Book review,, The Lowland

The Lowland: A tale of two brothers and beyond

It takes only one incident to change the destinies of many. Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel since The Namesake, The Lowland, is a striking reflection of this sad reality.  It is sad because the novel at its core disturbs our own peace, makes us want to reach out to a relevant past, help change an action, set fresh wheels in motion and reclaim what is lost in not one, but many lives.  
Set in post-colonial India in a middle-class Bengali household in Tollygunge in then Calcutta, the novel sheds light on the Naxalite movement — a peasant revolution  —  that emerged in the Naxalbari district of West Bengal in the mid 60s, and spread like wildfire among the urban youth. In the process, it also becomes a revelation on how the revolution dismantled a family and dissolved many a hope.
Subhash and Udayan Mitra, brothers born only 15 months apart, were inseparable as children. As kids, Udayan’s daring and fearlessness drew Subhash in; despite being the older of the two siblings, he not only became a participant in Udayan’s daredevilry, trespassing into Tolly Club and stealing golf balls, but also often acquiesced to his ways, joining school a year later to assuage a stubborn Udayan, who “protested at the notion of Subhash going without him”.  
Having done exceptionally well in high school, the two brothers for the first time, part ways joining different colleges on either side of the city. In their separation, though brief, they unknowingly etch out different paths for themselves. Udayan, who by then is gravely affected by the government’s apathy toward the peasant cause, hopes like always, to excite Subhash’s interest. And like always, Subhash, who is both amused and fascinated by Udayan’s passion, also tries to reach out, only this time unsuccessfully.
Their distance grows wider when Subhash secures a fellowship to pursue a PhD in oceanography at a university in Rhode Island. Continents apart, it appears that their separation is sealed, with only letters written sparingly by Udayan, initially glorifying the movement and Mao Tse-tung’s ideals, and later about his elopement with a young, voracious reader Gauri and life back with their parents, who are unaccommodating to his new bride. 
Nothing draws him to Tollygunge for a while. Nothing, but a telegram from home: “Udayan killed. Come back if you can.”
He returns to find his family ruined. His grieving parents won’t talk; Udayan’s wife Gauri, a ghost, carrying her past in her womb, is now an object his parents are willing to wash their hands off. Upset by the developments, and at the same time, seemingly attracted to Gauri, Subhash makes her a proposition of marriage and offers to take her to Rhode Island, to save her the ignominy of his parents and rid her off her haunting past. Gauri, who finds it hard to distinguish Subhash’s voice from her now-dead husband, hesitantly accepts his offer.
From here, the narrative takes a turn, which one wished could have been dreamy, and just like Subhash believed, a hope for a better future for his brother’s wife, the child she carries, and for him too. But Lahiri, who at her best is the master of the unpredictable, weaves a poignant tale, in which her characters’ melancholy-driven impulsiveness continues to drive her story.  
Gauri gives birth to Bela, but in her she sees Udayan, her own failure at preventing him from being involved in the movement, the blood that is still fresh on her hands and the reason for all her sadness. Subhash, who in Bela, sees the cause of all his joy, hopes to one day secure her mother’s love. His only fear is that his daughter will someday know that she is not his. Back home his parents rot; their grief compounded by their second son marrying the same woman they could never accept. In doing so, they are denied happiness, twice. 
The story moves, but moves with so much sadness that it makes you feel heavy from within. The characters alter between living in the past and dealing with the present. In the end, happiness is retrieved, but grudgingly. 
Lahiri’s work took me back to another powerful writer Mahashweta Devi’s play Mother of 1084. While it may appear to be a socio-political commentary, at its heart it is very emotional; there are no judgments being made about the movement, there is just gloom; it is a reflection of lives altered with an action, for some considered ennobling, for some unpardonable, but for a few, a tragedy that unveils itself differently with every passing day.
As a diasporic Indian writer, Lahiri’s work becomes an important critique on grief that can never be escaped, even continents away. You take it along with you, weave a life around it, in the quest of happiness.
What is most interesting is that Lahiri gives everyone a chance to tell you their story, not with the intention to justify their actions, but to convey what needs to be heard. Her narrative once linear, slowly and craftily shifts, between the past and present. Her intelligent craftsmanship does not disappoint, when in the end, she transmits to her reader the voice that you have most waited and wanted to hear. The Lowland, like most of Lahiri’s works, is worth many reads, mostly for the strong-hearted and the politically-charged.   
Standard, nostalgia

