Although the author writes in a clear and direct style, making it an easy read, although she captured the flavor of the culture, customs, lifestyle and form of expression used by the characters from a small village in India, she failed to capture me. I struggled with the book. It took the better part of 100 pages before I felt I was engaged enough to want to continue reading it.
The book is basically about two brothers whose lives take divergent paths, and like the two ponds in the lowland near their home that sometimes flooded to become one body of water, as children, they were like a single creature. However, they were closer as boys than as adults, and as they matured, when their politics and philosophy of life differed, they grew apart, like the two ponds after the rains subsided. Although they continued to love each other, they remained mostly distant for the rest of their lives.
Udayan, 15 months younger, was generally the one who made the decisions, and Subhash was the one who paid for his folly because he was older. Also, Udayan was more likely to take risks and defy the rules and authority. Both boys, however, were dutiful sons, respectful to their parents, honoring their obligations to them. The first part of the book covers the lives of these brothers, from the time Subhash is 13 and Udayan about 11, until 1970 when Subhash is about 27 and abruptly learns that Udayan has married. Then it continues for seven additional parts, moving from character to character, from place to place and time to time, until the present.
India’s political problems were exposed through the actions of Udayan, a Naxalite; he is a Communist and a follower of Mao. Subhash, the more grounded brother, respected authority, kept his own silent council, not making waves, and although he was often tempted to behave recklessly by his brother, he remained politically unaffiliated. He was often overshadowed by Udayan, who was favored by his mother, but remarkably, he never resented this, rather, he just seemed to wonder about it and accept it, as he accepted most things. He quietly acquiesced to whatever came his way.
Both Udayan and Subhash were at the same level in college, attending at the same time, having started their early schooling together for the sake of convenience. Udayan’s active rebellion evolved during that time, the turbulent sixties, and the politics divided the two brothers who had previously been like two halves of a whole. In 1967, in the area of Darjeeling, when the peasants began an insurgence which spread to the students, Subhash, who had generally followed his younger brother’s guidance, altered his course. Since he did not agree with the current student complaints, he did not join his brother in his desire to overthrow the government. Subhash disagreed with Udayan’s more radical political beliefs. Udayan believed in Mao’s Communism and not in America’s Democracy. He saw America and the current government of India as enemies, as oppressive, holding down the people and forcing them to live in poverty. Udayan disliked America and Subhash wanted to continue his studies there. Udayan wanted to stay in India and fight the system that he believed was repressive, and he wanted Subhash to remain also. As their relationship became more strained, Udayan became more drawn to his secret sweetheart, Gauri. His parents had not chosen her for him, as was the custom, but Udayan had no trouble defying customs. Some time after Subhash left for America, Udayan married her and took her home. As usual, his parents accepted his transgression.
The practice of subtly manipulating others to do his bidding continued to be a trait of Udayan’s as he grew older. He even engaged in that behavior with his own wife, compromising her safety without her knowledge when he involved her in dangerous politics without her being fully aware of what she was doing. Still, one might question the believability of her naïveté. Gauri was self-educated, as well as well-schooled, and while it was true that the rebellion Udayan was engaged in was a peasant rebellion, one that Gauri did not personally witness, she was surely aware of the student activities at her school that pertained to the politics of the day. Gauri, although in some ways naïve, was a very intelligent woman. She was very watchful and observant of the world around her. This, in fact, was what she missed most when she moved to Udayan’s home after their marriage; she missed the ability to watch the people and the city move around her. From her in-law’s home, all she could see was the surrounding landscape, the place called the lowland, which was to become not only the beginning of her husband’s life’s experiences, but also the end of theirs.
The way the passage of time was treated, by jumping from the experiences of one character’s life to another’s, was a little unsettling in this narrative. It seemed, almost suddenly, that several years passed by, without the reader’s knowledge, because a child suddenly appeared on the horizon, or there was a death in the family, or a child was now accompanying her father on a trip back to India or there was suddenly the appearance of a heretofore unknown grandchild, and a girlfriend, etc. This jumping from subject to subject, from one time and place, to another time and place, had a tendency of forcing me to stop and think to myself: wait, where am I now? Who is this speaking? How much time has gone by? Where is this character now, and what has happened to put him/her in this place, this new state or country? It disrupted the narrative for me.
As the book meandered back and forth between the characters, as one or another theme was developed, time continued to pass, and we followed their career paths and personal paths until the present time. The characters never fully developed or matured, never grew or changed. They remained the same as they were when we first met them, weak if weak, headstrong if headstrong, selfish if selfish. None ever truly altered their style or personality. Subhash was always the weaker link to Udayan’s strong one. Gauri, Udayan’s wife, had always been single-minded and independent in her own way. She remained that way; self-interest consumed her. When Gauri’s child was born, she too had many defiant personality traits; she represented a combination of her parents’ ways. Not one character ever fully considered the consequences of their actions, and others often suffered as a result of their poor choices.
The storyline did not always make sense to me. Why would Subhash accept punishment for his brother’s errors? Why would Gauri subjugate herself to her mother-in-law’s rule, when both she and Udayan really didn’t believe in that custom? Why would Udayan be the favored son, rather than the needier one, when he was the one who caused the most trouble? Why would Subhash always be blamed for his brother’s transgressions? Why was he so non-confrontational that he never stood up for himself? A too simple explanation is that he was the older brother, and there was nothing to be gained from speaking out. It was true that Subhash could not rein in Udayan’s wildness: Subhash was too timid, but he did know enough not to involve himself in Udayan’s lifestyle, as he grew older, even if he had to move to another country to do this, even if he had to increase the distance between them. To become somewhat independent, Subhash truly had to leave. The two ponds, separating the land, were like the two brothers who ultimately became separated.
Udayan’s behavior was reprehensible and so was Gauri’s. Innocent people were hurt by his fervor as a revolutionary, and she can only be described as an unfit mother. Subhash’s behavior was weak and too self-sacrificing. Their lives never fully developed because they were trapped in their own bodies and minds. Although the character’s justified their behavior to themselves, the reader will be left wondering, were any of their actions really justified, especially when they often had devastating effects on others? Was there any possibility of reclaiming their own lives or do they continue to remain adrift, wanderers in a strange land? Will they always be separate from, rather than belonging to, the people and places around them? Will they remain outsiders?
Throughout the book, the reader will wonder, will they ever reconnect? Would things have been different if they had been able to adapt and react more appropriately to the situations that confronted them? Eventually, the ponds are reclaimed by the land and developed by investors. How the brother’s lives develop, as well, and how separation effects each of the characters, are major themes.