If Jhumpa Lahiri Had Entered the Contest

by Jhumpa Lahiri

What else had her mother left behind? On Bela’s right arm, just above the elbow, in a spot she had to twist her arm to see, a freckled constellation of her mother’s darker pigment, an almost solid patch at once discreet and conspicuous. A trace of the alternative complexion she might have had. On the ring finger of her right hand, just below the knuckle, was a single spot of the same shade.

In the house in Rhode Island, in her room, another remnant of her mother began to reveal itself: a shadow that briefly occupied a section of her wall, in one corner, reminding Bela of her mother’s profile. It was an association she noticed only after her mother was gone, and was unable thereafter to dispel.

In this shadow she saw the impression of her mother’s forehead, the slope of her nose. Her mouth and chin. Its source was unknown. Some section of branch, some overhang of the roof that refracted the light, she could not be sure.

Each day the image disappeared as the sun traveled around the house; each morning it returned to the place her mother had fled. She never saw it form or fade.

In this apparition, every morning, Bela recognized her mother, and felt visited by her. It was the sort of spontaneous association one might make while looking up at a passing cloud. But in this case never breaking apart, never changing into anything else.

Born just fifteen months apart, Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable brothers, one often mistaken for the other in the Calcutta neighborhood where they grow up. But they are also opposites, with gravely different futures ahead. It is the 1960s, and Udayan—charismatic and impulsive—finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty; he will give everything, risk all, for what he believes. Subhash, the dutiful son, does not share his brother’s political passion; he leaves home to pursue a life of scientific research in a quiet, coastal corner of America.

But when Subhash learns what happened to his brother in the lowland outside their family’s home, he goes back to India, hoping to pick up the pieces of a shattered family, and to heal the wounds Udayan left behind—including those seared in the heart of his brother’s wife.

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