Reliving Muscat

One is almost, always overcome by a strange feeling of nostalgia, when one revisits the place of his/her childhood after a long period has elapsed. Having spent my mid-late teens and my enter youth in Mumbai, I realised that a trip back, to my first home Muscat — the land of sun and sand — was long overdue. I have been in Mumbai for over 10 years now, and my love for this fast-moving and always-on-its-toes city has only grown with each year; though, I must confess, that sometimes when I feel saturated and overburdened by the metro’s pace, this love takes an unpredictable nosedive.
This is when I am reminded of the fond memories of my childhood: the stillness of the clear-blue, pristine seas and the sand castles that my brothers and I built across it, on the shore; the times spent ruminating on the swing and slipping down the slides, or whirling round the merry-go-round in the garden; the annual picnics to a farm-house some distance away from the city; my weekly routine of playing the music organ in the church choir; the bi-weekly visits to the super-markets with me riding my youngest brother Steven who was carefully placed on the seat of the shopping cart, across the narrow alleys of market as he dirtied his hands with cheese balls; playing cricket, catching-cook, hide and seek, and badminton in the foyer of our residential building; the daily monotony of going to school, which then I hated, but now sorely miss. I had come to spend all these moments in Muscat, and as insignificant as these activities may now sound, it continued to stay with me.   
Of course, one would contend that this is nothing close to what Mumbai had to offer; with all the hypermarkets, multiplexes, designer stores, picnic spots up the hills of Lonavla and Khandala, smart and economical shopping alongside Fashion Street, Colaba Causeway and, Linking Road and Hill Road in Bandra, and not to forget the lip-smacking street food. Mumbai is also where I found a footing, got those wings to fly, heard my calling, followed my dreams, and earned my first byline. The city honed me, and I owe it everything that I possibly am.    
But some memories are like magnets, they draw you in, and sometimes the best way to evade them is by entering the whirlpool and becoming part of it. When I got my new passport, the first city on my mind was Muscat; when I quit my job, the first place I thought I should visit was (let us not bother guessing) again Muscat.
So, here I am, back to square one…where it all began, and where I first took those small little steps. Tomorrow, it will be a week since I came here. I must admit that I haven’t travelled much for want of a car, except visiting supermarkets, the market area in Ruwi, and catching a glimpse of the three old homes that we rented over a span of 16 years, when we lived here. But nostalgia has already seeped in. For instance, I managed to grab a bite of the yummiest shawarma I have possibly ever eaten at one of mine and Saby’s (younger brother) favourite joints in Ruwi. Surprisingly, it cost only 250 baiza, just 50 baiza more since we last left in 2003; I was shocked because in Mumbai, the price of a shawarma (not even close to the authentic one) jumped from Rs 70 in 2008 to almost Rs 150 recently. But I am not talking inflation here.
Getting back to my story, I remember how Saby and I would play our own secret games to convince dad to buy us a shawarma every time we went past the joint. It was not like dad refused to buy, but mom always threw a fit, because then, we wouldn’t eat food at home. So we would take turns at crying and telling our parents how hungry we were, as soon as we were in good distance from the shawarma joint. So the first time, it would be me, the next time Saby, and when Steven grew a little older, we drew him in our small, stupid plan too. Games we little children play.
Moving on, I also happened to meet the barber, a Bangladeshi national, who used to cut my hair when I was a child. Yes, I did not go to a women’s parlour till I was seven, because mom preferred my hair short; I don’t think I wore my hair down as a child; I embarrassingly strutted around in what was popularly known as the “boy-cut” hair. This barber I remember particularly well, because I would break into tears every time he brought out his scissors. He would try to placate me with Sun-Top, the most popular fruit drink here. I am glad it is still around; my fondest memory of the drink is collecting stickers of the Sun-Top bear (the mascot then) that came along with it. When I met him this time, he recognised me immediately and could not hold back a smile, on the mention of the Sun-Top episode.
No, I do not intend to regale or rather, bore you, with more such anecdotes. I don’t intend to break into a spiel on Muscat either. These moments I hold dear, and I just consider myself lucky to have gotten the opportunity to relive them again. I am going to stop now, hold back other thoughts that are currently running through my head.
But mind if I may mention that my father, who stayed back here after we left Muscat for Mumbai, suddenly seems to be re-living the old times too. Every time he introduces me to one of his young colleagues or friends, he says, “Jane, meet this uncle/aunty.” Ask them their age, they might be younger than me.
I told him, “Dad I am grown up you know, I don’t need to be calling people as old as me uncle or aunty.”
His response, “Oh! Yes, sorry…I don’t know why, but for some reason, I imagine only the young Jane here.”
It does not end there, yesterday when he entered a sweet and dry fruits shop, he bought me so many chocolates. I guess he has forgotten I am 26. But, I think, I like it that way.

