Thursday, February 20, 2014

Reflections: The Lowland

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Lowland is a sweeping saga revolving around complicated characters reconciling with their individual loss and guilt, and connecting with the people they truly love.

The story starts in Calcutta, with two brothers - Subhash and Udayan. Subhash is the elder, more serious, studious, practical brother, while Udayan is the  impulsive, idealistic, smart, and charming younger sibling. The two brothers share a close relationship of love with a sprinkling of envy for each other. Their underlying tussle of sibling rivalry motivates each other to move in different directions. While Subhash heads to the U.S for his PhD, Udayan fervently joins  the newly emerging Naxalite movement. The brothers lead their separate lives, discovering new experiences and revelations, while mostly unaware of each other’s journey. Inevitably, Udayan quickly finds himself embroiled in the movement and faces the danger of being killed. The disconcerting issue is - he now has a young scholarly wife, who is carrying his child. Subhash, playing the role of  the dutiful elder brother, needs to make some tough decisions to pick up where his brother left and restore some balance to his broken family. The story swoops and sweeps across two generations with each character struggling to cope with the chain of events unleashed by Udayan and desperately seeking to fill the gaping voids in their lives.

It was refreshing to read a book by Jhumpa Lahiri that had little to do with immigration and identity. Yes, there are surely parts of the book that deal with it, but it doesn’t take center stage. The story primarily explores the aftermath of loss, and the journey through recovery and guilt. It shows how one person’s actions can ripple and affect so many people’s lives over so many years in the most crippling ways possible. Actions multiply and mutate as they pervade the emotions of people around them, and Lahiri very sensitively showcases this. At its heart, it is a simple story, but it is brought out beautifully by knitting socio-cultural elements with the political atmosphere of India in the 60’s. What is just a footnote in history translates to a rumbling storm in so many people’s lives. The emotional tapestry swirling in the storm flows with all the elements, and no stitch seems jarring or out of place.

The characters define this book. Although every character is unique and interesting, I could not relate to anyone, except perhaps Subhash. I was initially drawn to Gauri, because she was the most complicated one with the greatest emotional turmoil, but there were many moments in the story where she is hard to sympathize with. She distances herself from even you, the reader. I find that Lahiri sometimes over-complicates her characters while portraying their external reactions to their inner tumult. I don’t think it is completely realistic or even necessary for characters to always act out in irrational, bizarre and exaggerated ways to deal with emotional trauma. So, Gauri’s progression through the story was a little frustrating, although arguably, the most intriguing. On the other hand, Subash’s character was excruciatingly touching and endearing. Initially, his motives seemed dubiously double-edged and I wasn't convinced of his good nature. I fearfully expected him to turn “crazy” or weird and complicate things, but he consistently remained "simple" in his motivations and just kept going with the beat. His character was rendered true to many real life souls whose patience, kindness and resilience are inspiring. Bela’s journey from child to adult was honest in its portrayal, but her rebellious stage seemed a little too long. I guess that’s just a slice of reality. I grappled to understand her during her years of emotional estrangement with Subhash, because I was uncomfortable in the knowledge that no matter how much one parent does, children need both parents, a complete home and a family to grow into their own, find themselves and mature into confident, secure individuals. It broke my heart that despite all of Subhash’s unconditional love and effort, Bela still loses her way and meanders for a long while.  

This is another book that is mainly driven by characters. Lahiri delicately handles the mess of emotions that plague a family after a tragedy. I was emotionally invested while reading this book and remained interested in the characters’ individual journeys to make peace. This is a quiet, introspective, and absorbing read. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Reflections: Last Man in Tower

Vishram Cooperative Housing Society in Mumbai is home to many interesting residents - lonely, corrupt, insecure, ignorant, and ambitious. But life goes on. Gossips and petty squabbles are usually brushed aside, and common decency intermingled with friendships, even if they are opportunistic, hold the two apartment towers. One day, a powerful real-estate developer that's hungry to clear out some land to develop a grand building to bolster his ego, offers the residents a substantial sum of money to vacate the land. Money, the all-intoxicating green monster, slowly lures every family to accept the offer.... well, all except one stubborn, idealistic teacher that refuses to leave his old apartment in exchange for any sum of money. Masterji, the teacher, aggravates the collective sensibility of Vishram, for no one can understand why anyone would be so intractable when Goddess Lakshmi  in the form of an unimaginable amount of money) was ready to change all their middle-class lives for the better. If Masterji doesn't accept the offer, no one gets their money, and all their hopes of rebuilding a better future in the form of a better apartment and a better bank balance are all torn to shreds. One man is pitted against all the residents and the calculative people of the ruthless real-estate world. Adiga shocks his readers yet again through this thought-provoking novel that explores how far the allure of money can push people to the edge of morality, or rather immorality, while trying to make a living in an unapologetic city of constant rat-races.

