Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Brotherly Love” was originally published in the June 10 & 17, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

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Betsy

“Brotherly Love” takes place in India more than 40 years ago. Two brothers, so close they are practically twins, grow up in Calcutta, one the one who gives his parents no trouble, the other the one who gives them lots of pause. The boys become very good students, but gradually go their separate ways, the one to America to graduate school, the other to stay behind and become radicalized by the terrorist movement that was sweeping through eastern India at the time. In her understated way, Lahiri describes the terror that flashed through eastern India in the late sixties:

By [1970] the Naxalites were operating underground. Members surfaced only to carry out dramatic attacks. They ransacked schools and colleges across the city. In the middle of the night, they burned records and defaced portraits raising red flags. They plastered Calcutta with images of Mao. They intimidated voters, hoping to disrupt elections. They fired pipe guns on the city’s streets. They hid bombs in public places, so that people were afraid to sit in a cinema or stand in line at the bank.

Then the targets turned specific: unarmed traffic constables at busy intersections, wealthy businessmen, certain educators, members of the rival party the C.P.I. (M.) The killings were sadistic, gruesome, intended to shock.

This is the life that the younger brother, Udayan, chose, and in due time, the police track him down and shoot him in full view of his wife and parents.

The older brother, the émigré graduate student, must return home to mourn and make sense of all this. He finds his parents paralyzed by shock; he finds himself “assaulted by the sour, septic smell of his neighborhood, of his childhood.” He also finds that his parents have isolated their pregnant daughter-in-law to a distant part of the house and deny her certain foods, all the while defending their behavior as “custom.” They want to drive her away, but hope to keep the grandchild.

How the older brother, Subhash, reacts to all this will, in the end, define “Brotherly Love.”

There is a simplicity to the story that is subtly clouded by the images that Lahiri uses: the seasonal flood, the renovated house, a wooden tombstone, and the great festival. The images reverberate with multiple meanings, and Lahiri’s simple story-telling becomes less obvious, more complicated.

The periodic flooding that the monsoon brings is echoed by the floods of Hindu refugees who have fled the newly formed state of Bangladesh. These refugees crowd into Calcutta and live in wretched poverty — while some, like Subhash’s parents, have more than enough room, and others, the very well-to-do, frequent the walled country club nearby. Near Subhash’s house are two large oblong pools that seem to me like eyes looking up out of the earth; Lahiri makes a point of mentioning eyes several times in the story. It is as if nature is watching the goings-on. When the monsoon comes, these pools flood, and it feels to me like the earth itself is sobbing. The seasonal quality of the flooding, though, reminds us that there is no simple answer to the terrorism that has overtaken them. It will reappear, as we know it does.

Subhash’s parents have added another story to their house; when he sees it he hardly recognizes it. Big as it now is, it’s possible to isolate the daughter-in-law so they never see her; big as it is, they can see their son’s execution from the top floor. Somehow this house echoes the state of India itself, the way it has built its democracy on top of the British Raj, and in fact on top of all past history. The new structure is there, but the people inside are wedded to the past, and lost. While the house was intended to make room for arranged marriages and grandchildren, what their younger son did was make it his terrorist hidey-hole. Instead of being filled with children, the house finds itself ransacked by police looking for terrorist evidence and the son himself. Just as the refugees and the terrorists have upended India itself, the police invade the house. Home is no more.

The terrorists have made Udayan a small wooden memorial which his mother visits every day. But the story asks: what is the actual answer, the fitting reply, the lasting memorial, for a criminal revolutionary?

Subhash thinks: “Udayan had given his life to a movement that had been misguided, that had caused only damage, that had already been dismantled. The only thing he’d altered was what their family had been.”

Udayan’s execution occurs during the great festival of Durga Puja, the holiday that goes on for days in Calcutta. The holiday itself has symbolic ties to the quest for independence, and it also has the overall significance of the triumph of good over evil. The horror of Udayan’s probable terrorist activities put him on the side of evil. But what is the good that triumphs? The house invasion by police? Udayan’s execution? The parents’ intention to keep the baby but put out the mother?

The title, “Brotherly Love,” is both sincerely hopeful and completely ironic. Udayan’s hope to save his brother Indians through murder is futile; this political movement flails on but does not succeed. The police, thinking themselves to be secluded in the swamp, murder Udayan in full view of his parents, thus invalidating the “democracy” the parents thought they’d won in 1948. Wedded to the family customs of the past, the parents treat their “daughter” like a prisoner. The only hope is that Subhash, the oldest son, will provide a viable version of “brotherly love,” one that would make the most fitting memorial for the whole terrible tragedy.

How resonant this story is, how surprising. I really liked reading this, both the plain writing and the complicating images. What is the fitting answer to terror, its proper memorial, its final burial? The story offers, in the end, a man who consciously chooses a difficult single act of “brotherly” love, regardless of the losses that love requires, regardless of the unknowns ahead. That fact that Lahiri makes Durga Puja a character in the story puts front and center the question of whether good has a role in the world.

That leaves, of course, Herbert Marcuse and The One Dimensional Man, and whether or not the book that Gauri wanted is the signal that she is not herself a terrorist. That, of course, is the unknown.

Trevor

As this is the last story in the magazine (and a rather long one at that), I haven’t read it yet, but I’ll get there. A few of Lahiri’s stories are among my favorites.

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