The Lowland is the story of two brothers and one woman, and a tragedy that reverberates down four generations. It is a tale of two countries; of families and their secrets, of tradition and change. It is also a piece of extraordinary storytelling, with a compelling narrative and a powerful and emotional ending.
Lahiri grips the reader immediately with her strong character studies of the two brothers: Subhash, older and quieter, and Udayan, forever seeking his parents’ approbation and testing their boundaries. We follow them as each copes with the consequences of the tragedy that befalls the family. The impact of their separate decisions extends far into the future.
Subhash moves to America to study; he misses his brother, yet thrives without him. Udayan, more rooted in Calcutta and the political struggles in India, moves back to his family after his American university experience and teaches in local schools.
In her collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri gave us a sense of the ease with which modern Indians travel between India and the United States. The Lowland explores similar themes but considers the longer-term consequences. The story starts and ends in Calcutta, but much of our interest lies with Subhash and how he identifies with Rhode Island and builds his life there:
That day the roads were empty, the whole town at rest. Whatever happened on the occasion, however it was celebrated, there was no sign of it. No procession that he knew of, no public festivity. Apart from a crowd that had gathered for a football game on campus, there was nothing to observe.
The dramatic tension in The Lowland comes when Subhash is called back to Calcutta after Udayan is shot by the police for his involvement in the Naxalite movement. Subhash returns to find his brother’s widow, Gauri, pregnant and unwanted, eating from the floor in his parents’ kitchen. His decision to marry her, take her back to America and raise his brother’s child as his own, has far-reaching implications for him and his family:
She became a widow, as Gauri had become. Bijoli now wears white saris, without a pattern or a border. She’s removed her bangles, and stopped eating fish. Vermillion no longer marks the parting of her hair. But Gauri is married again, to Subhash, a turn of events that still stupefies her. In some ways it was less expected, more shocking, than Udayan’s death. In some ways, just as devastating.
Subhash becomes preoccupied with his instant family and maintaining the illusion among his American friends that Gauri is his wife and Bela his child. His return to India with Bela to see his own widowed mother is coloured by his effort to avoid Bela finding out that he is not her real father. Later he must deal with the consequences of finally telling her the truth, long after Gauri has left them both to deal with her own demons.
Lahiri, while writing of this family broken by Udayan’s deeds, slowly unveils the back-story of his death and Gauri’s unwitting involvement in his revolutionary behaviour, helping us to understand her motivations:
What reassurance was hers to give? What she’d done could never be undone. Her silence, her absence, seemed decent in comparison.
While set against the backdrop of 1970s radicalism, this is really an intimate story rather than an epic canvas depicting the politics of the era. It is a novel that explores family and secrets, the consequences of our actions and the effect they have on others.
Jhumpa Lahiri The Lowland Bloomsbury 2013 PB 352pp $29.99
Michael Jongen is a librarian who tweets as @michael_jongen and microblogs at http://larrythelibrarian.tumblr.com
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