Jhumpa Lihari’s 2013 short-listed Man Booker novel is her last exploration of her Indian émigré experience. The transitional culture influences and pressures are layered over the larger theme of single parenting within broken families. The historical backdrop the Naxalite student uprising in Calcutta in 1971 who were supporting the sharecroppers revolt that the West Bengali police crushed in the late 1960s. The Naxalites are and remain followers of Mao and continue to destabilize Kashmir.
The novel traces the lives of two Hindu boys who grow up in Muslim Calcutta initially under British rule. Both are the first in their families to attend university. The younger, more independent Udayan falls into the student Naxalite movement, the older, submissive Subhash, is more respectful of his parents, but emigrates to the United States for graduate study. Sudhash tries to repair family damage after Udayan is killed, notwithstanding that others are more selfish or constrained by their beliefs or culture.
I do not want to reveal the plot because this is a fast paced story. Ms. Lahiri writing conveys the atmosphere in Calcutta and Rhode Island through characters that are developed. While some novels draw their plot from their characters, this is a generational epic sweep, so plot takes precedence. Years are skipped, so the reader is an interloper on events during different periods and at different locales.
It was an enjoyable read that is hard to put down. It is not a literary masterpiece. The prose is competent and apart from some history of the Naxalite movement, it imparts no new knowledge to those who do not know recent Indian history. From an educational standpoint Sudhash’s wife, a philosophy major, says that her study group argues about praxis, immanence and absolute.
I have long listed the book if I was judging, as other 2013 short-listed works were superior.