Dr. Maitrayee Misra
Assistant Professor (Ad-hoc), Dept. of English and Foreign Languages,
Guru Ghasidas Vishwavidyalaya (A Central University)
Familial ties, in the context of the Indian middle-class, are continually being re-shaped with transnational movement in search of better material opportunity. The conventional practice of living with parents and siblings inside the domestic space of the Indian family along with kith and kins around the neighbourhood is fast fading away, and the collective mutual support of the community is also getting lost. Rapid intergenerational transformation of the traditional models of Indian middle-class family and kinship often results in the dissolution of traditional values. It paves way for a kind of negotiation withnew cultural practices. To bring home the point,I have selected Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Lowland as a case study.The novel spins the saga of four generations of the Mitra family of Calcutta. The portrayal of the elderly parental generation represents the iconic traditional Indian family whereas the dislocated nuclear family of Subhash and Gauri (who settle in the US) shows the transformation of the traditional ethnic middle-class Indian family. Their daughter Bela—the third generation Indian who is born and brought up in the American cultural space, believes in single motherhood and represents a further transformation. This articleprimarily investigates how the conventional notions of ‘family’ and kinship transform through time and space; how issues like transnational movement and the New Economy contribute to the change of values in the questions of family and kinship.
Keywords : New Economy, Transnational dislocation, nuclear family, single motherhood, intergenerational transformation
In the nucleus of this research article, are the typical Indian middle-class family and its transformation by two important vectors—New Economy and the resultant transnational movement. Before the discussion of those vectors, it is necessary to clarify the oft-asked question—what do we mean by the Indian middle class? Is it any group within the society representing any specific economic condition or a specific lifestyle and values? It is a general tendency to place the middle class between the rich and the poor, though over time this oversimplification is questionable. The Indian middle class has now become iconic of the ‘common person or every man’, the “aspirational, proud, and acquisitive citizen” (Jodhka and Prakashix). Since the 1970s, “in the post-colonial context… the middle class has been historically linked to the question of development” (Lobo and Shah 1). In recent times, the concept of the middle class in India refers precisely to a population—urban, educated, affluent, multilingual, ambitious men and women, “seeking white collar jobs” (Lobo and Shah 1); “a society with the chance of upward mobility and achievement beyond subsistence” (Landry and Marsh 374). With the concept of the Indian middle class, the notions of ‘traditional’ Indian household and family are intrinsically connected.A strong sense of cultural heritage indeed foregrounds Indian middle-class families. It is the idea of a family where along with the elderly parents, the younger generations stay under the same roof and thus becomes a “multigenerational household” (Lamb 32). Such traditional Indian family is considered a “key site of care, involving relationships of love, support and nurture” (McCarthy et al. 17), as the members of the family enjoy the harmony of cohabitation, the responsibilities of marriage, parenting and care.
However, the introduction of economic globalization or the New Economy has opened up multiple opportunities to the young people across the world and has set the Indian middle-class families in transition. As a result of the New Economy, one could witness the vehement progress in communication, mobility of human beings across countries and continents. The steadily increasing transnational movement has challenged the notion of stability, and diasporic dislocation has become a shared experience. Whether it be forced migration (inspired by a feeling of insecurity, crisis, poverty, corruption and political hostility) or deliberate migration (with the hope of acquiring a more safe and stable economic existence), a large number of people are getting “separated from their family by distance and national borders” and are “experiencing transnational family lives” (Baldassar and Merla 6). The conventional practice of living with parents and siblings in the domestic space of the Indian family full of kith and kins around the neighbourhood is fast fading away. With it, the collective mutual support of the community is also rare. Rapid intergenerational transformation of the traditional models of Indian middle-class family results in the dissolution and often a rejection of the ethno-cultural values and paves the way for negotiation with familial ties and cultural knowledge. In the context of transnational dislocation and intergenerational transformation of Indian middle-class families and values, Jhumpa Lahiri’s novels stand exclusive as they “picture the breaking of traditional joint families into cellular, single, recomposed or transnational families as a result of ideological change” (Ganapathy-Doré 102).
Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel The Lowland (2013) showcases the intergenerational transformation of an Indian middle-class family following transnational dislocation and the eventual dissolution of ethno-cultural values and identity. Set primarily in Calcutta around the 1940s, and then in Rhode Islands in the US, The Lowland is divided into eight sections— subdivided into thirty-six chapters, narrating the saga of multiple generations of the Mitra family, outstretching itself to almost six decades. Lahiri’s literary oeuvre includesnot just the cultural spatiality of America but also of India and especially the city of Calcutta—the origin of most of her characters. It is a truism that the “families across generations and cultures” and “difficulties of transnational migrant families” (Hai 188) are major thematic concernsin her works. In an interview with Cressida Leyshon, Lahiri admits: “I often think the novel is among other things, very much about what a family is, and what a family means.” (n.p.) Lahiri also talks about a ‘series of triangles’ in her novel, where each triangle stands for a family unit: the father, mother, and the children making the three points of a triangle.
In the first family triangle of The Lowland, Mr. Mitra— a clerk in the railways, deeply concerned about the future of his family, “even before having children” (TL 222), is ambitious of building a house—a dream of almost every middle-class Bengali family. His wife Bijoli, Subhash and Udayan’s mother, extends her support by contributing “her only resource” (TL 222), her gold. It becomes their joint venture to secure the third point of the triangle—their children. As Bijoli’s husband belonged to a low-income middle-class family, he had to seek for a job only at the age of nineteen and had to sacrifice his college education. Therefore, it was their earnest longing to safeguard the future of their children from the economic hardships of a low-income middle-class family. They wanted their sons to get the best educationin well-known academic institutions in Calcutta. The parents of the Mitra family also hired a tutor for their sons during the college entrance tests, and to“offset the expense”, Subhash and Udayan have seen “their mother taking in extra sewing” (TL 17). Lahiri shows how strong parental support worked in a traditional Indian middle-class familyin the mid-twentieth century. As the boys achieve a good result and get admission in two of the best colleges in Calcutta, the family celebrates the success:“To celebrate, their father went to the market, bringing back cashews and rosewater for pulao, half a kilo of the most expensive prawns” (TL 18).
The whirlwind of the post-colonial political scenario in Calcutta—the Naxalbari movement of the late 1960s, with its ideology of anti-state violence draws the younger Udayan into extremist politics. In contrast, Subhash, the elder one secures his dream to pursue a PhD from MIT in America.The concept of ‘family’ has a strong metaphorical connotation as it is the marker of one’s belongingness and identity. Even after two years of diasporic dislocation in Rhode Island, Subhash receives news of his family at Calcutta “only in writing” (TL 76). Letters become carriers of transnational care of the family. Through the first letter from Udayan, he comes to know about his parents’ effort to extend their house: “Baba’s taken out a loan. They’re adding to what we already have. They seem to think it’s necessary. That we won’t get married and raise families under the same roof if the house stays the way it is” (TL 51; original emphasis). The second letter informs him about Udayan’s love-marriage with one named Gauri, denying any “type of celebration” (TL 56), and informing the parents only after the civil registration process is over. This way of marrying is a significant deviation from the traditional cultural norms in an Indian middle-class family.
In Transnational Families: Ethnicities, Identities and Social Capital, Goulbourne et al. find that the transnational individuals are “relatively freely to negotiate physical, social and cultural spaces to suit their felt or perceived needs, wants or aspirations” (9). When Subhash meets Narsimhan and his American wife, he feels an initial culture shock but gets acquainted with the liberal cultural space that America offers to an individual. This acquaintance helps him befriending Holly—the American woman, presently separated from her husband. Subhash wishes to complement the absence of his family in the company of Holly and her son Joshua. However, as Holly declares to end up with him and reunite with her husband, Subhash’s dream of being part of a family-triangle becomes futile. Simultaneously, the arrival of a telegram from his parents with the message—“Udayan killed. Come back if you can” (TL 100; original emphasis) brings Subhash temporarily back to his family in Calcutta.The thought of the execution of Udayan by the police right before his parents and pregnant wife puts Subhash aback. However, he feels deeply worried by the plight of Gauri in his parental house even after the mourning rituals are over. A “deep sense of responsibility both for Gauri and his ‘wounded’ family” (Baruah 118) helps Subhash to challenge his middle-class cultural heritage, and he decides to marry the pregnant widow of Udayan before they leave for America.Subhash’s decision to marry Gauri and to take her away to America appears practicalwhen seen from an idealistic frame of mind.On the other side remains the predicament of the shattered lives of the parents left behind in Calcutta which can never be repaired by any amount of money sent as a remittance by Subhash.