This book is most memorable for its characters. There are not too many characters, but just enough to give flavor to the different types of personality that one usually encounters in a typical apartment complex. Each one is realistic and brilliantly depicted. The characters have their own back story that plays into their individual needs and motivation to procure the generous sum of money. Their desperation to gain the money is completely understandable, even if some of their motives are loathsome. There is a part of you that gets it - the primal part that connects with the greed and desire to move onto better pastures. And that's what shocks you the most. You are as repelled and turned off by the greed as you are frustrated by masterji's adamance. Masterji's character is fleshed out in a very intelligent and interesting fashion. His refusal to leave the apartment seems rooted in a non-capitalist agenda, but as the story develops, Adiga brings out so many interesting shades to his idealism and stubbornness, it's fascinating. You see a lonely man clinging to memories of his dead wife and daughter in his old flat, a scared old man holding onto his principles because he is afraid he has nothing else left for him, and a lost man not knowing how to reconcile his ego. At a certain point in time, every battle loses its meaning... the reasons and principles for initiating the battle are long forgotten, but the battle wages on and on, because no one knows how to end it. Everything just boils down to a battle of egos. 

I really liked this book. The ending does shock, and it might seem exaggerated, but the characters' arc of growth (or deterioration, in this case) is built with realistic and measured strokes of story telling. The ending is almost a parody, a satirical take on the darker side of human nature. Adiga intelligently explores what morality means to each of the characters, and how "good" and "bad" are so intertwined in each of us that the so-called "good person" can be connived into repressing his conscience, while the so-called "corrupt person" can be pushed to confront his conscience. It's a beautiful character study of greed, analyzed from multiple perspectives. All of this is laced with an incisively insightful social commentary on the real-estate world in Mumbai, where there are more people than available land. As India develops and booms with bigger buildings and more opportunities, there are still people being squandered and trampled in the mad stampeded to grab the elusive opportunities.

I thought this book was better than Adiga's acclaimed White Tiger for his portrayal of complicated characters in a seemingly simple, straightforward story. If you enjoy character sketches, this book is sure to impress you.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


For the last few months, my husband and I have been having intense discussions on reciprocity. Our arguments are so diverse and complicated (when jumbled in our heads) that I’ve reached a point where I need to assimilate my thoughts by writing it all out.

Ayn Rand was the first one to instill this idea in me that everything we do is selfish and rooted in appeasing our self. Any selfless compassionate act such as philanthropy is shaded by selfish instincts, because the acts make us feel good and less guilty. It sometimes makes one even feel superior, magnanimous and powerful. I understand that this is a cynical way of thinking.

The other perspective that changed my worldview is the concept of reciprocity as theorized by evolutionary biologists. Altruism stems from self-interest or genetic interest in protecting our species and in making sure we get protected. In our complex society, one needs to be cooperative and nice to others in order for the favor to be returned to us. If you get someone a gift, you know or at least expect (at some deep level) to receive something “good” in return. And if you believe in Karma, you subconsciously or consciously expect good Karma to follow you. So you expect to reap what you sow. This balance of reciprocity is what makes our society function. This might also be a cynical perspective.

But understanding the above two perspectives has made me that much more critical when it comes to “giving”. I try to be helpful to people from whom I know I will receive nothing in return… not even a thank you or a genuine feeling of happiness on their end. It is my way of cracking my ego and my inner need for any kind of reciprocity. It doesn’t mean that I pick out only such people to give or help… but I make sure that every year, I have a list of people that I give to unconditionally, truly without any strings of reciprocity. But even so, perhaps at some level, I expect good Karma to save me in times of my personal need and I do feel good that I helped someone so unconditionally. So, this nags me constantly. What do I do to commit at least one genuine selfless act, if there is one?

