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Crossing Borders: Jhumpa Lahiri's Female
Immigrants and the Transgression of Physical and
Ideological Boundaries in The Lowland
Submitted by: Abeeha Tariq
Student number: 12371886
Supervisor: Dr Sharae Deckard
Word Count: 8,784
This dissertation is submitted in partial fulfilment of the
requirements for the degree of BA(Hons) English to the School
of English, Drama and Film, University College Dublin
This dissertation will examine Jhumpa Lahiri's representations of Indian immigrant
femininity in her fiction. Exploring socio-historical constructions of Indian femininity, this
dissertation will demonstrate how Lahiri's early representations of first-generation female
immigrants remain conventional while her second novel, The Lowland, radically breaks
away from stereotypes through the complex character of Gauri, who crosses physical as
well as ideological boundaries. Paralleling contemporary feminist and queer intersections
within diaspora studies, which emphasise the importance of independent experiences,
Lahiri depicts how individual female narratives rooted in specific socio-cultural contexts
help to deconstruct homogenous and normative notions of diaspora and transnationalism.
1. Introduction 1
2. Feminising Foreignness: Female Experience of
Diaspora and Jhumpa Lahiri's Fiction 4
3. Journeying Beyond: The Lowland's Gauri and the Crossing
of Geographical and Socio-Cultural Boundaries 9
4. Conclusion 17
5. List of Works Cited 19
For female Indian immigrants, diaspora and transnationalism become not only a
crossing of physical borders but also a transgression of ideological boundaries. Discussing
diaspora and South Asian women, Yasmin Hussain writes that diasporic journeys are not
simply casual travel but the crossing of physical and psychological borders (8). Hussain
highlights how these "borders are politically and ideologically constructed" and this comes to
bear particular significance in relation to the female Indian immigrants of Jhumpa Lahiri's
fiction who must navigate particular physical and socio-cultural spaces (8). In her fourth
book, The Lowland, and through the character of Gauri, Lahiri creates the image of an
individual woman who not only physically traverses nations and physical borders but also
crosses lines that are drawn politically, culturally and ideologically. This dissertation will
follow the trajectory of Lahiri's representation of Indian immigrant women, showing how the
first-generation women who populate her early fiction remain within the confines of diasporic
gendered conventions while The Lowland begins to radically re-imagine Indian femininity
and subvert expectations created by hetero-patriarchy and nation. Lahiri's latest novel
parallels concerns of contemporary diaspora studies, especially with the intersections of
feminist and queer theory that highlight the necessity of individual experiences and contexts,
rather than the simplification, suppression and homogenisation of non-normative narratives.
Diaspora studies became rapidly popular in the nineties, with increased focus on
modern migration and dispersal patterns. William Safran, one of the leading diaspora
theorists, characterised diaspora as a community of people who had been displaced, "exiled
or expatriated," across space, using the classical example of the Jewish diaspora as his basis
(84-86). His understanding of diaspora, like much work on it during the nineties, emphasised
the "homeland", the "original" place from which people dispersed and desired to recreate
abroad or return to (84). Diaspora studies began to develop from the classical models of the
Jewish, Greek and Armenian diasporas to more transnational movement among communities
in modern times, analysing the forced dispersal of the African diaspora, and the South Asian
diaspora, characterised by postcolonial exile as well as professional migration. Rogers
Brubaker, writing many years later, identified three key characteristics of diaspora:
dispersion, homeland orientation and boundary-maintenance – still maintaining that
homeland, a fixed space, was essential to diaspora (5-6). Stuart Hall highlighted the nature of
constantly developing diasporic identities, claiming that "the diaspora experience... is defined
not by essence or purity, but by the recognition of a necessary heterogeneity and diversity; by
a conception of 'identity' which lives with and through, not despite, difference; by hybridity"
(235). He observed that binary divisions of diaspora limited the nature of developing cultural
identities that were increasingly shaped by fluidity rather than nationalist notions of
dichotomies and stability. As perception and analysis of diaspora and transnationality
increased, Khachig Tölölyan noted "the increasing collapse of the distinction between
diaspora and dispersion" (648). He observes that it is best not to think of diaspora as "a fixed
concept and social formation but as a process of collective identification... marked by ever-
changing differences that chart the shifting boundaries of certain communities" (650). He
noted that diaspora became increasingly associated with "transnationalism and its associated
border crossing" (651). Diaspora was characterised by mobility and movement that was
largely connected to masculinity, limiting the diversity within diasporic experience. Tracking
this development of diaspora studies, Sandhya Mehta observes that "the complexity of the
term 'diaspora' soon allowed for the term to be used in various cultural, social, economic and
ethnic contexts, all of which remained largely patriarchal" (3).
In her influential book, Impossible Desires, Gayatri Gopinath discusses the etymology
of "diaspora." She highlights the "patriarchal and heteronormative underpinnings of the term"
by quoting Stefan Helmreich's definition, meaning a "scattering of seeds"; emphasising the
masculine connotations of the word and concept (5). Diaspora has historically been linked
with male mobility while the "condition of 'home boundedness' is gendered in most cultures
as feminine" (Puar 88). Despite developments within diaspora studies, nation, domesticity,
and home are concepts that remain widely connected with femininity while migration, travel
and mobility are linked with the realm of the masculine. The intersections of gender and
sexuality with diaspora are increasingly being analysed. Theorists call for the continuous re-
assessment of diaspora and its normative associations in contemporary times, highlighting the
need for a focus on gender and sexuality and their relationship to diaspora and
transnationalism in order to avoid simplifying and homogenising the concept. Jasbir Puar
notes that "constructions of diaspora that hinge upon masculinist constructions of home and
travel are, for the most part, inattentive to gender and silent on sexuality" (407). Similarly,
Sandhya Mehta notes how diaspora has historically been figured as a "heteronormative
experience" with little focus on feminine and queer subjectivities which causes the field to
remain largely normative (1). In the continually developing field of diaspora studies, more
attention is being given to the movement beyond borders not only pertaining to nation but
those of society and culture, which involve gender, sexuality, race and religion. Mehta
highlights that "diaspora studies are increasingly pointing to ways in which individual
experiences of travel and migration are rooted in particular contexts and that no theory would
adequately reflect the complexities of diaspora in the contemporary context" (2). Modern
diaspora studies are increasingly calling for a more nuanced approach to diaspora, that avoids
the homogenisation and simplified categorisation that past studies relied on, highlighting the
incredibly complex nature of contemporary diaspora.
