Subhash makes the arduous journey back to India. On a train from Delhi to Calcutta, his fellow passengers fill him in on what has happened in the country in his absence. By 1970, the Naxalites had “plastered” Calcutta with images of Mao, disrupted elections, and set off bombs. After a period of general intimidation, they began focusing specifically on businessmen, educators, and members of the CPI(M), their rival party. Eventually the Naxalites took control of Tollygunge. An old law authorizing the police and paramilitary forces to arrest people without charging them was renewed in order to attempt to stop the Naxalites. Subhash begins to realize that Udayan was, more than likely, killed by the police.
Subhash has been totally disconnected from what has been going on in Calcutta, as the Naxalite movement has not been deemed important enough to make the news in America. As he returns home, he realizes the extent of the political violence that has come to roost in his hometown, and understands that his brother more than likely never gave up on his political radicalism. Subhash’s trip to mourn his brother starts with this seed of suspicion, setting the stage for Subhash’s need to uncover the secrets Udayan left behind.
As Subhash, in a taxi, approaches his childhood home, he is assaulted by the pungent stench of algae and open drains, and the crowds of people in the streets. As he enters his home’s courtyard, he looks down at Udayan’s footprints in the cement. Subhash’s parents toss down a key rather than coming to greet him, and Subhash uses it to open a heavy padlock on the door.
Subhash must become reoriented with the sights and smells of his childhood, which, after years in America, have become foreign and distasteful. He is also reminded of the parts of his childhood that left him feeling insignificant—Udayan’s footprints, for one, and his parents’ ability to overlook his presence, intensified now in the wake of his brother’s death.
Subhash joins his parents for lunch. When he asks where Gauri is, his parents tell him that she prefers to take meals in the kitchen. Subhash knows, though, that they are indulging a custom of segregating the widow from the rest of the family. Subhash asks to meet Gauri, but his parents tell him she’s not feeling well. When he asks if they’ve called a doctor, they reveal the truth: Gauri is pregnant.
Subhash’s parents willful neglect of Gauri’s presence concerns Subhash. The idea of presence in absence, and emotional absence despite physical presence, will become a major facet of Gauri’s character arc, and Lahiri sets the stage for it in this passage.
After lunch, Subhash takes a walk over to the lowland. He sees a small stone marker bearing Udayan’s name, and the years of his birth and death. Subhash remembers twisting his ankle at a football game when he was young, and how Udayan helped him limp home, all the way across the lowland.
The sight of the lowland brings up memories of Subhash and Udayan’s childhood. The lowland, which was a place of connection for them, is now the site of a tragedy.
Subhash returns home and takes a nap. When he wakes up and goes to the kitchen for a snack, he sees Gauri sitting there. She is dressed in a white sari—widow’s garb. Gauri tells Subhash that he slept through dinner, and offers to fix him a plate, but Subhash refuses. Upon hearing Subhash speak, Gauri remarks that Subhash has the same voice as Udayan.
Upon their first meeting, Gauri is haunted by the strange and uncanny similarity between Subhash and Udayan’s voices. Though Udayan is gone, he seems “present” when Subhash speaks.
As the days go by, Subhash adjusts to the new layout of his home and the strange ways his parents maneuver around Gauri. His parents barely even acknowledge her presence when she enters a room. Subhash himself struggles to interact with his parents, who are quiet and withdrawn. Each evening, Bijoli gathers flowers from the courtyard and goes to the lowland, rinsing Udayan’s marker clean and laying flowers at its base. Subhash realizes that Udayan must have been killed around dusk.
Subhash is struck by the new rituals and behaviors that have come to define how his family negotiates one another’s presences. His parents are inconsolable and have retreated into themselves in their grief. Udayan is gone, but his presence is everywhere, and Subhash’s mother especially is doing everything she can to keep it that way.
Subhash’s parents refuses to tell him how Udayan was killed. Subhash later approaches Gauri, giving her a book Udayan had asked him to procure for her. He asks Gauri if Udayan knew that he was going to be a father, and Gauri admits that he did not. She tells Subhash that the baby is due in the summertime. Sensing how bad things are for Gauri in his parents’ house, he offers to take her somewhere else—to visit her family, perhaps—but she tells him that her family is still angry with her for eloping. Subhash then asks Gauri to tell him what happened to Udayan.
Gauri and Subhash bond over their feelings of isolation. Gauri has been by her own family and by the family of her dead husband. Subhash cannot connect with his parent nor reach them through the haze of their grief. Subhash’s delivering books to Gauri is an act of good faith, and he asks her to extend the same courtesy to him and explain the truth of his brother’s death.