Here’s what I do - I give to people who are not (to put it mildly) nice to me. If someone is insensitive and callous and rude, I smile and give them a homemade batch of baked goods that I slaved over. This annoys my husband to no end. But I think this is Gandhi’s excellent philosophy to keep one’s ego in check - by giving to those who don’t treat you well and who will not give you anything in return. Even though one can still argue that this is not a truly selfless act, it is far less selfish than giving to someone who is good to you and who is sure to reciprocate. But maybe the knowledge or belief that the act is far less selfish by itself is a self-congratulatory one, thus nullifying everything.

I hate taking an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. As someone once said -  if everybody did that, we would all be eyeless and toothless. But according to my husband, do good (twice or thrice as much) to someone who is good to you, and do good to someone who truly deserves it (even if they will not return the favor to you in any tangible way). Don’t waste time on those who treat you bad or cannot care less about what you give. Treat them with the same disdain as they treat you with.

Writing it all out, it seems like my husband’s simple and efficient point of view makes more sense than my complicated one. I agree with him on all counts, except the last one.  
Here’s an example: If someone never wishes you on your birthday or special occasion because they have purposely omitted you from their annual “occasion reminders” and never bothers to add your date to the reminder (but has everyone else on their calendar-reminder list), and you know and remember their birthday or special occasion, would you decide to not wish them just to even the score? Because an eye for an eye and all that? How can you not wish them knowing and remembering what day it is? Forcing yourself to not wish them is feeding on your ego and revenge mentality isn’t it? But if you decide to wish them and get them a gift, are you trying to prove that you are a bigger person, thus bloating your ego anyway?

A conundrum. I would rather do the latter than the former, because you can’t really prove something to someone who doesn’t care. Building up on anger and revenge is such an unwanted negative energy… it leads to nothing constructive. However, if you took the latter approach, you are giving your relationship with the person a chance to amend and grow, and there is a possibility of positive changes. Even if nothing comes out of it, you are training yourself to give unconditionally. Right?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Believing in Free Will

Ever since I read this article last September, I have been wanting to quickly post my thoughts - mostly as a record and reminder for myself in the future.

Like every other person, I used to obsess over whether or not we humans really have free will or if we are living in a delusional deterministic Universe. The curious thing about Science is that it both pokes fun at and hints at the Universe being causal and deterministic, for the most part. So, realizing that the mysteries of the Universe can't just be neatly unraveled in my lifetime, I have been resorting to the idea that one has to just follow the beliefs that practically work for us. If the beliefs make us better human-beings and help us (and others around us) grow, that's all the reason to embrace them, even if they don't have solid rational proof of any kind.

The article above was a sign, and a measure of proof for the rational-minded, that believing in free will is much more healthier for us than believing in a fatalistic, deterministic world where one feels rudderless and without control. A strong belief that we have the freedom to make our own choices makes us more ethical and responsible towards our actions, and most importantly, makes us more content from within. And according to me, the right balance of spirituality and a belief in free will is the key to finding peace and happiness from within. For those that believe religion and spirituality are the same, I will just clarify by stating that I (merely, ignorant me) define spirituality as the philosophy underlying religious tenets. The reason I bring spirituality here is because of two lines of thought:
  1. Most religions espouse the notion of a preordained destiny, that is to say, a deterministic Universe. So, why bother about our actions when everything is written out for us? While the dogma surrounding karma, after-life and fear of punishment makes people of faith act moral, that kind of morality does not involve everyday simple actions and thoughts. People of faith can still fester inside with negativity while outwardly doing the prescribed rituals of "right". Interestingly enough, many people use religious faith as one way to take control of their lives, because they believe there is no other way to change their destiny. They pray 20 times a day, perform 10 different rituals a day, hoping to change a host of things in their lives, while becoming increasingly deluded and miserable. However, the spirituality (or philosophy) behind many religious scriptures  implies that although the Universe follows the law of causality, every individual has a role to play. They are in charge of their actions and are not mere puppets in a deterministic stage show. I won't quote texts, because it is sure to invite tangential arguments. But, this gives back the belief of control to us, and teaches us how to use it properly. Unfortunately, this aspect is buried underneath all the ritualistic, superfluous dogma.
  2. When choices weigh on you negatively and bring out guilt and sorrow, spirituality has antidotes in the form of practical/theological justifications for why you should let go of guilt and the past, and look at the bigger picture of how causally connected the Universe is. It helps immensely to find peace within oneself and in making peace with others around us.
Belief in free will is practically sensible. But it comes with baggage, because too many choices are not always helpful, and burdening ourselves with too much responsibility can be overwhelming, especially when the choices are hard and the decisions are not easy. The slippery and comforting nature in which spirituality defines causality, free will and determinism, offers us solace to move on. It's not about whether the texts are right or wrong, logical or illogical, true or false. They are like pain-medications to help you recuperate and forget. They are coping mechanisms to help you realize that you are insignificant in this grand scheme of things while simultaneously making you believe that your actions are still meaningful and powerful to your destiny and to that of the Universe. Win-Win.

