Reading Mao in India: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland and Naxalism

by Yahya Chaudhry

Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Lowland examines the personal and political impact of the early Naxalite movement in India.

First published: 07 April, 2014 | Category: Culture, International

Though the number of armed socialist insurgents around the world has declined much faster than the number of leftist academics and radical students, in fiction they continue to be portrayed in a way that inspires both envy and awe.  Anyone who has seen Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela or Ken Loach’s rendering of the Irish War of Independence in The Wind That Shakes the Barley will immediately understand the febrile mixture of emotions they produce.  Such stories almost always use the background of revolution to highlight the heroism of louche men of action played by tall, dark and handsome actors with an air of mystery and potent sexual charisma.

The Lowland, one of the past year’s best counter-romantic, postcolonial novels, is different. Unlike other depictions of revolutionaries, which usually end with the main character’s martyrdom, Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest book interrogates the lasting impact of loss and political violence on families during an insurgency that continues to this day, the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency of India.

It does this in the most carefully biographical way, by examining the lives and ideological development of a pair of brothers involved and affected by revolutionary politics, from cradle to grave. The novel opens in post-Partition India, and Subhash and Udayan Mitra are exploring where they are not welcome. Born just fifteen months apart, the brothers are inseparable, but it is Udayan, the younger and more impulsive brother, who has convinced his older, more conservative-minded brother, Subhash, to go to the Tolly Club, a private retreat for rich Englishman and foreigners to “to escape [Calcutta’s] commotion, and to be among their own.” Having snuck over the tall walls at night, they are discovered by a policeman who strikes Subhash in the haunches and legs with a putting iron before letting them go. In this fast-paced and enthralling first chapter, Lahiri not only foreshadows the brothers’ varying participation in revolutionary politics but also prefigures their ideological and personal distrust of the state. Like George Orwell’s accounts of working as a much-hated colonial policeman in Burma[1], it is the officer’s imperial mission to the heathen and his sexual sadism that repulses here; the brothers go on to become sympathetic to far-left parties and movements.   This is only the curtain-raiser, and what follows is a masterful portrait of an individual’s involvement in a revolutionary insurgency before a tragedy changes everything.

As bright boys with attentive and good-natured parents, Subhash and Udayan grow up to be promising students of the sciences. Subhash and Udayan are admitted to two of the city’s best colleges; Subhash majors in chemical engineering while Udayan majors in physics. In celebration of their academic achievements, the brothers put together a shortwave radio to hear news of the outside world. Together they listen to reports of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s death, the succession of his daughter, the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the birth of a new left-wing party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M), which is sympathetic to China. In 1967 they start hearing about a peasant revolt in Naxalbari, a village in the northern tip of West Bengal where feudalism still reigns. What began with a dispute between a sharecropper and a landlord becomes a full-scale militant insurgency with farmers occupying land armed with “primitive weapons, carrying red flags, shouting “Long Live Mao Tse-tung.” The movement is organized by Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal, CPI(M) dissidents who try to avoid arrest while the Left Front government begins to retaliate, imposing curfews, making arbitrary arrests and violently cracking down on protests.

Lahiri vividly limns an image of Udayan as the restless youth, who begins championing the Naxalbari cause at home and immersing himself in Marxist theory, listening to news of Che Guevara’s guerilla exploits and reading the aphorisms of Mao Tse-tung. To Udayan, the Left Front and CPI(M) are nothing more than the puppets of wealthy landowners, and parliamentary politics has proven futile. Mao and Che’s exhortations to bring about a revolution through violent struggle are all that remain for him, and fit his Newtonian sense of history. And conversely, in Subhash, Lahiri presents a more cautious character, skeptical of radical change and uncertain of the future but also distrustful of the government.  Though he attends a movement meeting with Udayan and paints pro-Naxalbari graffiti with him, Subhash is less affected by the intoxicating wave engulfing the Red Corridor and is more focused on his studies. In 1969 as Subhash prepares to leave for America to pursue a Ph.D. program, Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal launch the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), or Naxalites. Listening to Sanyal’s announcement, Udayan hears him exclaim: “We will certainly be able to make a new sun and a new moon shine in the sky of our great motherland,” a revolutionary sentiment that was irresistible to radicals of that era.

There was a worldwide sense of revolution in those days about the uprisings in Cuba, Vietnam and Mozambique as well as about various, vague and factional guerrilla groups, including the Kurdish fighters in Anatolia. Other attempts to raise an armed rebellion, such as those by the Irish Republican Army and the Spear of the Nation in South Africa, pertained to national self-determination and rights for ethnic minorities. In the United States, the short-lived violence by the armed wing of Students for a Democratic Society and various Black Power groups was seen as an extension of third world resistance movements that had reached the imperial homeland.  The few organizations that operated in democratic countries, including the Red Brigades in Italy, the Japanese Red Army and the West German Red Army Faction, were capable of creating international spectacles with their infamous kidnappings and high-profile hijackings with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, but they did not achieve lasting goals.