Jhumpa Lahiri's fiction focuses on the Indian diaspora. Departing from masculine
conceptions of diaspora, Lahiri feminises the diasporic experience in her narratives of first-
generation female immigrants. While the women of Lahiri's earlier fiction – Interpreter of
Maladies, The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth – remain to be stereotypical representations
of domesticated Indian femininity, her latest novel, The Lowland, represents a break away
from conventional notions of Indian immigrant womanhood that have been established socio-
historically. Lahiri's female immigrants are represented as being caught between multiple
geographical locations as well as national and patriarchal constructions of ideal Indian
femininity that aim to simplify and homogenise individual female experiences of diaspora
and transnationality. By representing a unique and complex female character, Lahiri
challenges conventional constructions of Indian womanhood which are proliferated in the
diaspora and her own earlier fiction. Paralleling the concerns of contemporary feminist and
queer intersections within the Indian diaspora, Lahiri invests Gauri with a particular social,
cultural and political context that shapes her narrative and her decisions, rather than choosing
to depict her as the homogenous ideal of the good Indian woman. By representing a
politicised, culturally-aware and non-heterosexual woman, Lahiri gives voice to those
individual female narratives that have been overlooked throughout the history of diaspora
studies, which largely remain heteronormative and patriarchal. While Lahiri's earlier fiction
does not focus on the specific ways in which many of the women cross ideological as well as
physical boundaries, The Lowland represents a move away from more conventional
depictions in order to examine these boundaries. Gauri is a female immigrant who challenges
and crosses the socio-cultural and physical boundaries that are constructed to contain her.
Lahiri's radical re-representation of Indian women is achieved through Gauri whose choices
throughout The Lowland sever her from the image of the traditional Indian woman that
Lahiri's previous works have so carefully and meticulously depicted and, in this way, she
becomes a more realistic and complex character who effectively alters perceptions and
understandings of Indian immigrant womanhood.
2. FEMINISING FOREIGNESS: FEMALE
EXPERIENCE OF DIASPORA AND
JHUMPA LAHIRI'S FICTION
Jhumpa Lahiri's influentially feminises the diaspora in her fiction. Through her multi-
generational stories, Lahiri reverses gendered ideals of the Indian diaspora by portraying the
lives of first-generation female immigrants. Lahiri emphasises the displacement and
alienation that female immigrants experience, creating a more exilic feminised image of
diaspora. Utilising the work of critics within diaspora, gender and sexuality studies, this
chapter will explore how Lahiri's earlier fiction – her short-story collections, Interpreter of
Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth, and first novel, The Namesake – represents conventional
images of Indian femininity. Lahiri's work conveys how notions of home and travel are
gendered in specific socio-historical ways, but this chapter will then move onto exploring
how Lahiri's second novel The Lowland differs, disrupting these long-held diasporic ideals
and pushing against the boundaries that limit the subjectivity of individual female narratives.
Female immigrants in Lahiri's earlier work largely remain within the confines of conventions,
created by nation and patriarchy in order to simplify and homogenise diasporic experience,
while The Lowland drastically challenges these narratives of womanhood, and succeeds in
portraying how individual female immigrants move not only physically but also
psychologically and ideologically, through the character of Gauri.
While Gopinath addresses the etymology of "diaspora" and its masculine
connotations, Lahiri reverses this perception of diasporic experience in The Namesake when
Ashima, the immigrant wife and mother, contemplates her displacement in America:
For being a foreigner... is a sort of lifelong pregnancy – a perpetual wait, a
constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing
responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been an ordinary life, only to
discover that the previous life has vanished, replaced by something more
complicated and demanding. (49-50)
Lahiri feminises the diasporic experience in this extract. Concilio observes that "by
comparing this kind of existential condition of exile to pregnancy Lahiri manages to convey a
powerful gendered perspective on otherness, migration and postcolonial discourse" (99). This
passage highlights the responsibilities and expectations that are placed on female immigrants
in the diaspora, demonstrating the requirements of biological and cultural reproduction that
are usually assigned to women. This direct reference to the reproductive process signifies the
task of recreating the home abroad, physically and culturally, as one which is assigned to
female Indian immigrants who are expected to remain within the domestic sphere. Alfonso-
Forero, in regards to the political purposes of gender roles in postcolonial India, notes that
women were positioned "as the guardians and propagators of Indian culture" (854). Ashima's
diasporic situation elicits a feeling of "exile and uprootedness," that often pervades the stories
of Lahiri's female immigrants (Concilio 99). This shows how ideas about a fixed, stable home
become confused within the diaspora, highlighting how women are still burdened with the
task of creating and maintaining it. Lahiri reverses notions of diaspora, by refocusing it on the
women who are required to maintain the home and culture in a foreign country.
Sandhya Mehta notes that "while the choice of moving from one physical location to
another is primarily seen to be a male one... the onus of retaining memories of home, of
recreating them within new contexts and ultimately acting as cultural harbingers of homeland
culture, remain vividly feminine" (1). This is particularly true of the Indian diaspora, as
women become symbols of national and cultural purity, used to re-affirm and reproduce
Indian culture and tradition within the diaspora. Jhumpa Lahiri's works focus on a particular
subset of the Indian diaspora: male professionals who leave India in order to pursue academic
and/or economic pursuits, accompanied by their wives. Their migration as academics and
professionals is facilitated by the 1965 immigration bill which allowed certain types
immigrants to enter America (Cheung and Dhingra 30). Interpreter of Maladies's Mrs. Sen,
The Namesake's Ashima, Unaccustomed Earth's Chitra and The Lowland's Gauri are all
women who accompany their husbands abroad after marriage, showing the problematic ways
in which these women's movements are largely facilitated and accompanied by men. In these
stories, the men are characterised as moving more freely while women's agency and mobility
is limited. Women become tied to notions of home and domesticity while men pursue careers.
Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt notes that in much of Lahiri's fiction, "the women join their
husbands as housewives and depend on their spouses to introduce them to America" while
"the men come to America as intellectual migrants and work as professors, librarians and
company executives" (66). Economic differences become apparent as the women are not
afforded the same agency as their professional male counterparts. The women become
confined to the domestic space, unable or unwilling to depart from it and thus the diasporic
experience for women becomes more alienating and exilic. In depicting her characters in this
way, Lahiri "portrays migration and foreignness as a gendered phenomenon" (66).
It is through heterosexual marriage that these women are able to leave behind India
but arriving in America carries its own complications and demands for these women.
Chatterji and Washbrook write that "it has so often been claimed that women migrants abroad
reproduce the culture of 'home' that the proposition is now taken for granted" (7). Women are
assumed to maintain culture through food, dress and religion, preserving and policing the
"ethnic boundaries of... diasporic communities" (7). Ashidhara Das discusses how Indian
immigrant women are idealized by their families and communities, "expected to be culturally
and morally perfect" (59) and Tamara Bhalla highlights how "South Asian women bear the
burden of replicating a homogenous ethnic 'authenticity'" (119). The ideal, good Indian
woman is meant to be "maternal, accommodating, gentle, self-effacing, serving, kind, and
chaste" - an image that has been created over generations and one which dominates Lahiri's
earlier depictions of immigrant women (Roy 105). The "centring of women as an integral part
of definitions of family" was created by nation and proliferated within diaspora too (Mehta
6). Immigrant women become assigned "homemaking roles", tasked with upholding tradition
and culture abroad (6). The image of the immigrant woman at the centre of the home,
burdened with reproducing and maintaining culture has been proliferated socio-historically
and affects the perception and lives of female immigrants. Many critics highlight this
reductive image of the traditional Indian wife and mother, calling for the need to assess
individual experiences of diaspora in order to accurately portray it and also to widen the ways
in which we understand its effects. Individual female narratives are overlooked in order to
reinforce a patriarchal, national and community ideal. Bound by conventions, individual
women suffer as they try to maintain a particular image of familial, cultural life.
Diasporic grand narratives aim to simplify and homogenise the female experience of
diaspora and transnationalism and much of Lahiri's early work depicts this conventional
image of Indian women, focusing little on individual contexts and situations. Lahiri's earlier
work does not radically move beyond the conventional image of the female Indian immigrant
while she influentially feminises the diasporic experience, opening it up beyond its masculine
connotations. Mrs. Sen, Ashima and Chitra are women who fall within the category of
conventional while, as I will later explore, Gauri transgresses these ideological boundaries
that are made to contain these women. While Mrs. Sen, Ashima and Chitra traverse nations,
they ultimately remain confined within the categories of the good Indian woman and their
mobility and agency remains limited in Lahiri's fiction. While Lahiri depicts these women
travelling physically (mostly aided by their male partners), they rarely transgress expectations
and roles. Brubaker discusses how boundary-maintenance is characteristic of diaspora and, as
examined earlier, the Indian diaspora achieves this through its female members (6). Through
food, dress, language, religious and cultural traditions, Mrs. Sen, Ashima and Chitra preserve
Indian culture in America, sparked by their desire to keep ties with the country they left. They
speak Bengali and wear traditional saris and vermilion in their hair, culturally marking them.
They remain within the domestic space, particularly being associated with the kitchen and
Indian cuisine. Yun Ling notes how "women hold a very important part in preserving the
ethnic food culture" and Lahiri conveys this through her emphasis on how these women
create traditional Bengali dishes for their families and Indian-American community (75).
These women tirelessly maintain an "imagined homeland" (76). Mrs. Sen spends her time in
her apartment, chopping vegetables and preparing fish, trying to recreate tastes from India.
Ashima creates a little community of Bengalis, a "microcosm of the India that was left
behind" and organises parties and meticulously cooks for her guests (Alfonso-Forero 856).
Chitra is referred to as "old-fashioned" as she occupies the kitchen and rarely moves beyond
her particular way of life (Lahiri 264). Lahiri's earlier characters remain within the
"traditional Indian ideals of a 'good woman'" (Roy 105). Lahiri portrays these women in
positive and sympathetic ways, highlighting how diasporic separation emotionally and
psychologically affects them, but her representation sacrifices their own subjectivity and
individuality when keeping them within conventional ideals of womanhood.
Lahiri's fiction is concerned with the themes of travel and mobility. In many of her
stories, driving a car comes to signify the ability to move physically and psychologically. As
Alfonso-Forero observes, driving is a detail that "reminds us of the significance of mobility in
Lahiri's fiction, as it is linked to the ability to permeate cultural borders" (858). It comes to
signify agency and initiative. Mrs. Sen refuses to learn how to drive out of fear and stops
driving after one incident, tired of the requirements of life in America (Lahiri, Interpreter,
131). Similarly, Ashima is reluctant to learn how to drive, preferring to stay within the family
home. At first she has "no interest in learning how to drive" but this gradually changes
(Namesake 49). By the end of The Namesake, she has a car and license but "though she is
willing to drive herself around their town, she is not willing to get on the highway" to travel
long distances (163). Chitra also claims "I would not like to learn" when she is told driving is
easy (Unaccustomed 270). These women share unwillingness and anxiety when it comes to
mobility. Rajyasree Sen highlights how interchangeable Lahiri's female immigrants become,
stripped of individuality in order to depict their gendered role within the family and
community (par. 9). These women become associated and confined to the domestic sphere in
these stories and Lahiri does little to emphasise their individuality or cause them to move
beyond the culturally-constructed categories of the conventional Indian woman. The women
prefer to travel out of their domestic environments with their husbands and it is only after her
husband's death that Ashima is shown to drive and fly alone. It is after selling her house at the
end of The Namesake, that which offered her the illusion of stability and personal fulfillment,
that Ashima is displaced once again, no longer being able to remain within the home that she
worked to maintain. The story ends there, Lahiri avoids depicting Ashima's life after she
removes herself from the domestic sphere, meaning that Ashima remains the traditional wife
and mother character, despite movement beyond the home. Unlike Lahiri's earlier
immigrants, The Lowland's Gauri wishes to move beyond the confines of her family
apartment alone but cannot. The absence of a car heightens her isolation; she remains in the
house with her young daughter "without a car in which they might go anywhere, without a
break" – the domestic space for her is entrapment (Lahiri 206).
