June 10, 2013

Crime-Fiction Issue: "Brotherly Love"

By Jhumpa Lahiri
~13,900 words

Two brothers in Calcutta grow up in post-colonial India, their youthful adventures prefiguring a future that will be marked by violence.

At nearly 14,000 words, this story is nearly a saga in miniature. It reaches back to the 1940s, but gets up a head of steam in the fifties, when two brothers—Subhash, the elder, and Udayan, the junior—engage in nightly hijinks at the Tolly Club golf course, scaling the walls of this remnant of the colonial world in order to whack a few balls into the dusk with a bent putter. A police officer with a mean streak puts an end to this mischief, but the die is cast: Udayan has started a long career of dragging his older brother into trouble.

Eventually the problems turn political. After all, the brothers come of age in the sixties, and Udayan is singing the praises of communism. While Udayan flaunts authority and flirts with danger, cautious Subhash escapes to the US on a student visa, drawn by the sirens of security and science. It’s three years before he receives a telegram about his brother’s death, prompting Subhash’s return to the old neighborhood to find out how the police murdered his rebellious sibling. In a final gesture of brotherly love, he stands up to his parents and their traditions, and he offers to take in Udayan’s pregnant wife.

“Brotherly Love” is a captivating piece. Lahiri shows her trademark skill at portraying family dynamics, each member of the clan tilting toward different objectives. In the midst of tension, affection bubbles up. For those of us needing a refresher course on the fractious politics of the era, the author provides just enough detail to allow us to cobble it together. We may miss some of the details, but the gist is clear. Most important, though, is the relationship of the brothers, who are bound by their adventures and close calls, by the double bind of mutual admiration and rivalry. Lahiri draws this exquisitely. Nowhere is it clearer than in the encounter preceding their break:
You’re the other side of me, Subhash. It’s without you that I’m nothing. Don’t go.

It was the only time he’d admitted such a thing. He’d said it with love in his voice. With need.

But Subhash heard it as a command, one of so many he’d capitulated to all his life. Another exhortation to do as Udayan did, to follow him.
And thus Subhash departs, striking out for America, where he follows his hotheaded brother’s endeavors via a series of cryptic letters, understanding too late where it all will lead.

“Brotherly Love” is too long for a short story. Instead, it is the most concise of novels: Lahiri creates a world in these pages, flowing from the specific to the general, then springing back. Nicest of all, perhaps, is the way she develops the initial image of the Tolly Club, of the low ponds, and of the transgression represented by that first scramble over the wall. This scene prefigures all the rest, and we find the same dynamic as youthful exuberance matures into rebellion and even violence, always crushed by authority. The story is marked by images of crossing over—whether the boundary be a fence, an ocean, a padlocked gate, or the border between relationships. By the end, we have learned something. Like Subhash, we too might stand a little straighter in the face of injustice.


Also from the crime-fiction issue: "Scenes of the Crime," "Happy Trails," "Slide to Unlock," "Rough Deeds," "An Inch and a Half of Glory."

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