A Seeker: A detective series by Steven Borges

My brother Steven Borges recently participated in a Detective series (inter-collegiate) competition, where he was asked to put up a five-part webisode on youtube. He is going to be judged on the basis of the quality of his work and the popularity of his webseries i.e. the number of views/ likes he gets on Youtube. If you could spare a few minutes of your time, to watch the five webisodes and also share it with others, it would do a great deal for him. 🙂

Bombay Stories, Fictional curry

The Water Game

“Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

In this old-rickety building of two floors and six flats, new neighbours have arrived. A family of six we are told: A couple with three very young boys and a baby girl. They have occupied the flat on the last floor. 
And as excited as the rest of the Christian colony is, nothing has disturbed the occupants of Stellar Mansion more than the thought of how the municipal water will now be distributed in the building.
The remaining residents, all ageing, total only six, with one old woman — either widowed or single — in each flat; the previous misfits being the Machado couple, who like the others are also riding in the sunset, and whose two children are settled, much to their displeasure, in Australia. Their happiness knew no containment when they learnt of a new family having moved in.

“It will be like the good old days again…aaah…the sound of young kids in our building..I cannot wait Joseph, I cannot wait,” Mrs Merlyn Machado whispered into her husband’s ear, even as her next-door neighbour and the society’s secretary Ellena sat across the other end of their drawing room rambling about the hubbub that the rest of them were to expect, now that Stellar Mansion was going to be home to four young children.

“Its been so long since we had children in Stellar. Almost 15 years now, the last being your son, Merlyn, who followed your daughter Sarah’s footsteps and went abroad. There has been so much peace and quiet since…I don’t know how I am going to cope with having a family around…” Ellena would have continued, but Merlyn cut her short. “What do you mean by ‘peace and quiet’ Ellena? Were my kids noisy, did they bother you..”

“No, no, no, no. That is not what I meant Merlyn darling. You raised such sweethearts, they still send me Christmas cards each year. Sigh, I cannot expect every family to inculcate such discipline in kids like the two of you did.”

“Don’t fall for it Mel. She is humouring you…you know the tough time she gave us when Pat and Sarah were around,” Joseph tried to murmur into his wife’s ears.

Mr Joseph Machado, a retired plumber, could never speak softly, no matter how hard he tried. His deep baritone always gave way; this time it dropped a sour echo in Ellena’s ears. She got up immediately, but lightly, acting as if she never heard a thing, “Oh! The two of you…your habit of whispering into each others’ ears, when in the company of guests, hasn’t died yet. Anyway, I shall take leave now; have some files to get sorted.”

“Oh! okay..Bye Ellen, thank you for bringing the good news,” Mrs Machado said, as she led her to the door.

“Merlyn darling, I am not sure it will be such good news, once you begin to consider how our water is going to be distributed now. Remember they are six, and so are we,” Ellena exclaimed, and walked out, leaving Mrs Machado with a bad aftertaste. Her beaming smile suddenly wore out, and she grew slightly pale. 