Shamita Dasgupta states how "the general populace still tends to perceive [South
Asian women] in stereotypes: docile, subservient, passive, politically unaware, asexual, and
bound by traditions" (1). She discusses that while these categories are convenient, they fail to
accurately represent the realities of diasporic women's lives, simplifying their lived
experiences. She observes that "to assume home in terms of fixed geography belies [their]
experiences of physical as well as psychological movement" (1). In this way, Dasgupta
influentially highlights how transnational experiences of travel and movement affect women
not only physically but ideologically. For women, negotiating borders and boundaries
extends to those of society and culture. Home for immigrant women thus cannot be defined
as a stable, immovable space as the concept of home for them "has long been fluid and ever-
changing" (2). Dasgupta highlights the inadequacy of patriarchal, nationalist notions of home
in the lives of diasporic women, emphasising the failure of the essentialist image of the
Indian woman in accurately depicting individual lived experiences. It is necessary to move
beyond the domestic space when examining female Indian immigrants, focusing on how
movement and diasporic displacement affects individual lives. Women are considered to be
the agents of boundary-maintenance but they also hold power in negotiating, erasing, and
blurring these boundaries. While Lahiri's earlier female immigrants remain interchangeable
and homogenous, confined to domesticated roles, Gauri becomes a character who not only
transcends physical barriers, she also transgresses the cultural expectations of wife and
mother that are placed on her.
In The Lowland, Lahiri, paralleling feminist and queer intersections in the field of
diaspora studies, highlights the need to focus on individual female and non-normative
narratives for nuance and contextual perspective, rather than sacrificing them for the sake of
an essentialist image of the Indian diasporic community in America. Mehta claims that "the
articulation of distinct experiences within specific forms of diasporic experience emerges at
the centre of narratives of women who attempt to move beyond the limits of socially and
culturally constructed identities" (6). Thus travelling beyond not only physical but ideological
boundaries becomes important in providing a more nuanced image of diasporic experience.
Lahiri delivers this individualised narrative of female immigration through Gauri. Gauri is
similar to Lahiri's early characters in-so-much as she only migrates after her marriage and
that she is also a wife and mother, confined to the domestic space and within expectations at
first. But Gauri actively aims to move beyond the boundaries that contain her. Lahiri's earlier
work essentially represents the "clichés of South Asian identity and femininity" (Bhalla 119)
but The Lowland moves beyond these stereotypes. While Lahiri's portrayal of first-generation
female immigrants in her earlier stories remains conventional, The Lowland represents a
break away from these images by portraying a culturally- and self-aware, politicised, queer
woman who abandons the expectations of immigrant womanhood that are placed on her by
nation and patriarchy. Gauri rejects and defies the conventions of Indian femininity. She is
politically involved, sexually experimental and aware, ambiguous in her moral rendering. She
drastically abandons her duties as wife and mother, of biological and cultural reproduction,
by permanently leaving the familial domestic space, altering notions of immigrant femininity
and domesticity. Shamita Dasgupta, in deconstructing notions of South Asian femininity,
observes that "this journey to spaces beyond [their] 'assigned' place is not new to [South
Asian women]" but that it is widely ignored by homogenous diasporic narratives (3). Lahiri's
portrayal of Gauri exemplifies Dasgupta's sentiments, depicting the varied nature of Indian
femininity and the problematic nature of confining women within expectations of cultural and
moral purity, dictated by nationalist-patriarchal ideals. In the next chapter, I will explore the
extent of Gauri's transgression of geographical and socio-cultural spaces and how this affects
her position and reception as a diasporic Indian woman.
3. JOURNEYING BEYOND: THE LOWLAND'S
GAURI AND THE CROSSING OF GEOGRAPHICAL
AND SOCIO-CULTURAL BOUNDARIES
The Lowand spans over four generations and nearly sixty years, beginning with the
lives of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan Mitra, growing up in the fifties and sixties in
Calcutta. At the centre of their story is Gauri, who occupies various roles throughout the
novel: daughter, sister, wife, widow, mother – but what is most striking about Gauri is her
transgression of these roles. She marries twice, first Udayan and, after his death, Subhash,
becoming central to the novel. Gauri complicates the roles and expectations of Indian
womanhood, as outlined in the previous chapter, as Lahiri uses her in deconstructing them.
Gauri represents a break away from the conventional images of the Indian woman of the
nation and diaspora. She transgresses not only geographical boundaries but also socio-
cultural ones through the choices she makes. With her growing awareness of the impositions
of politics and culture around her, Gauri embarks on a journey of self-realisation and self-
fashioning, choosing her individual autonomy over the requirements of communal diasporic
and patriarchal-national identity. She appears conventional at the beginning but the novel
traces her movement beyond and subversion of the essentialist image of the Indian woman.
As a politicised and queer figure, Gauri challenges the grand narratives of diasporic women's
identity, and highlights how intersections of feminist and queer theory within diaspora
studies, with their emphasis on individual rather than collective narratives, disrupt the
normative depictions of diasporic Indian femininity. Gauri challenges the homogenous
construction of Indian women that Lahiri's previous works have depicted and portrays
Lahiri's radical reimagining of women with individual subjectivities, whose choices convey
how they re-negotiate the categories and boundaries around them.
Gauri is first introduced as Udayan's wife in a letter he sends Subhash in America.