The Universe acts in accordance with the law of causality. Some aspects of our life and Universe are undoubtedly deterministic. But free will can still exist.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Reflections: Americanah

This is a strong and bold novel that primarily focuses on immigrant experience and the subtle and not-so-subtle kinds of racial discrimination faced by people of color in the West. 

Ifemulu is a bright and strong-willed girl in Nigeria, who seems to have her life in order. Her intelligent and doting boyfriend, Obinze  has planned out every detail of their future together. She is determined to make something of herself, but according to Obinze, that means getting out of Nigeria and securing an admission into a university in the U.S or the U.K. Although she is resistant to the idea, she eventually succumbs to the grand plan when her university remains closed due to protests and riots, leaving her rusty and restless. She leaves behind Obinze and embarks on her journey to the land that beckons many such eager students - the United States. Once in the U.S, she is stricken by the harsh reality of the ways of life. Slowly, she fumbles her way and negotiates the new social & cultural paradigms within her new country. She begins severing her ties and relationships back home as she gets mired in her own mistakes and growths. Soon, she becomes an educated scholar, and begins to dissect the social hierarchies inherent in the U.S from the perspective of racial and ethnic discrimination. Back home, Obinze travels to London and faces debilitating humiliations of his own, and realizes for the first time that he will always be regarded as an outsider in the West because of his skin color. Disillusioned and withered, he comes back to Nigeria and makes something of himself. One fine day, after several years and a U.S citizenship, Ifemulu decides to go back home. Visiting Nigeria for the first time since she left, she has many bittersweet experiences, but most importantly she needs to come to her own, to realize where she belongs, what she is meant to be doing, and how to resolve her ambiguous emotions towards Obinze - now a husband and a father. 

Adichie is a fearless and smart writer, much like Ifemulu herself. Through Ifemulu, she takes  another daring stand - of not creating a conventionally likeable, personable protagonist. Why should the protagonist be "nice" in every story?, she asks. I agree, well, mostly. I understand that likeable, ideal protagonists are boring. A multidimensional and quirky personality makes the character and the story much more interesting, deep, and honest. I'm all for it. However, I couldn't warm up to Ifemulu. She annoyed me to no end. Ifemulu is audaciously self-absorbed, self-entitled, opinionated, and ruthlessly critical and judgmental of everyone and everything around her. She is one of those individuals that complains and ridicules at everything from up her high-horse. Even if people are kind and nice, she finds excuses to ridicule them. She puts herself at the center of everything. For all her criticisms and judgments of people around her, she is completely and utterly insensitive and oblivious to how she treats others. She is quick to take offense and even quicker to offend others. So, though I could relate to her initial student experiences in the U.S, I couldn't ever (and I tried really hard) understand or sympathize with her selfish decisions. It is tricky when you struggle to sympathize with the protagonist, because you are no longer invested in her story. You don't root for her, and you want to constantly reach into the book and give her a piece of your mind. I have read many good books with a flawed protagonist, but they have all been shaped such that the reader understands why they are flawed, and finds sympathy and good will toward them - in some measure. In Ifemulu's case, her personality is just so brazen that even though you find her warm heart peeking through in glimmers,  she doesn't ingratiate herself with you. She is an honest and excellent embodiment of such real-life characters, no doubt, which is why she evoked so much emotion and anger in me. Kudos to Adichie for bringing to life such a character, but I think she overstepped the line a bit much in making her too difficult.

