I picked up this book on a whim. Maybe it was the easy-to-hold feel of it. Or maybe it was the golden sticker adorning the names of the prizes it has amassed that floated on the water hyacinth covered pond. Whatever the reason, it sure didn't disappointed me.
It is Calcutta in the 1960s. Subhash and Udayan -- two brothers, fifteen months apart -- have separate traits as opposed to the fact that they are often seen glued together. They play in the nearby ponds of their home. They fix radios and speak in code language. They play cricket together, taking the lowland as a shortcut to the field. The whole neighbourhood knows how inseparable they are. It is only after the development of their individualities and the passion of their own beliefs that things start to tumble.
Subhash, being the guardian figure between the two, can't convince Udayan to see the holes in the ideology he believes in. Being arrogant and impulsive, Udayan doesn't pay heed to Subhash's words. He is completely pulled in to the Naxalite movement. He believes that only a violent revolution can positively impact the lives of the poor and eliminate the roots of injustice against them.
Subhash leaves for the States after graduation to study oceanography while Udayan stays back with his parents. According to him, he is fighting for the right thing and not betraying his roots for the “American dream” like his brother. Subhash's picture of their homeland is violent, which keeps prodding him even far away from its reach. After receiving a letter from his parents and getting to know of Udayan's death, he visits Calcutta and finds Udayan's widowed wife staying with his parents. Udayan was killed by the police for his passionate involvement with the movement, in the very lowland that they used to take as a shortcut in childhood. Subhash's visit adds a completely new tone to this novel and lessens the chapters about politics and the movement, sometimes settling into a whole new environment in Rhode Island and sometimes into a revolt-free Calcutta.
Jhumpa Lahiri describes the environment where her characters are in as an attempt to make the reader exist, and she succeeds. Her use of language is simple. It is the loudness of that simplicity that unwinds the story smoothly like a carpet that flaunts time, countries, unrests, generations, revelations, and the burned remains of broken ties. Everything is connected to one another. The history visits when necessary. Calcutta hovers over Rhode Island. It's a shadow that never fades into the background. Despite Udayan's death, she has successfully managed to hold his presence. I felt like a part of him existed in the corners of every scene especially in his wife's presence, as though she was a remnant of Udayan. So there wasn't any sort of emptiness that stemmed from the absence of one crucial character. It's the best thing about time travelling in novels -- even though some characters die, they revisit.
During the progression, there is this urge to know what happens next. There is this need to time travel. There is also this anticipation to know how the broken scaffoldings reassemble. She leaves the readers hanging and throws them off just when the time is right. This novel has the charm to sediment one's reaction, which takes time to dissolve completely.