From the beginning, Gauri begins to be seen and judged in the framework of male
perspectives, as Subhash views a picture of her and tries to read her. Their male perspectives
limit the way in which she is perceived and understood. Gauri defies conventions by
marrying Udayan, something neither of their families approve of. She is forced to live with
his parents after their marriage and find herself trapped in a traditional home where she is not
wanted by her in-laws. Udayan's involvement in the Naxalite movement and particularly in
the murder of a policeman culminates in his own death soon after by police, which Gauri
views from a terrace. Gauri's own involvement in the movement is at first unclear but the
politicised Indian landscape disrupts the life that she thought she would lead. After Udayan's
death, Gauri, discovering she is pregnant, feels even more imprisoned as her mother-in-law
forces her to obey customs and mark herself as a widow at twenty-three. Subhash returns
from America and prompts Gauri to speak up, learning of her unhappiness in his old home.
He persuades her to marry him and migrate, saying that "in America no one knew about the
movement, no one would bother her" (Lahiri 141). Gauri, yearning for escape, elopes with
him, despite the disdain of her in-laws and follows him abroad. Lahiri's problematic
rendering of female mobility is replicated here as it is only through her marriage to Subhash
that Gauri is able to leave. She acknowledges that "Subhash had handed her the possibility"
of leaving Tollygunge but Gauri's own willingness plays a part in deciding her movements,
however limited (150). Her choices, both her marriages, are unconventional yet also
restricted at the beginning of the novel, but show how Gauri is a character who subtly
Lahiri conflates pregnancy with foreignness again as Gauri arrives in America
pregnant. This marks her as a diasporic Indian woman, expected to recreate the home culture
abroad but this is reversed by Lahiri when she depicts the couple's early life in Rhode Island.
In the beginning, Subhash, understanding of Gauri's grief, takes on the roles that would
usually be assigned to wives. He cooks and maintains the home, subverting the gender roles
of male-mobility and female-domesticity that have been widely proliferated by patriarchy and
nation. Lahiri gradually depicts Gauri as distancing herself from the image of the
domesticated immigrant woman, though she remains physically confined to the home. Gauri
detangles herself from the expectations of Indian womanhood and this is depicted through her
lack of involvement within the home, her behaviour, her clothing and her academic pursuits
outside of the home. She remains mentally distanced from Subhash, remaining isolated and
uninterested in life in America. Subhash brings her to a get-together of other diasporic
Indians. Subhash hopes that this will help Gauri but this further heightens her sense of
alienation. She claims she has "nothing in common" with the women at the party (166). Gauri
feels out-of-place in the company of the Indian wives and mothers who spend their time
"talking about children, about recipes, about organizing a Diwali festival on campus" (165).
This environment, which Lahiri depicts in her previous fiction as being empowering and
comforting to Indian immigrant women, only reinforces that this fails to accommodate Gauri.
It is inadequate in comforting her in her geographical and psychological displacement. Lahiri
displays Gauri as a woman who is incompatible with this image of the conventional diasporic
woman and raises questions about the sufficiency of such a homogenous understanding of
women in accurately representing and being fulfilling for individual women located within
Amit Saha writes that diasporic "self-fashioning is... the mental adjustment to combat
the pangs of physical dislocation and... the physical adjustment to allay the sense of
alienation" (2). Confined to the domestic space, Gauri attempts to fashion herself at first by
changing her physical appearance. She begins to feel uncomfortable in the saris she has
always worn and decides to trade them for the clothes she sees women around campus
wearing. One day Subhash returns home to this scene:
On the dressing table was a pair of scissors that he normally kept in the
kitchen drawer, along with clumps of her hair. In one corner of the floor all
of her saris, and her petticoats and blouses, were lying in ribbons and scraps
of various shapes and sizes, as if an animal had shredded the fabric with its
teeth and claws... She had destroyed everything. (Lahiri 166)
Gauri's anger and frustration are clearly conveyed in this scene. She furiously exacts violence
against the image of herself she grows to hate. She severs herself dramatically from the
expectations of how she should be as an Indian wife and mother who intends on passing on
culture to her child. She claims that she "tired" of her old clothes and hair, angering Subhash
who is shocked to see her completely changed: "he found it disturbing... such destructive
behavior couldn't have been good for the child" (167). He holds her to standards that neglect
attention to her mental well-being, failing to pay attention to why she destroyed her clothes,
worrying only about the unborn baby. Subhash, being the calm opposing force to his
rebellious brother since childhood, is the figure who is consistently described as relying on
tradition and customs (Felicelli par. 7). Gauri's clothes had started to feel like material
trappings for her, reminding her of the life she had with Udayan but Subhash does not
understand this. He fails to acknowledge her frustration, and this scene, viewed through his
eyes, portrays her as a senseless animal acting out.
Ashidhara Das emphasises that "cultural reproduction has been achieved at the
expense of the well-being of many of the female members of the Indian diasporic
community" and that it is done by "sacrificing female individuation and autonomy" (59). This
is conveyed with Subhash and Gauri. Subhash does not wonder after Gauri's mental state,
about what caused her to act like she did and finds it an affront to his ideals that she has
destroyed her own clothes. He is the one who places expectations of motherhood and female
obedience on Gauri, "expecting him and Gauri and Bela to carry on as a family. For Gauri to
be a mother to Bela, and to remain a wife to him" (Lahiri 180). Sayantani and Shamita
Dasgupta highlight that the construction of the conventional and ideal image of Indian
diasporic women as being "chaste, modest, nurturing, obedient, and loyal" has been
dominated by the Indian male bourgeoisie who largely control the diasporic community
(326). Gauri falls short of this image because of her destruction – she is meant to create and
preserve, not destroy. Mehta (6) demonstrates that the diasporic formation of women follows
from nationalist ideals and Lahiri depicts this, showing how Udayan too held patriarchal
expectations of Gauri: "Udayan had wanted a revolution, but at home he'd expected to be
served; his only contribution to his meals was to sit and wait for Gauri or her mother-in-law
to put a plate before him" (Lahiri 149). Even Udayan, with his visions of political liberation,
neglected the confines of culture that women are subject to. Lahiri depicts men as being the
upholders of tradition, imposing it on women like Gauri, and challenges the ideological
construction of Indian womanhood as being the ultimate goal for and purpose of women by
having Gauri reject it.
