Between the Lines Book Club: Interviews with Jhumpa Lahiri

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Time for Between The Lines Book Club! Leave your comments about The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri below. Better yet, join us in Sacramento, CA tomorrow ( 6/2715). We meet at 10:30 AM at Arden Dimick Library, at 891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA.

Note: next Friday I will not be posting as I’ll be enjoying Fourth of July weekend and bracing for San Diego Comic-Con. That cosplay won’t pack itself! We’ll be back here to talk about July’s pick, Orfeo, by Richard Powers, on Friday July 10.

The Lowland was a much-anticipated book and as such there are many interviews available with Lahiri. Here’s a selection:

The New Yorker has a fairly long interview with Lahiri in which she talks about the book. She also talks about a new experiment – writing in Italian., which is a relative new language for her:

But what I think I find really freeing about this strange, experimental, whatever-you-want-to-call-it phase is that I love the freedom of writing in an imperfect way. I feel what I felt as a child, when I was first learning how to write stories, when I was first writing stories, and I was first experiencing that pleasure of putting sentences on paper and the excitement that it would give me. I think as an adult I do still feel that excitement, but it’s different. Writing in another language is humbling. It’s so hard. How I explain it to people is that I feel as though I’ve tied my right hand behind my back on purpose and I’m writing with my left hand, and I recognize how much sloppier it is, how much more awkward it is, how much more out of control it is in a way. But I also love doing without so much. I feel that when I describe something in Italian I just have a very limited amount of resources. My toolbox is small. And I only have a certain amount of vocabulary. I have the grammar and I can make it all work in that way, but it’s much simpler as a result. It’s not the same process of writing in English, where I could choose from one of twenty-five different words to describe how the sky looks to me. I can’t do that in Italian. I might have two or three words. So it feels more direct, in a way, the process, because there’s a strange purity about it, even though it’s so imperfect.

Parul Sehgal did an interview with Lahiri for Elle India in which Lahiri talks about her writing process:

The book begins: “East of the Tolly Club, after Deshapran Sashmal Road splits in two, there is a small mosque.” In that one sentence, we get the collision of British, Muslim and Hindu (and with the fork in the road, an echo of Robert Frost, and Lahiri’s New England roots), an intimation of how the brothers will take divergent paths, and inevitably, a little Lahiri family history. The Lowland is set in Tollygunge, her father’s neighborhood in Calcutta, where Naxalism set down strong roots, even attracting members of her family. The book brims with facts and local political lore – unusual for a writer who doesn’t identify herself as especially political. “I’m looking at the world a different way,” she says. “I’m trying to create people of all kinds and put them into situations, and it’s not my objective to have a message. I work from the inside out.”

To depict Naxalism from the inside out, she travelled to Calcutta to meet people who had been active in the movement. It was a turning point for the book, she says. “You realize the difference between someone who may vote a certain way or think that these objectives are right and reasonable, versus a person for whom these beliefs, this sense of justice is as essential as water or air. Even all these years later, they’re still burning with it.”

I thought this was a cute and poignant moment where she talks about understanding her parents better now that she’s moved to Rome:

But what’s also clear is that if Lahiri has moved away from using fiction to fathom her parents, life is teaching her what she wanted to know. Lahiri has been living in Rome for a year now, a city that, she says, shares Calcutta’s relaxed sociability. And she has found that fumbling with a foreign language, struggling with simple things – phone calls, putting her children in school—has helped her see her parents more clearly. Although she admits this confuses her mother a good deal. “She’s like, ‘Why do you have to be so far away from us? If you want to understand us, come over!’” Lahiri says, laughing.

The Lowland was a finalist for the National Book Award, and you can find an interview with her on their website.   In this interview, she reveals that she resisted writing the book for ten years:

I conceived of The Lowland before any of my other books were published. And so in a sense it’s the book I’ve been trying to write from the beginning. I think it’s a continuation, and perhaps a conclusion, of certain thematic preoccupations. I am also hopeful that it will lead to an aesthetic departure.

Between the Lines Book Club: The History Behind The Lowland

between the lines book club logoIn this month’s Between the Lines Book Club selection, The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri writes about two brothers who react very differently to turbulent political times in Calcutta. One leaves for America, where he goes to university. The other becomes a member of the Naxalite movement. It’s obvious from the context of the book what’s going on. Clearly the character is involved in a political movement driven by young people that is concerned with social injustice and that is willing to use violence. But the full history of the movement is fascinating. While I can’t give it full justice, here’s a brief overview.

“Naxalites” refers to members of several different Communist groups in India. They have a Maoist ideology and continue to be active today in both legal and illegal forms. The term “Naxalite” comes from the West Bengali village of Naxalbari. In 1967, a group split off from the Communist Party and initiated an uprising in Naxalbari with the goal of redistributing land to the landless. Initially, the group attracted Indian peasants and urban intellectuals. They took much of their guidance form “The Historic Eight Documents”, written by Charu Majumdar. Their goal was to overthrow the Indian State. They were no fans of the Soviet Union, believing that the Soviet Union had lost track of true communism. In the 1970s the group split into factions, but remained active.