Having convinced the Machados of their unexpected doom, 70-year-old Ellena D’Souza’s job became half easy. She went on to spread the bad news from one neighbour to the next, leaving a pall of gloom in the already as-good-as-dead mansion.  

The problem, as one could see, was that of water. In this burgeoning city of Mumbai — where the ratio between the hourly-increasing population and the available basic amenities was skewed and stank of poor town-planning — water was scarce and had to be rationed, just like kerosene, rice and sugar.
And like most people, who lived in quaint, colonial homes, where water was not stocked in big tankers installed on terraces, but in buckets and water drums at home, the residents of Stellar Mansion were also feeling the crunch. 
One municipal pipeline was channeled to six flats, and fed water daily for an hour starting 5 every morning. Each flat barely filled five to seven buckets within an hour, since the force of the water was inadequate, sometimes just beating into parched steel buckets in drops, both big and small. On good days, which were a rarity in the summers, water flushed for a good 15 minutes like waterfall, before beginning to thin slowly with the tick of each second. Until today, a mutual understanding between the residents of the five flats had ensured five buckets full for each household, with the Machados bargaining for an extra bucket, because of Joseph’s embarrassing diarrhoea problem that resurfaced every two days, and Ms Caroll Lobo, who lived below the Machados, requesting one-and-a-half buckets more, so that she could feed water to the plants in her garden. Previously, Ms Lobo needed at least three buckets for her garden, but was later forced to get rid of most of her plants, following the insistence of the other residents. New neighbours meant a bucket less for each home, but after so much compromise already, none were willing to make that sacrifice. 

Thus, in this apprehensive and water-starved building, the Braganzas came to make a new home for themselves. None had warned the family of their impending troubles, not even the landlord who had sold them the flat that had been lying vacant for over 35 years. 
So, when they finally settled down, Ms Ellena D’Souza and the rest of the neighbours, were expecting a huge uproar. They were both prepared and unwilling to budge on the earmarked water distribution. 
But Day One passed, and there was not a single word of complaint from the new neighbours. Day Two, and the water arrangement continued to remain unaffected, despite the presence of a family of six in the same building. Day Three: Apart from the clattering of kids, up and down the stairs — that brought great joy to Mrs Merlyn Machado — all was normal. Now, everyone started growing suspicious, but nobody dared to discuss the issue, lest the Braganzas demanded a bucket or two more. 
“Let us not jinx our own happiness,” the widowed Ms Caroll Lobo advised Ms Ellena D’Souza over the phone, when the latter suggested that the issue be discussed in a residents’ meeting. 
On Day Four, the Machado couple dropped by at Ellena’s home, after making a courtesy visit to the Braganza household.
“The children are so wonderful Ellena…,” Mrs Merlyn informed, “They gave us a peck on the cheek, and also promised to come over now and then, to spend time with us. You must meet them Ellena; such darlings, I tell you,” she added.
“Oh! Forget that, did they discuss the water problem,” Ellena asked curiously. 
“…not at all. In fact, they appeared seemingly happy with their new house, and its condition, despite the fact that it has been out of use for over three decades. And they did not mention water, not even once.”
“Strange, don’t you think Merlyn,” Ellena said. “Do they even bathe…I mean, were the children clean, you know am just checking, since they kissed you and all,” she added embarrassingly. 
“Of course, Ellena. In fact, they smelled of Johnson & Johnson’s.”
“Aaah! Interesting! Then I need to go and check how much water they have been using,” Ellena said.
“Come on, Ellena, spare them your grief. You need to stop behaving like an old cat. They are happy, so are we,” Mr Joseph Machado butted in, bluntly, “Leave them alone.” 

That rude remark from her arch-nemesis did not stop Ms Ellena D’Souza from prying into the life of the Braganzas. As a daily practice, she would snoop from the balcony of her home, to see Mr James Braganza leave for work in his car, and Mrs Christabell Braganza drop her three young boys to school. “They all looked spic-and-span,” she wondered, “…but how?”
“From where did they get the water?” she thought, more amused than shocked. 

