My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In post-World War II India, the city of Calcutta (now Kolkata), two boys are born fifteen months apart to the Mitra family. The older of the two is named Subhash, the younger, Udayan. They grow to maturity in the heady period of Indian history when the country is achieving its independence from Britain and attempting to evolve into a united, workable democracy.
The two brothers are inseparable and are often mistaken for each other as they are growing up, but they develop into very different personalities. Subhash is a steady, stable individual, apolitical and responsible. Udayan is charismatic and impulsive and politically active. He is drawn into the Naxalite movement, a rebellion based on the precepts of communism, which waged a sometimes violent campaign to eradicate inequity and poverty. (This was an actual historical movement, one which is still a force in India today. )
While Udayan becomes more and more involved in the rebellion in the 1960s and is willing to risk everything for what he believes, Subhash takes a different path altogether. He leaves home to pursue a life of scientific research in a quiet town in Rhode Island.
Udayan resents his brother for leaving and the two, once so close, seem to drift apart. A few months later, Udayan writes to Subhash to tell him that he has married a woman named Gauri. Gauri is an intelligent woman who was pursuing an academic life before meeting Udayan. For his sake, she essentially abandons her plans and takes up the more traditional life of an Indian wife, in which she is subservient to his parents.
Udayan becomes involved in acts of violence in the service of his political beliefs, and he involves Gauri in one of them by asking her to obtain information which will facilitate an attack (unbenownst to her). Soon after, a policeman is murdered on his way to pick up his son from school, and soon after that, other policemen come to arrest Udayan. He is taken away in a van which stops on the lowland behind the family home. As his family watches in horror from a balcony, he is shot and his body loaded into the van and removed. It is never returned to them.
Subhash returns to India to console his grieving parents. On meeting his sister-in-law, he learns that she is pregnant and also that she is disliked and mistreated by his parents. He asks her to marry him and return with him to Rhode Island. She consents and it is in Rhode Island that her daughter, Bela, is born. Bela is raised believing that Subhash is her father, and, indeed, in every way that counts, he is.
All of this action happens very early on in this novel and it is the prelude - the foreword really - to the important action of the book. That is what happens as Bela grows up and is abandoned by her mother who returns to the academic life that she had planned before she met Udayan. The child is raised by Subhash who is a paragon of virtue as a father. He adores this child and considers her life's great gift to him.
I was mesmerized by Jhumpa Lahiri's novel almost from the start. It is a sweeping tale of a complicated family. Before the end, we get to know four generations of it and to learn something of what motivates each of them, but perhaps never to fully understand the whys of some of their actions. Why did Gauri abandon her daughter and Subhash? Why did she necessarily consider motherhood as incompatible with an academic career? Why did Subhash never tell his daughter the truth about her history until she was about to become a mother herself?
But most of all, I was fascinated with how a brother, long gone, was still present in the lives of these people so many years later and how a decision made long ago by a very young man could have such long-term consequences even unto the second and third generation of his family. This is the substance of the book that involves the reader in the small emotional details of the characters' lives and immerses us in their stories, making us wish to delve even deeper. Yes, I liked this book very much.
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