So, now that I have hammered my distaste for the protagonist, I'll move onto the story and the content. Adichie has vehemently lifted the rug under American/Western society to expose all the carefully neglected dirt and dust surrounding racism that still persists beneath politically-correct statements and notions. Through this novel, she has voiced, cried, attacked, approached, and analyzed racism with a zealous and confident flair. The reader can sense her own disappointments, frustrations and wounds. She brings up every kind of cultural and racial nuance that dictate interactions between Africans, African-Americans, and Whites. I applaud her discussions, all of which resonate with truth and insight. However, I did feel that some of it was getting a little too sour and bitter, and might I dare say, exaggerated. Being a colored immigrant myself, I understand much of what she talks about. But I also believe that anybody can get riled up over anything if they choose to always read between the lines, hunting for proof to confirm their assumptions, and assuming the worst. 

For example, I don't read between the lines when an American hears my name and compliments that it sounds beautiful. I don't wonder if they are overcompensating for being uncomfortable to pronounce an exotic sounding, weird name and the compliment is just to mask their feeling. Nor do I gloat with pride by taking their remark at face-value. I just move past it with nary a thought. But Adichie doesn't. If someone calls Ifemulu beautiful, she questions the authenticity of the remark and argues that it is a rehearsed statement to reaffirm to others how liberal, open-minded and politically correct one is,  to prove and to proclaim how greatly progressive, gracious and magnanimous they are to a colored immigrant in their superior country. To me, this type of dissection is stretching the discussion on racism a little too far. Maybe there is some truth to it, but it's mostly speculation and mostly harmless, even if someone does overcompensate a little. If I met Adichie and struggle to pronounce her middle name, but honestly tell her she is beautiful, would I be suspected of overcompensating too? If I am obviated from suspicion, is it because my skin color is similar to hers? If so, isn't this also a form of racism towards whites? Another example that most Indians can relate to: Do you take offense if a white person compliments on your English being good? I don't. Many of my friends do, and so does Adichie. I don't expect every person outside of India to know India's history, its current educational system, and its socioeconomic diversity. I can't tell them that every Indian knows English, and knows it well. That's not true. So, maybe their remark is in comparison to certain other Indians they had met. Besides, English is not our national language or native tongue. So, there's nothing offensive about someone remarking on the fluency with which you handle a non-native, non-national language, especially when the remark is from a mono-lingual American who finds it impressive that people can be fluent in multiple languages. I don't relate this comment to any form of underlying racial stereotyping. I just attribute it to simple lack of knowledge of world history. It's not a crime if you don't know enough history or geography. I don't know much world history myself, but nobody would accuse me if I said something naive or ignorant, because I am colored and from a developing country, right?

I think such relentless accusations of racism over every apparently harmless instance drives people into harboring more negative attitudes. It perpetuates the hate and umbrage nursed by those that continue to believe they are victimized, when in reality they just have to utilize the many opportunities staring at them and keep moving on. So, in that regard, I did feel some of the discussion was too much, especially when it came from Ifemulu, who is already highly critical and self-absorbed. Combined with the discussions and rants, I felt there was no end to pleasing her. In a sense, she fails to acknowledge how much this country had also offered to her and made her thrive.

Once she is back home in Nigeria, Ifemulu's experiences and thoughts ring true. Every immigrant can relate to or at least understand the rude jolt when back home -  the bittersweet experiences, the guilt, and the secret wish that we could magically have it all - our sense of identity, home, family, and everything that a developed country has to offer. Adichie sharply brings out the identity crisis of returned emigrants - when the "neither here nor there" phenomenon and the hangover hits. 

At this point, Adichie rushes through the story to bring closure to Ifemulu and Obinze's strained and complicated relationship, when there was so much to explore. The ending seemed asynchronous to the unbridled honesty and realism of the rest of the book.

Despite all my strong opinions, I have to say this book triggers a wealth of intelligent discussion and thought. There's so much more to write about and so much more to analyze about Ifemulu and racism. Given that I read this book last July, this post is a testament to how engaging and memorable it is. The writing is crisp and spiked with Ifemulu's colorful  thoughts and experiences. Everything about it is fearless, honest, and vibrant. Surely a book to read if you are interested in the topics it examines.