This isn't a good novel - it's a great novel.
The Lowland revisits some of the ground of Jhumpa Lahiri's excellent The Namesake (the film is good too). It's about Calcuttans who head to the US and immerse themselves in the academic world.
But this has a much stronger feel of Calcutta, and a much more powerful story line - about Naxalism, the narodnik-style Maoist-tinged revolutionary movement which gripped many of Calcutta's middle class youngsters in the late 60s and early 70s. Naxalism and the response to it brought the city to its knees, and destroyed a generation - killed, or badly damaged one way or another. The Lowland is a searing, tragic, troubling story - wonderfully told.
Jhumpa Lahiri's novel is shortlisted for the Booker, but not greatly fancied by the cognoscenti. By my reading, she must be in with a good chance.
Naxalism has had other powerful literary chroniclers, other great novels which have sought to explain its attraction, and the whirlwind reaped by those who were won over to it. Among them are the books below: Mahasweta Devi's Mother of 1084 - bleak, unsettling, unforgettable - was first published in Bengali in 1974 and Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay's Waiting for Rain appeared, again initially in Bengali, in 1985.
I've also been reading another fine book set in Calcutta - just published, it's the debut novel of a friend and colleague, Sanjay Dasgupta.
Other Lives, Other Fragments is an ambitious tale - a tragic family story which is woven alongside the most cathartic events in India's modern history: the terrible Bengal famine of the early 1940s; the acute Hindu-Muslim violence in Calcutta in 1946, and the upheavals which surrounded Partition a year later; the continuing turbulence in divided Bengal; the ripping apart of Pakistan in 1971 and birth of Bangladesh; the anti-Sikh pogroms in Delhi following Indira Gandhi's assassination; and such powerful themes as the increasing criminalisation of politics and the rise of Hindu nationalism. There's no Naxalism, but just about every other violent aspect of India's modern political landscape is there.
That's quite a lot to pack in to a novel - but it comes off well. And yes, umbrellas are very important to the plot. But I am not saying more - read it for yourself.
It's strange how Partition can disrupt political cultures so entirely - like twins being separated in adolescence, the same stock can have hugely different outcomes. Take Punjab - united prior to 1947 by a common language and a syncretic culture, Partition has cast the two halves if Punjab into hugely different political trajectories. Or Bengal on the other flank of the sub-continent. West Bengal turbulently pluralist - while Bangladesh has never quite found its feet, and much as in Pakistan, the army is the dominant institution.
All this is prompted by reading two pieces of journalism this weekend about the two Bengals. Ian Jack in the Guardian
has been reading a revisionist history of Bangladesh - by an academic, a member of the Bose parivar, whose roots lie in West Bengal. He lavishes praise on Sarmila Bose's Dead Reckoning. 'As all good history tends to do, it complicates and contradicts the heroic narrative of national struggle.' Her book - I've just started reading it and it is wonderfully well written - challenges the conventional Bangladeshi nationalist account of the killings amid which the nation was born. She suggests that the massacres by the Pakistani army and its sympathisers were nothing like as bloody as often recounted - and that the killing of Bengali Hindus and of Urdu-speaking Biharis by advocates of Bangladeshi independence were much more substantial that previously imagined.The other article is Amit Chaudhuri's Diary in the London Review of Books
- a chronicle of the final demise of 34 years of Communist-led state government in India's West Bengal. Communist dominance was an indirect consequence of Partition. Bengali Communists won the loyalty of East Bengali refugees - not their only 'vote bank', in Indian political parlance, but an important one. In the last few days, Communist croneyism has been voted out in favour of the shrill populism of Mamata Bannerjee, West Bengal's Joan of Arc (my analogy not Amit Chaudhuri's).Reading it all, I pine for Alimuddin Street and Chowringhee and Calcutta's Maidan - and for that sight as you fly in to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose airport of 'the palm and plantain trees, low houses and ponds'.
As they say in the west: 'Oh, Calcutta!'
Here's a clever piece of election canvassing! A candidate in the recent municipal elections in West Bengal - the state whose capital is mighty Calcutta - issued the election leaflet I've copied below (thanks Nazes!). Folded over with Bengali on the front and Englisn on the back - and inside, a World Cup match schedule.
You might not think that India is World Cup crazy. But it is! Especially its football capital, Calcutta. In thousands of homes, this election leaflet was given pride of place by the TV.
Which party alighted on this campaigning master stroke? A regional party, the Trinamool Congress. Which party came out on top in the elections? Correct!