The Naxalites operated in a nominally democratic country, whose leaders had done away with habeas corpus and instituted a violent and arbitrary police state. Unlike the other insurgencies, the Naxalites managed to win widespread popular support and political control across villages in West Bengal where citizens were disserved by the Left Front alliance in government. They strove for a transformative agenda that built on the anti-colonial sentiment that had animated Indians prior to Independence with a genuine effort to redistribute the means of production and farmland to poor workers and sharecroppers.[2] Civil disobedience and violent protests then began in earnest, as Indians sympathetic to the Naxalites began to see a pattern of events. For them, the shaky postcolonial state built by their timid parents was only a façade for the same old, ugly colonial outpost that made subsistence living for the starving masses contingent upon a corrupt state, exploitive landowners and wealthy moneylenders. It doesn’t take long for the ramifications of this worldview to become plain, when electoral progress is considered futile, and Jhumpa Lahiri spares no detail in her even-handed rendering of the Naxalite’s more objectionable tactics:

They intimidated voters, hoping to disrupt the elections. They fired pipe guns on the streets. They hid bombs in public places, so that people were nervous to sit in a cinema hall, or stand in line at a bank.

Then the targets turned specific. Unarmed traffic constables in busy intersections. Wealthy businessmen, certain educators. Members of the rival party, the CPI(M).

The killings were sadistic, gruesome, intended to shock. The wife of the French consul was murdered in her sleep. They’d assassinated Gopal Sen, the vice-chancellor of Jadavpur University. They’d killed him on campus while he was taking his evening walk. It was the day before he planned to retire. They’d bludgeoned him with steel bars, stabbing him four times.

Udayan’s murky involvement with the Naxalites leads to his premature and abrupt execution via police firing squad, which leaves the reader startled and faltering with nearly half the book left to go. Keeping the reader guessing, Lahiri shrouds the events leading up to Udayan’s death in mystery, to be fleshed out little by little until everything is revealed in the very last pages. Upon receiving a two-sentence telegram about his brother’s passing, Subhash returns home to find his parents reticent and even angry for reminding them of Udayan. They try not to speak about Udayan’s passing; the only monument to his existence, a small marker of the location where he died, is furnished by the Naxalites and planted in the lowland near their house. The insurgency continues, but it is dealt a major blow by the Indian state and police forces that embrace more authoritarian policing tactics and give up on their democratic pretenses. The violence, unlike the beating Subhash received at the Tolly Club, frustrates the family. They no longer discuss politics, not out of fear but out of respect for Udayan. The man is remembered by his family but his painful mission is forgotten. Lahiri offers an unvarnished view of a fallen comrade: Udayan accomplished little in life and even his fellow fighters will forget him soon. His only legacy is his wife, Gauri, a philosophy college student who he married in secret, inspired by Mao’s criticism of arranged marriages. After Udayan’s death, Subhash marries Gauri, who is carrying Udayan’s unborn child, out of a sense of duty and takes her to Rhode Island where he is studying maritime biology and conducting research. In death though, Udayan manages to alter the trajectory of his families’ lives forever.

Throughout the novel, Lahiri manages to suspend and transform the course of history for her characters. The remainder of The Lowland employs the postcolonial tropes familiar to readers of her previous short stories and novels in an unadorned and perfunctory style. Removed from the familiar context of India and its stratified customs and relations, Subhash and Gauri live comfortably, eschewing contact with their families and assimilating into Rhode Island society. Their marriage is strained and treated as a chore, though their daughter, Bela, manages to bring joy to their lives for a while. Gauri, who possesses a revolutionary drive of her own, grows tired of Subhash and the guilt-ridden past that he represents to her. In Gauri, Lahiri has written the most captivating and controversial character in all of her fictional works. She is a thoughtful and impulsive feminist; the perfect match for Udayan and the worst for Subhash and Bela. For Gauri and Subhash, Bela and their marriage are not only reminders of Udayan and their previous lives together, they’re also totems of their guilt of having survived and surrendered the revolutionary cause. In America, where the perennial gale of creative destruction shortens memories, the loss they feel is only realized in each other’s company. Gauri and Subhash’s relationship with history and each other ebbs and flows through their marriage and is ultimately resolved as they come to terms with the memory of Udayan that haunts them.

As time goes by, it becomes painfully clear to Gauri that she has traded in the practice of revolution for its theory, safely ensconced in academia. Udayan remains Gauri's greatest love, but he looms over her happiness like he does to Subhash, who keeps the truth about Bela’s birth father from her for several decades. In the end, The Lowland spans four generations of the Mitra family and follows the characters through their long and arduous process of coming to terms with Udayan’s death and accepting the role of history in their lives in America.  Lahiri’s novel is an achievement in mapping the border between the personal and political, while examining philosophical notions of time and history; it is an examination of the role of personality and impulsivity in developing and ultimately forsaking sympathy for revolutionary causes. As a portrait of young Naxalites, The Lowland goes back to the beginning of a movement, explaining the poor material conditions that continue to drive skinny, Indian villagers into armed rebellion against a corrupt Indian state to this day. Hopefully, Lahiri will follow suit with more stories that tackle these complex personal and political issues through her shining prose.  

Yahya Chaudhry is a freelance writer and a graduate student at Harvard University.

[1] Orwell, George. "Shooting an Elephant." George Orwell: Shooting an Elephant..

[2] For a more developed discussion of these issues see Sumantra Bose, Transforming India: Challenges to the World’s Largest Democracy (Harvard University Press, 2013).  

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