The 2013 novel written by Jhumpa Lahiri explores various streams and ideas of female independence within itself. In this essay, the foremost aim would be to analyze and look within the pages of this text and put forth arguments proving that the novel is indeed a representation of a feminist text through the principal character of Gauri and identify the grey areas that her character occupies.
Many readers identify Lahiri’s text as a story that revolves more around the different ideologies and different life paths carried by two brothers Subhash and Udayan. The novel is a stark portrayal of choices, taking the readers through the Naxalite Revolution in Calcutta and an immigration that is conducted to fill vacuum in the lives of protagonists. First appearing in the form of an image in the hands of Subhash, who gazes at the black and white photograph, Gauri, is emblematic of the women of 1960’s India, educated and independent, but to Subhash she comes to represent the milestone that Udayan has reached before him.
“From time to time he drew out the picture and looked at it. He wondered when he would meet Gauri, and what he would think of her, now that they were connected. And part of him felt defeated by Udayan all over again, for having found a girl like that.” (The Lowland, 45)
Gauri emerges in the text as one of the more enigmatic female characters created by Lahiri. She can be starkly contrasted with her other female protagonists like Aashima Ganguly (The Namesake) and Hema (Hema and Kaushik , Unaccustomed Earth). Lahiri’s women are vehemently independent and grow in the novels, carving their own space in the minds of the readers. But Gauri becomes an anti heroine in the novel and forms a certain convoluted aura around her that makes it difficult for the readers to practice sympathy and apathy towards her. She is alienated in the text and remains an outsider in both the families she enters, unable to form a lasting bond with anyone in the novel.
She married Udayan, knowing and participating in his ideologies and revolutions, in fact one the reasons Udayan states to Subhash for falling in love and marrying Gauri was that ‘she prefers books to jewels and saris. She believes as I do.’ (The Lowland, 46). In marrying Gauri, he also makes her a participant in murder, which transforms her idea about how she feels about his revolution and whether he married her so he could access her assistance in achieving his own goals. In doing so she also becomes this self reflexive female character of the text that at she is a wife trying to fulfill all her duties towards her husband and his family but at the same time, she conveys her own thoughts about a large movement towards which her husband so passionately was involved.
What makes Gauri a problematic figure in the novel, is the sense of isolation and distance she feels from her child and second husband. During one of the major story arcs of the novel, after the death of Udayan and realizing that she is with Udayan’s unborn child, Gauri marries and moves to Rhode Island with Subhash. Suffering from post partum depression, after the birth of her child Bela, Gauri is unable to form any sort of connection with her child and experiences anger and resentment towards Subhash as he is more successful in performing his duties as a parent than her.
“………and every time Subhash took over, so that she could get some rest or take a shower or drink a cup of tea before it turned cold, every time he picked Bela up and comforted her when she cried so that Gauri did not have to, she could not deny the relief she felt at being allowed, however briefly, to step aside.” (The Lowland, 116)
This reversal of pragmatic gender roles in the text, gives the readers a perspective into the very less talked about issue of postpartum depression in women and especially through the character of Subhash a deep understanding and sensitivity in a father figure which is not something new in Lahiri’s works. Especially if one considers Kiran Desai’s characterization of the Judge, another adoptive father figure, she introduced in her novel, Inheritance of Loss. The two figures are different in the way they choose to perform the duties of an adoptive parent, where unlike Subhash, the Judge chooses to ignore and isolate his granddaughter.
Gauri ultimately leaves both Subhash and Bela and moves away to California to pursue her academic interests in philosophy, and this is where readers of the text stand divided over Gauri’s persona. Though it is quite simplistic to assume that as a mother abandoning one’s child isn’t a question or step that a woman should consider, but it is equally difficult to ignore that had Gauri stayed with both Bela and Subhash, she wouldn’t have been able to provide any of them with familial happiness that they sought and expected from her.
“She’d convinced herself that Subhash was her rival, and that she was in competition with him for Bela, a competition that felt insulting, unjust. But of course it had not been a competition; it had been her own squandering. Her own withdrawal, covert, ineluctable. With her own hand she’d painted herself into a corner, and then out of the picture altogether.” (The Lowland, 180)
A feminist reading of this text can also be portrayed in the way Lahiri talks about the female sexual independence. Gauri has a fluid sexuality where she has sexual relations with women as well once she is living independently as a Professor in California. She is not repressed. And neither is Bela, who grows up to be an environmental preserver, and live a life of a wanderer. Bela, in fact is bold and in spite of the reservations of her father, chooses to have a child without the support of a partner. Lahiri’s women are quite emblematic of sexual freedom and expression and one can find them scattered in her novels and stories. Hema, from Unaccustomed Earth also asserts her sexual independence just like Bela and Gauri do.
Therefore, it’s possible to argue that the novel is a feminist text in the terms of its representation of female independence. Gauri as a character is at the same time remarkable and a little problematic. But she carves her own destiny and doesn’t leave things to fate. She understands the passion Udayan had for the revolution, and accepts the fact that it was bigger than their relationship. She makes the decision of leaving Subhash and Bela because she realizes that they among themselves would be a much happier family than they would be with her. And in doing so, Lahiri again unravels the complexities of her female characters and how they continue to live in these grey areas, long after the text is finished.
Roll no – 26
Section B Eng (H)IIIrd Year
- Lahiri, Jhumpa. “The Lowland”. Knopf Publication (2013).