This left me with an angry, hopeless feeling because Gauri recognized where she was wrong but never tried to address the problems or change. At least, I saw no hope of her changing. There’s some kind of complete disregard – she sees that she is hurting others, and doesn’t care to change her actions. Her thinking and her approach to life are broken.
Gauri could have been a powerful, brave character who pushes back against stereotypes and said, “I made some tough decisions, but I tried my best to communicate to others and lessen the hurt caused by these situations. In the end, I had a fulfilling life as a woman while rejecting motherhood and family obligations. While I regret some things about my relationship with my daughter, I understand that I left her with a father who loves her and an understanding about my life choices. I have made peace with my late husband’s death and my involvement in the terrorist acts, and I understand that I can never right those wrongs, and have done my best to prevent wrong action in the future.”
Or she could have been a character forever haunted by her late husband, but who still did not take the worst possible route in removing herself from her family. “I experienced this trauma in my life and was in some difficult situations. I did the best I could to try not to hurt others, but in the end I had to escape. I did my best to communicate with my husband and daughter. I explained my reasons to those people, and even if they don’t understand, at least I did my part to right the wrong caused by the situation. I have to live my life. But, I don’t understand my late husband’s death and why my one chance for love was taken from me, and I am stuck here.” This could have been a really interesting character study.
But no. Instead she said, “I screwed people over by not communicating with anyone, trying to deny my feelings, and making horrible decisions because I reached the breaking point instead of dealing with it all. I could have spent time developing coping skills or seeking help, but instead I decided not to grow or change, and my entire life was spent being stagnant and continuing to make bad decisions, never reflecting on how to change and make better decisions in the future. Oh well.”
This is why the book did not sit well with me. I hate characters who have the tools to recognize they are wrong, but do nothing to understand, learn, or change.