It is not empowering for Gauri when she becomes a mother. She feels disconnected
from her daughter, Bela, from the moment she is born. Afraid of harming her, she decides to
"handle Bela less" (172). She does not become an imposing mother figure but allows Bela her
independence as she grows up, mirroring Gauri's own desire for liberation. Gauri does not
feel the same maternal instincts as other women, believing that she is "failing at something
every other woman on earth did without trying" (195). This generalisation of motherhood
parallels the ideals of the conventional Indian woman and makes Gauri feel inadequate.
Gauri's supposed failure to meet the expectations of motherhood leaves her "ashamed" and
"frightened" because raising Bela is not "bringing meaning to her life" (194). Her relationship
to Bela develops differently to other mother-daughter relationships she sees around her.
Bela's independence and quiet solitude echo Gauri's own. Gauri and Bela accept the distance
between them, preferring it –Lahiri depicts closeness between them "based on the fact that
they spent time apart" (243). Gauri leaves Bela at home as a young child in order to get away
and later lets Bela roam unsupervised when she is slightly older, despite knowing Subhash's
disapproval. Subhash is horrified to see that Gauri is not the attentive mother he expects her
to be, failing to see that both mother and daughter are more comfortable this way. Lahiri
problematises the image of the Indian mother figure with Gauri by showing how the inability
to live up to the idealised version of femininity impacts and confuses Gauri, making her feel
like a failure. Through Gauri and Bela's distanced relationship, Lahiri re-imagines diasporic
motherhood, both characters preferring their own individual autonomy over trying to recreate
restrictive ties. Gauri chooses not to pass on cultural traditions, despite being a mother. When
Subhash takes Bela back to India for a trip as a child, her grandmother asks her "your mother
hasn't taught you to keep [your hair] tied?" and Bela, confused, thinks of how "her mother
had never told her this. Her mother wore her hair as short as a man's" (235). As women are
usually assigned the role of boundary-maintenance, they also hold the power of re-
negotiating and changing those ideological and cultural boundaries which Gauri does as she
indulges in a form of motherhood that actively seeks to free her from constraints.
Lahiri depicts Gauri's growing awareness of the geographical and socio-cultural
boundaries that hinder her freedom. She becomes aware of her entrapment within the
domestic space and how it confines her physically and ideologically. Her sense of
confinement only intensifies after Bela's birth when she realises that her life is not one she
desires. She remains in the family home "without a car in which they might go anywhere,
without a break" – her mobility is limited (206). The house becomes prison-like for Gauri
who becomes aware of her own helplessness as the Indian wife and mother. In Gauri's life,
the home becomes "a gendered space shaped by different and unequal relations of power"
and a place that is "alienating and unhappy rather than loving and secure" (Blunt 6). Gauri
depends on Subhash entirely, lacking the ability to move completely freely outside the home
and relying on him for finance: "she was a student, without an income... Gauri wouldn't
survive without him" (Lahiri 210). Unlike Subhash who comes and goes freely, Gauri
remains confined to the house and consequentially to the expectations of diasporic women.
When she expresses her wish to continue her college education and hire a babysitter, Subhash
refuses, "not wanting to pay a stranger to care for Bela" (192). As a mother, Subhash expects
Gauri to relish caring for Bela and restricts her agency:
though he had encouraged her to visit the library in her spare time, to attend
lectures now and again, she realized that he didn't consider this her work.
Though he'd told her... that she could go on with her studies, in America,
now he told her that her priority should be Bela. (192)
Subhash does not believe that Gauri should require anything else in her life when she is
already a mother, denying her desires to be more than a mother and wife, portraying
patriarchal influences on the construction of female Indian identity. Gauri does not voice her
unhappiness, remaining quiet, perhaps silenced by Subhash's unwillingness to accommodate
her specific needs and desires, but Bela later in life realises that her mother "had transmitted
an unhappiness that was steady, an ambient signal that was fixed. It was transmitted without
Gauri's unhappiness and anxiety over being physically and ideologically confined
result in her drastic decision to abandon Subhash and Bela, leaving the family home
permanently. Her departure is shocking for Subhash and Bela when they return to find the
house empty, rid of the mother figure that is meant to be central to it. By removing the
immigrant mother from the home, Lahiri destabilises conventional images of the Indian
diaspora. The home is not empowering for Gauri but toxic and repressive. Gauri chooses
herself over familial responsibilities and expectations, challenging the self-sacrificing image
of the mother. She transgresses the boundaries of home along with the socio-cultural roles
that patriarchy and nation designed for women. Lahiri's radical re-representation of the Indian
woman places a focus on her individual subjectivity and narrative rather than conforming to
conventions like the immigrant mothers who populate her earlier fiction do. Yasmin Hussain
states "that two types of women are presented in Indian women's fiction, the conventional and
the unconventional" (56). While the former is represented by the immigrant women in
Lahiri's previous works, Gauri becomes the unconventional woman with the choices she
makes. Hussain highlights that unconventional women "violate and question the accepted
norms of society" and consequently suffer (56). Their unconventional decisions result in
alienation from family and community, which Lahiri depicts with Gauri (56). Feeling
alienated within the domestic space, Gauri chooses to isolate herself completely in order to
fashion a space that is more adequate in accommodating her. If she remained within the
home, Gauri acknowledges that she would have to remain under Subhash's expectations:
"[Subhash] had brought her to America and then, like an animal briefly observed, briefly
caged, released her" (Lahiri 289). Subhash has no hand in allowing Gauri to leave but he
does not attempt to bring her back and Gauri's release into the world outside is freedom for
her. This moment echoes the scene where Gauri destroyed her clothes years ago, resenting
her social and physical confinement. Lahiri again uses the image of the animal, showing how
Subhash's perceives Gauri more as something to be owned, tested and controlled than an
Gauri traverses America and the ideological barriers that keep her in place as she
leaves. The theme of journey is important and, as Gauri leaves, she leaves behind notions of
how she should be. Rather than being fixed into the stereotypical role of the female Indian
immigrant, Gauri becomes an individual woman trying to find a physical and mental space