The segment of history most relevant to this month’s book club pick, The Lowland, involves Naxalite activity in West Bengal in the early 1970’s. From my old pal, Wikipedia (I’m not proud):

Around 1971 the Naxalites gained a strong presence among the radical sections of the student movement in Calcutta.[20] Students left school to join the Naxalites. Majumdar, to entice more students into his organisation, declared that revolutionary warfare was to take place not only in the rural areas as before, but everywhere and spontaneously. Thus Majumdar declared an “annihilation line”, a dictum that Naxalites should assassinate individual “class enemies” (such as landlords, businessmen, university teachers, police officers, politicians of the right and left) and others.[21][22]

The chief minister, Siddhartha Shankar Ray of the Congress Party, instituted strong counter-measures against the Naxalites. The West Bengal police fought back to stop the Naxalites. The house of Somen Mitra, the Congress MLA of Sealdah, was allegedly turned into a torture chamber where Naxals were incarcerated illegally by police and the Congress cadres. CPI-M cadres were also involved in the “state terror”. After suffering losses and facing the public rejection of Majumdar’s “annihilation line”, the Naxalites alleged human rights violations by the West Bengal police, who responded that the state was effectively fighting a civil war and that democratic pleasantries had no place in a war, especially when the opponent did not fight within the norms of democracy and civility.[15]

Large sections of the Naxal movement began to question Majumdar’s leadership. In 1971 the CPI(ML) was split, as the Satyanarayan Singh revolted against Majumdar’s leadership. In 1972 Majumdar was arrested by the police and died in Alipore Jail. His death accelerated the fragmentation of the movement.

In July 1971, Indira Gandhi took advantage of President’s rule to mobilise the Indian Army against the Naxalites and launched a colossal combined army and police counter-insurgency operation, termed “Operation Steeplechase,” killing hundreds of Naxalites and imprisoning more than 20,000 suspects and cadres, including senior leaders.[23] The paramilitary forces and a brigade of para commandos also participated in Operation Steeplechase. The operation was choreographed in October 1969, and J.F.R. Jacob was enjoined by Govind Narain, the Home Secretary of India, that “there should be no publicity and no records” and Jacob’s request to receive the orders in writing was also denied by Sam Manekshaw.[24]

Thousands of people have died as part of Naxalite insurgency or during Naxalite-sponsoered assassinations or other violent actions. Most Naxalite groups are considered terrorist groups. Like many such groups, they continue to appeal to the most marginalized, impoverished members of society. sums up the situation today:

Naxalite groups generally have claimed to represent the poorest and most socially marginalized members of Indian society (notably tribal peoples and Dalits [formerly untouchables]) and to adhere to the Maoist doctrine of sustained peasant-led revolution. For decades they have waged guerrilla warfare against such targets as landlords, businesspeople, politicians, and security forces, and they have disrupted infrastructure by damaging transportation, communication, and power lines. In the process, they often have been able to establish bases of operation in remote forested areas. Naxalite groups have come to control large territories in many of the states of eastern India—notably Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, and West Bengal—and their influence has spread even wider beyond those areas. Often Naxalite groups have taken over governing functions and provided social services within areas under their control, although they also have been accused of using harsh enforcement tactics.

If you are in the Sacramento area, be sure to join us on June 27, 2015 at Arden Dimick Library at 10:30AM for coffee, pastries, and discussion about The Lowland, a book that eloquently and compassionately describes why a intelligent and well-educated man might devote his life to this cause, without flinching from the violence practiced by the group or from the violence of the Indian State at the time. 

Between the Lines Book Club: A Brief Biography of Jhumpa Lahiri

between the lines book club logoWelcome to Between the Lines Book Club, where we are discussing The Lowland every Friday in June. We’ll be meeting in person at Arden Dimick Library in Sacramento, CA at 10:30 AM on June 27 at 10:30AM. Meet us there, or hang out with us in the comments!

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in 1967 with the name “Nilanjana Sudeshna”. Jhumpa is her nickname, and the name she uses publicly. Her parents moved from West Bengal to London before she was born. Lahiri was born in London, but the family moved to Rhode Island when she was two and she identifies as American as opposed to British. She travelled often to India with her mother as a child. Today she lives in Rome, Italy, with her husband, who is Guatemalan-American, and their children. Many of her books and stories involve migration and identity.

Lahiri’s first book was a short story anthology called The Interpreter of Maladies, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000. In a 2006 interview in Newsweek, Lahiri said:

“When I first started writing I was not conscious that my subject was the Indian-American experience. What drew me to my craft was the desire to force the two worlds I occupied to mingle on the page as I was not brave enough, or mature enough, to allow in life.”

Lahiri’s second book, The Namesake, was made into a critically acclaimed movie. The book describes the tensions between a couple that moves to the US from India, and their son who wishes to be fully Americanized. Here’s a trailer for the film:

Her next book, another short story collection, was titled The Unaccustomed Earth. Like The Lowland, this book follows not only first generation immigrants but second and third generation immigrants.

Between the Lines Book Club: The Lowlands, by

between the lines book club logoWelcome to Between the Lines Book Club, which meets right here every Friday and at Arden Dimick Library in Sacramento, California at 10:30AM on the fourth Saturday of every month. This month we’ll be meeting on June 27, 2015. Hope you can join us, and meanwhile be sure to leave your comments here!

This month we are reading The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri. The Lowlands tells the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan. They grow up in India in a financially comfortable home in Calcutta in the 1950’s. Most of the story focuses on Subhash, the more cautious brother. His caution and naturally quiet temperament means the book as a whole is contemplative and quiet, even when describing catastrophic events. Udayan is more fiery by nature and he becomes involved with the Naxalite movement, which is devoted to improving the conditions of the poor through education and action including violent action. While the brothers lead very different lives (Subhash moves to America to study while Udayan gets over his head with the Naxalite movement) they remain connected long after one of them is gone. The book explores questions of ethics, family, love, and culture and spans several generations.

Next week I’ll be posting a bio of Jhumpa Lahiri. Meanwhile, here are some very thoughtful reviews about her work (NPR includes some fascinating links!


The Guardian

The New York Times

cover of The Lowland