Book Review: “The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri
By Barbara Nimri Aziz
Certain creatures lay eggs that are able to endure the dry season. Others survived by burying themselves in mud, simulating death, waiting for the return of rain.
The Lowland, a beautifully crafted and compelling read about the divergent careers of two brothers begins with this scene in the gardens of Tollygunge in Calcutta where they play as children. The passage appears to be an innocent setting for the story. Re-reading this page after I finished the book, I now interpret these lines as a metaphor for the lives of these Bengali boys as we follow the fifty years of their lives.
Jhumpa Lahiri, author of Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, is known for her unmatched skill in portraying the severe and tender intersections where India and America meet. As in her earlier work, New England is one setting Bengal in India is the other. Unlike them, however, The Lowland has a strong political element in that Udayan, the younger brother, joins the leftist anti-government Naxalite movement that emerged in India in the 1960s. (Naxalite politics lingers in the countrys ongoing Maoist rebellion today). The Lowland offers the most convincing, intimate portrait of the Naxalite movement Ive read. And some might accuse Lahiri of devoting more attention than necessary to Naxalite history here. But she must have a reason for its inclusion, beyond building her plot.
Historical details aside, Lahiri shows us how a rebellion can penetrate the lives of even those (innocents) who flee a country. I cant help wonder if she recalls this turbulent Indian period in order to contrast the challenges facing Indian youth at home with the politically insipid course they follow if they choose to emigrate to the West. Is she saying We can never escape some realities about our homeland?
The brothers story moves from their childhood, when theyre engaged in seemingly harmless escapades, to old age. Although the younger of the brothers, Udayan is killed early in the account, his character and his political choices remain central to the plot. So much so that his mission and his death are never completely resolved. While Udayan chooses political activism, his brother Subhash elects to take up a scholarship in USA. Their lives which once seemed inseparable radically diverge. Udayan enters deeper into Naxalite activities; he marries Gauri, a union his family grudgingly accepts, and is assassinated before he knows his young wife is pregnant.
Subhash recognizes Gauris difficulties on his visit home following his brothers murder and offers to marry her. She accepts, leaves her unhappy marital home, joins Subhash in the US and gives birth to a daughter, Bela whom they both raise, although from childhood Bela favors Subhash, never suspecting that he is not her real father. When Bela is 12, Gauri abandons both husband and daughter to take up a post at a university on the other side of the country.
We follow Gauri and Subhash through their estrangement, the decline and death of the parents in Calcutta and through Belas growth and motherhood, with Udayans ghost hovering over each life. Lahiri inserts him into the personality of her characters, and through regular flashbacks to India, piece by piece we learn about episodes connected to Udayans life and death.
The Lowland is a sad story although the characters themselves are not at all sad. We enjoy their joy and we care about what happens to them. While some readers may find the Indian side of the story foreign, the lives of Subhash and Gauri in the USA feel completely normal: Gauris solitary pursuit of her career, the decision to hide the identity of Belas father, and Belas growth as a young American woman. Everything that happens, even to the boys mother alone in the decaying Calcutta home, seems logical.
There is no real cruelty or malice, no judgment, no heroism.
Therein lies author Lahiris wisdom and her superb literary skills. We feel affection for all her charactersthe rebel Udayan, the self-interested Subhash, an erstwhile lover, the mean-spirited mother-in-law, and the loveless Gauri.
It is a gift to English-speaking readers that Lahiri and other artists from India and elsewhere are able to grasp and work so sympathetically with cultural disparities to create these engaging, rich characters. Given how many Americans embody foreign cultures and histories, we need many, many more writers with the depth, sensibility and skill of Jhumpa Lahiri.
(2013, A. A. Knopf publishers)
(Anthropologist and journalist Barbara Nimri Aziz, is the founder of Radio Tahrir and serves as its executive producer and co-host. Contact her by email info@RadioTahrir.org)
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