for herself among a landscape of displacement and alienation. This is something that she has
attempted since childhood: "aware of her accidental arrival, she had not known who she was,
where or to whom she'd belonged" (72). In retrospect, Gauri reflects on the moment she left,
remembering that leaving required "the sheer exhaustion of effort. As if, in order to escape
Rhode Island, she'd walked every step of the way" (277). Leaving seems monumental. Gauri
acknowledges that "with her own hand she'd painted herself into a corner, and then out of the
picture altogether." (276). Leaving demonstrates Gauri's gradual physical autonomy. Her new
life pushes her further into isolation from the image of the conventional women but allows
Gauri to renegotiate, on her own terms, her life. The narrative structure highlights that even
years later, when Bela is an adult, Gauri still revisits her decision to leave, the impact that it
had on their entire dysfunctional family. Mehta, discussing Maria Ng's memoirs, mentions
how she could not start hers at the beginning "the way conventional, male traditions of
narration did, for, 'this linear progression is a narrative that bears no resemblance to the
constantly shifting perspectives that present themselves as one reviews one's life and tries to
make sense of events" (8). Unlike Subhash's narrative which follows in a mainly linear
manner, Gauri's narrative is disrupted, moving back and forth in time as she suffers from
psychological discomfort and the trauma that pervade her life. Gauri is constantly plagued by
the past, despite trying to distance herself from it and trying to make sense of her own
It is through her fragmented reflections that we learn of Gauri's involvements in the
politics of Naxalite India. Lahiri gradually unfolds how Gauri functioned in the death of the
police officer in Calcutta that led to Udayan's own death. The trauma of both her own
involvement and Udayan's death affects Gauri continuously, causing her to want a new start
that she never fully achieves because of her mental restlessness. Gauri was used by Udayan to
secretly record the comings and goings of the police officer from his home, information used
to locate and attack him. Gauri is displaced physically, but she also remains in a state of
trauma that affects how she sees the world and how her narrative is shaped. Gauri constantly
revisits the past mentally while trying to physically distance herself from it. Gauri is "firmly
rooted in the moment of Udayan's death" (Felicelli par. 14). Lahiri shows how specific
political contexts shape Gauri's life and displacement. She depicts her gradual awareness of
the ways in which she has been constrained as it is through wifely obedience in the first place
that she ended up involved in politics she did not fully understand. Dhingra and Cheung,
writing before The Lowland's publication, discuss how "Lahiri's fiction neither highlights the
racial identity or the cultural politics of her characters" and that this implies "they live in a
more de-racialized and de-classed U.S. political landscape than is the socio-historical reality"
(xvii). Lahiri reverses this in The Lowland by emphasising the political landscape of India
and America throughout the novel and Gauri's own personal-political contexts. Gauri
becomes a politicised woman in this novel, unlike the image of the apolitical conventional
female immigrant. Gauri has a growing awareness of politics in India and America, through
the newspapers she reads on campus, which discuss:
what it meant to be a black person in America, or a woman, or a
homosexual. Long articles focused on forms of exploitation, individual
identities. She wondered if Udayan would have scorned them for being self-
indulgent. For being concerned less with changing the lives of others than
with asserting and improving their own. (Lahiri 158)
Lahiri depicts Gauri's gradually developing politics as being different from Udayan's because
of her disillusionment with his political vision. Gauri indulges in politics that she sees as
being more individualistic, improving collectives one person at a time. Wanting autonomy,
this is what causes her to look after herself first and leave the stifling space she shared with
Subhash. Gauri becomes more invested in individualistic politics, paralleling modern
concerns about diaspora studies and the need to focus on individual narratives rooted in
particular contexts rather than those of homogenous collectives. By understanding her
political involvement and trauma, Gauri's decisions can be better understood and
Despite being tasked with biological and cultural reproduction, immigrant women are
ideologically constructed to be chaste and desexualised beings but Lahiri subverts these
expectations through Gauri. Not only is Gauri aware of her sexuality and how to use it but
she is also depicted as a queer figure by Lahiri. While her sexuality is not dwelt on, Gauri is
shown to transgress the conventional images of Indian motherhood through her construction
as a sexualised being. Gauri's brief relationship with a woman named Lorna highlights
Gauri's refusal of convention. Gauri's relationship with Lorna is also the first time where
Gauri is the one in a position of power as Lorna is her student. The relationship becomes a
scandalous occurrence not only because of Gauri's queerness but because her student-teacher
relationship also breaches boundaries. Gauri "had no recollection of crossing a line that drove
her to desire a woman's body," implying that such an invisible line indeed exists for her as an
immigrant woman and that she gradually becomes able to move across it (284). As a
"nonheterosexual Indian woman", Gauri occupies "a space of impossibility" in the eyes of the
hetero-patriarchal nation and diaspora and this results in her failure to understand her own
desires at first (Gopinath 18). Queer women radically disrupt national and diasporic
constructions of femininity (15). Gopinath highlights that "it is through women's bodies that
the borders and boundaries of communal identities are formed" (9) and Lahiri's ambiguous
configuration of Gauri as a queer figure erodes these boundaries. She becomes
unconventional and uncontrollable. As a queer diasporic woman, Gauri challenges
heteronormative and patriarchal understandings of diaspora, renegotiating boundaries, and
emphasises her alienation from traditional notions of Indian immigrant womanhood. Lahiri's
representation of Gauri highlights the necessity of focusing on individual diasporic narratives,
especially those of queer, unconventional Indian women who remain limited in their
expression and reception.
Bela tries to erase her mother from her memory after her abandonment but accepts
that unhappiness and confinement pervaded Gauri's life when she learns the truth. Subhash
wonders how Gauri's "heart could be so cold" but also acknowledges that her choices and
actions had been "honest" (Lahiri 267; 318). Critics have strong reactions to Gauri. Clare
Sestanovich considers "her rugged individualism" to be "chilling" (par. 9). Eileen Battersby
calls her "an unfeeling robot" (par. 9) while Katherine Powers considers her a "self-absorbed
monster" (par. 7). James Lasdun feels that her depiction is "infuriatingly" compassionate (par.
