Back in Calcutta, Subhash’s mother Bijoli looks out on the two ponds, and the lowland between them—the area is now completely clogged with trash. The refuse is being allowed to pile up because real estate promoters want to plug up the city’s remaining swampy land and build new homes atop it. Tollygunge has grown dirty and unrecognizable, no longer the quiet, clean neighborhood of Subhash and Udayan’s youth.
At a crucial point in the narrative, Lahiri switches perspective, visiting Bijoli in Calcutta as she tends to the trash-laden lowland. The lowland, a symbol for connection between characters, is clogged with trash, reflecting the complete breakdown of trust and communication between Subhash and Gauri back in America.
Each day, at the hour of Udayan’s death, Bijoli gathers flowers and walks to the edge of the lowland. An old woman now, Bijoli moves slowly and laboriously. At Udayan’s marker, she washes his tablet and places flowers on the ground. It has been twelve years since Udayan’s death. The neighborhood children whisper about Bijoli and her nightly ritual; she wishes she could either scare them away or make them understand her pain.
Bijoli’s task is meant to be reminiscent of Sisyphus—the figure of Greek myth charged with rolling a stone boulder up a steep incline each day, only to have it roll back down. Bijoli cannot clear the trash, cannot repair the severed connections in her family, and cannot stop her city from changing.
A month ago, Bijoli’s husband died in his sleep; their maid, Deepa, discovered his body one morning. Deepa takes care of Bijoli, washing her hair, sleeping over at nights, shopping at the market, and cooking meals. Deepa reads Bijoli articles from the newspaper every afternoon out on the terrace. When Bijoli realizes that Deepa has replaced everyone in her family, she wonders whether Udayan somehow “arranged” for this to happen. As a boy, Udayan spent time with the people who worked for their family—teaching them how to read, ensuring they had enough to eat at mealtime. As a young man, he brought their housemaids medicine and summoned doctors for them. In spite of all this, Udayan died being called a “miscreant” and “extremist”—someone who did not know right from wrong.
Bijoli’s reflections on her life are inevitably tied to her memories of Udayan. She cannot reconcile her own image of her son—a kind boy who saw the value in all human life and encouraged everyone around him to see things the same way he did—with the image of him as a violent extremist that has been forced on her in the years since his death.
Bijoli feels her home has been “forsaken”—Udayan has not lived to inherit it, and Subhash has left the country. His departure has added to the sense of loss Bijoli feels—not to mention his controversial marriage to Gauri. Because Subhash and Gauri have stayed away from Calcutta for twelve years now, Bijoli feels the deep shame of having lost her only living child.
Bijoli is alone and blames herself for being alienated from her remaining son. The profound sense of isolation she feels is compounded by the fact that she lives in a house which was supposed to be a lively home for both her sons’ families.
One morning, Bijoli heads out to the lowland with a large shallow basket and begins piling trash and waste inside of it. She knows she will never remove it all, but each day she returns and fills her basket several times. She does not stop when people point out the futility of her task—it satisfies her and passes the time. One day, remnants of a marriage celebration are piled around Udayan’s marker. The mass of garlands and fruit repels Bijoli, and she refuses to touch it. She is bitter that neither of her sons had a proper marriage celebration and becomes angry that someone would have desecrated Udayan’s memorial in such a way. She begins shouting out to her neighbors, demanding to know who did such a thing, but no one pays attention to her.
Bijoli’s Sisyphean task, which she has undertaken with steady and unwavering dedication, finally becomes too much to bear when she is confronted with the remnants of a wedding. The refuse reminds her of all she never had—all her children never had—and all the ways in which she has failed both her children, the living and the dead. This scene also shows the deep isolation and insularity of grief—such pain is only felt by those who have known it, and is inscrutable to everyone around them.
Deepa hurries out to help Bijoli home. On the terrace, Deepa gives Bijoli tea and hands her a letter from Subhash. He is planning to visit, though three months will have already passed from the date of his father’s death by the time he will arrive in Calcutta. He informs Bijoli of his plans to bring Bela with him and writes in his letter that Bela knows Subhash as her father—she is ignorant of her true parentage. Bijoli finishes reading the letter, hands it back to Deepa, and turns her mind to other things.
Bijoli is so worn down that even the news of an impending visit from Subhash cannot lift her out of her depression. Though she has claimed to feel guilt over her estrangement to Subhash, this scene reveals that it is only Udayan she wants—Subhash cannot measure up to his dead brother.