The recomposed family gets the third point of the family-triangle with the birth of Belaand becomes iconic of a dislocated nuclear family.Nevertheless, Gauri does not find motherhood as bliss to her. She instead feels more interested in knowing the American cultural space and forming a new identity of herself. Lahiri’s previous literary works portray most of “the first generationIndian women immigrants as guardians of traditions, but The Lowland completely changes this pattern” (Stoican 166). Over time, Gauri increasingly involves herself in academic emancipation, earns a PhD in philosophy and dissociates from her domestic and motherly responsibilities. After the death of his father, Subhash travels to Calcutta with Bela to attend the rituals, as Gauri denies visiting the Tollygunge-house to avoid the haunting past. Even in the absence of Subhash and Bela, she decides to move to California abandoning her family in Rhode Islands forever. Gauri’s successive transgressions—first from Calcutta to Rhode Islands, and then again to California is gradual,metaphoric movements from the East to the West. Transformation of her identity takes place through these transgressions and the simultaneous breaking away from the family bonds—from her roles as wife and mother, gradual distancing from the conventional Indian values of family life reaching its height in her involvement in a lesbian relationship with Lorna, one of her students. Subhash’s “family of solitaries” (TL 262) splits into halves.
Bela, the third-generation of the Mitra family, feels distraught with the realization that her mother has abandoned them. The “most basic awareness of her life”, as Bela has understood, is the “unhappiness between her parents” (TL 258).Unlike her grandparents, mother and foster-father Subhash, Bela prioritizes happiness over academically successful affluent life and associates herself with manual labourand farming. Her association with the poor people reminds of Udayan’s left-wing idealism and solidarity with the dispossessed. In his penetrating article entitled “‘A Betrayal of Everything’: The Law of the Family in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland”, Kalyan Nadiminti observes: “Bela begins to mirror her biological father Udayan’s disavowal of middle-class Indian life in favour of Naxalite politics” (254).Bela’s decision to be a single mother may startle any Indian middle-class people on the issues of ethics and familial responsibility, but Subhash’s worldview has now been transformed due to his transnationalassociation with the American cultural space.He accepts her being a mother before getting married, which is regarded as a taboo in a traditional Indian family.Moreover, his relationship with Elise Silva and his decision to marry her also defies theIndian traditional family values.As Subhash tells Bela the truth about her biological father Udayan, she determines to start her life on her own.Bela’s decision of being a single mother becomes a “lifestyle choice” as if to validate herself and lift herself out of the “realm of dependency” to the “realm of freedom” which helps her to become the icon of “self-sufficiency” (Juffer 2-4).Once reactive, Bela is seen to tell her daughter Meghna that her grandmother is long dead, right at the front of Gauri; the reader understands that it is her denial to associate her with the middle-class Indian sentiment and Mitra family. The spontaneous adoption of Meghna by Drew, Bela’s partner, makes it clear that kinship and social affiliation prioritize over the ideas of the traditional family and biological filiation in The Lowland.
Through the multigenerational tale in The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri presents a series of family triangles which help in mapping out the transformation of traditional Indian middle-class family in transnational dislocation. Movement from the ethno-cultural root, breaking of families into pieces, lack of familial solidarity across time and space, dissolution of family values and cultural heritage, abandonment and divorce, single motherhood—all may impact on the relationships and ties of Indian middle-class families, but there is always someone to tell the next generation about the root. Bela’s letter to Gauri, towards the end of the novel, could be seen“as a means of maintaining familial connections, providing justification…and serving as a space for negotiation of changing identities” (DeHaan 107).Somewhere thereis always the presence of a family-triangle—the hopeto find new connections en route the course of life.
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