After a month had passed, and still no complaints from the Braganzas end, Ms Ellena D’Souza’s inquisitive mind gave way; she decided to pay a brief visit to the family, to check what could have possibly gone so right for the new neighbours, when the rest of the building had been denied good water supply for years together. 
Christabell, who was at home with her young daughter, greeted her warmly and also welcomed her into her flat. The house looked neat and tidy. “You sweep and mop your house daily I am guessing,” Ellena asked. 
“Oh! Yes, with so many children around, you can’t but help. I need to ensure that the house is dirt and germ free.”
“Yes, that is true, very true.” 
After a brief pause, and a lot of thinking on how best to put her question forward, Ellena asked, “Christabell darling, I hope am not prying too much, but could you tell me how much water you use to mop the floor of your home…my maid tends to use very little water, and often, after a mop, my home looks dirtier than before,” she lied because considering her water situation, she only mopped her floor once, during Christmas.
“Just two buckets daily Ms D’Souza…one with plain water, and another with phenyl.”
“Just two, just two, just two,” the figure kept playing in Ellena’s head. “And that too for cleaning the floors, while I barely get five buckets daily. What a waste?” she wondered.
Observing the old woman break into sweat, Christabell asked, “Ms D’Souza are you okay…you appear pale. Should I get you some water.”
“No, I am okay. Just a little flustered. Can I use your bathroom dear?”
“Yes sure,” Christabell said, as she led her to one.

To her shock, the faucet in the bathroom was running. It was 11 am, and municipal water never came at this time. Then How? Also, the flush worked; when Ellena tried using it, it sprayed what she quantified as almost two buckets of water. She hurriedly got out, and decided to pointedly ask Christabell the secret behind the unlimited source of water to their home.
“Chrsitabell do you get continuous water supply?” she asked, throwing her an accusatory glance. 
“No Ms D’Souza, of course not…it is the municipal water.”
“Then how is your faucet running even now?”
Slightly taken aback by the questioning, Christabell said, “I don’t understand what you mean…it is all municipal water, stored in a tank.”
“Tank…there’s a tank in this building,” Ellena asked.
“Well, there is one, above our house.”
“You have a tank…when did you install it?” she asked, shaking furiously.
“Ms D’Souza calm down. We did not install anything…there was one when we came here.”
Unable to calm her nerves, she said, “Take me up to the tank.” 
Since it was a roofed building, only the Braganzas and 90-year-old Ms Tresa Lawrence, both of whom lived on the last floor, had access to the roof. But considering Ms Lawrence’s age, it seemed unlikely that she ever considered taking trips above, lest she desired to ascend higher above to God’s home.

After struggling a climb on the unsteady wooden ladder with Christabell carefully trailing behind, when Ellena finally reached the flat surface on the roof, she saw what she had so deeply desired all these years.

The black water tank. 

But even as she tried to keep balance, what caught her eyes were three pipelines jutting out of the tank; she slowly closed in and peered below from where she could see the rear of the building. What she saw was the work of a genius plumber. While one pipeline was directed to the Braganzas, the next ended at the home of the Machados — who lived right below them; the last stopped at Ms Caroll Lobo’s residence. 
“It was a ploy, and how the shrewd Ms Ellena D’Souza had fallen for it all these years.”
She got down slowly and thanked Christabell for her kind reception before taking leave.

That evening a note was dropped in the mailboxes of the Machados and Ms Lobo.
Joseph had the ill-fortune of reading it first: 

“With much sadness and a heavy heart, the secretary of the society has decided to re-work the water distribution plan. Bearing in mind the arrival of our new neighbours — a family of six — the residents of Stellar Mansion will now have to be more accommodating to ensure that equal quantity of water is distributed to all. In light of the recent developments, we request that only two buckets of water be filled by each home from today onward.  P.S. No extra buckets of water will be provided to people suffering from diarrhoea or those with gardens.”

Mr Joseph rushed to the phone, he dialed his widowed sister’s number. “Caroll, the old cat found the tank…we are busted.”