6) and Savita Iyer-Ahrestani labels her "a selfish and heartless woman" (par. 2). These critics
show how unpalatable this figure of the unconventional women still remains. Their critiques
fixate on Gauri's abandonment and her insistent desire to make her own choices. They neglect
the effects of her alienation within the patriarchal home culture, her feelings of inadequacy as
a mother, and how her past political trauma impinges on her life, choosing to label her as a
woman with selfish desires. Stephanie Merritt observes that the revelations about the
characters involvement in politics demand that we "revise our opinions of the characters and
their actions" (par. 6). While she is rendered morally ambiguous, understanding Gauri's social
context and political trauma helps to understand her drastic decisions. These critics neglect
Gauri's individual needs, also imposing ideals and expectations onto her character. Iyer-
Ahrestani insists that Gauri's choice to abandon her home and her roles of traditional wife-
mother ultimately leave her with "nothing", failing to realise that Lahiri's past depictions of
conventional Indian women also do not colour their lives with content and meaning and that
Gauri's life, even before she left the home, held little purpose (par 10).
Despite showing Gauri's isolation and the nothingness that seemingly remains for her,
Lahiri remains realistic in what is left for these women who choose to defy conventions. As
Yasmin Hussain observes, unconventional women's lives are characterised by suffering and
alienation from family and community (56). They are undesirable outcasts who challenge the
status-quo. Hussain notes that "death is presented as the ultimate freedom from such
suffering," something that Gauri contemplates towards the end (56). Returning to India as an
older lady, when Bela has rejected her face-to-face as an adult, Gauri stands out on a balcony
overlooking the Calcutta streets and imagines jumping to her death. She feels "desperation"
and "clarity", as if this is what her life has led to (Lahiri 386). In that moment she sees all that
plagues her: "what she'd seen from the terrace in Tollygunge. What she'd done to Bela. The
image of a policeman passing beneath a window, holding his son by the hand" (387). She
accepts the choices she has made and where they have brought her but Lahiri does not allow
Gauri to follow through with suicide – Gauri eventually backs away from the balcony. Gauri
again refuses what is expected of her as the unconventional exiled woman, by choosing to
continue living. This chapter ends with a letter Bela sends Gauri, telling her that her
grandchild asks about her and that maybe one day, for her daughter's sake, they can meet
again. Bela's letter offers hope for redemption and understanding for Gauri someday. Lahiri
leaves it ambiguous as to what the future holds but creates a sense that there is the possibility
for more compassion and understanding towards these solitary immigrant women whose
narratives and choices deviate from the norm, these women who are sexual, politicised, non-
heterosexual, morally ambiguous, autonomous, outside the confines of the domestic space
and roles of wife-mother – these women who choose individual subjectivity over the
demands of tradition and communal identity.
While Mrs. Sen, Ashima and Chitra are sympathetic female characters that populate
Jhumpa Lahiri's earlier fiction, her representation of them sacrifices their individuality,
freezing them into feminine stereotypes that tell us little about their personal subjectivities.
These women, despite traversing nations, remain confined to their domestic space of the
diasporic home, socially tasked with biological and cultural reproduction and Lahiri largely
fails to probe how displacement and border-crossing affects their lives beyond this. The men
in these women's lives facilitate their physical mobility and their expectations limit their
ideological movement. These women fall into convenient categories of femininity which are
dominated by nationalist, hetero-patriarchal ideals that deem women to be the producers and
preservers of Indian culture. The Lowland is a strong departure from Lahiri's previous works
and representations of Indian immigrant femininity and coincides with contemporary
diaspora studies, intersected with feminist and queer theories, which emphasise the need for
individual, socially- and culturally-contextualised narratives in order to deconstruct
normative notions of diaspora and transnationality.
If the first-generation women of Lahiri's earlier fiction are categorised as
conventional, Gauri becomes an unconventional women through the decisions she makes and
her specific socio-cultural experiences. Lahiri radically re-imagines and represents Indian
immigrant femininity by creating a politicised, sexual, queer, morally ambiguous and
individualistic female character, who does not align neatly with ideals of the good Indian
woman created by the Indian male bourgeoisie and proliferated through nation and diaspora.
Lahiri dramatically alters notion of female diaspora and domesticity by demonstrating how
Gauri abandons the home. Migrating after marriage, Gauri is expected to merge with
expectations of female domesticity but she increasingly distances herself from them until she
finally gains the autonomy to be able to leave the domestic space herself. Gauri essentially
rejects the expectations of Indian womanhood as a mother and wife, by choosing to be
individualistic rather than conforming to conventions. Lahiri destabilises widespread and
long-held diasporic ideals of male-mobility and female-domesticity in The Lowland. She
portrays how Gauri's specific life experiences and her political trauma shape her life choices
and her need to journey beyond that which constrains her physically and ideologically.
Lahiri echoes contemporary diaspora studies by rooting Gauri's narrative in specific
cultural contexts that avoid generalisations and homogenous depictions of diaspora, but this
comes at a social price for Gauri, who is depicted as living an isolated life. Reactions from
the characters in and critics of the novel display that the idea of individualised female
narratives that so strongly defy expectations remain to be widely unpalatable. These women
like Gauri whose narratives are non-normative and who make unconventional choices are
specifically categorised as suffering from exile and alienation from family and community.
Lahiri's narrative of Gauri increasingly focuses on her individual subjectivity rather than
sacrificing her to normative constructions of diaspora and transnationality. In this way,
understandings of diaspora are opened up in order to accommodate those specific narratives,
of queer politicised women especially, which were generally overlooked in the formation of
hetero-patriarchal diasporic conceptualisations. Lahiri leaves the possibility of acceptance
and understanding for Gauri's personal decisions at the end of The Lowland. Gauri chooses
individualism over family and community ideals in order to self-fashion herself and
understand her own (dis)place(ment) in the world. Diaspora and transnationality for Gauri
become not only a crossing of physical and geographical borders but also a transgression of
cultural, ideological boundaries, created socio-historically in order to homogenise diasporic
experiences. Gauri breaks away from convention and refuses to be limited by the barriers and
categories that are made to contain her.
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