“Cheap Wine, Plastic Chairs” is a series that celebrates everyone’s favorite part of the author reading: the Q&A. This week, novelist John Burnham asks author Jhumpa Lahiri about the inspiration for her new novel, The Lowland, and her family’s politics.
John Burnham: I’m just so struck by that scene between the two siblings Udayan and Subhash [in the first chapter of The Lowland] because you could almost say that every single thing in this book is laid out in that scene. It’s a beautiful moment when Udayan, who is the younger brother but much more headstrong in some ways, seeks to protect his older brother. And yet, in that moment, you almost feel as though that’s when they begin to break apart and go in different directions. I was wondering if that was how you came to see them as characters? How did you dream your way into them? What is it in your own experience that helped you do that?
Jhumpa Lahiri: The brothers have a real counterpart. I was given the idea of working with these two brothers from a story I had grown up with, the story of an execution that took place in the early 1970s in the neighborhood where my father was raised in Kolkata. The two brothers from this neighborhood had been involved [in a Naxalite movement], and one evening, during a raid by the paramilitary, they were shot and killed in front of their parents.
I had learned about this as a teenager and became increasingly curious and remained very disturbed and disquieted by this incident, probably because I knew the neighborhood. I had spent so much time there as a young girl, as a teenager and as a young adult, visiting my father’s family, staying in their house, being there. And so, even though I’ve never really lived in India or been raised there, I have had a life-long connection with Kolkata just because it’s where my parents are both from. And part of my specific connection with Kolkata is this neighborhood that I describe and set part of this book in. So the idea of working with two brothers came from that.
Was politics something that was alive in the house with your family? Was it something you grew up with? You’ve said that many of your family members were in the Communist Party.
Yes. I mean, I was raised in the United States, but even before I had heard about these two brothers, I was aware of nationalism and Naxalites even when I was a very young girl, when the movement was actually playing itself out. I remember very heated conversations after dinner parties at my parent’s house in Rhode Island and their friends — their other Bengali friends — would be trying to piece together what was going on.
Something very intense and very violent and very scary was happening on a daily level in Kolkata, impacting the city in the most intense unrest. But my parents were here; it wasn’t something they were getting in the news, on TV, in the papers. It was a totally different world. So they had a little bit of a sense of what was happening, but most of it was coming through letters from their relative — that would take a month to get there, anyway — making oblique references to the fact that things were very frightening or that something happened in the neighborhood. So they were sharing the little bits of information that they had, trying to make sense of something that was going on.
So this happened all through your childhood. When was it that these stories started to come back to you?
When I grew older, because the trips to Kolkata were so frequent, I would hear many things over time. I would hear about a branch of my mother’s family, and I learned that certain cousins of my mom had been involved in this movement. So I knew these things. All of this came to a head at a certain point — knowing about these two brothers in Kolkata.
So When I was 30 years old, when I was just getting my bearings as a fiction writer, before any of my books had been published, when I was just sort of exploring the world of possibilities, here I was in this new galaxy thinking: “What am I going to do? Where am I going to go?” When I was in that period of just approaching this life of mine as a writer, of thinking of stories, of thinking of things to work on and express, these two brothers were with me. And I wanted to write about them partly to address my own ignorance, because I had bits and pieces of information.
In terms of creating a dynamic between the two brothers, I think I was looking at a few things. … My father had a brother who was just a little bit older, and my sense of them was that my father was very much the quieter one and that his older brother was much more headstrong and actually was a Communist Party member. I had spent so much time staying with them and seeing my father compared to his brother. … But in general, my parents' lives were such a source of deep mystery for me as a child.
Their lives before.
Their lives in India, the lives they had left behind. The relationships they had left behind. Their siblings, or their parents, or their cousins, or their friends — all of these rich, deep, intense relationships, which were naturally a part of who they were. When they came here — the way I know them, in America, all of that is absent. I only know them as my parents, and not connected in a historical way. ... It’s just when I get on an airplane and travel thousands of miles and spend a month or two in Kolkata getting sort of glimpses of these different sides of my parents and the fact that they had siblings and they had relationships with those siblings and what those relationships were like. But when they were here, none of that seemed present. So part of my ongoing curiosity for so much of my childhood was trying to understand who my parents were because I knew them and then I didn’t know them at all. There was a whole dimension of them that I wasn’t able to see in our day-to-day lives. There was always something in the background.
Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in unFold, The Leaf Unturned and Italics Mine. As a former co-president of SUNY Purchase’s Cheese Club, she’s a big-time foodie who knows her cheese.
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