‘The Lowland’ has been a gripping read for me, taking me through the known writing landscape of Jhumpa Lahiri – which is both simple and lyrical. Her characters are Indian, rooted in Bengali culture and lifestyle. In ‘The Lowland’, the immigrant angle, a trademark of Lahiri’s style, is rather weighed down compared to her earlier works.
‘The Lowland’ is the story of two brothers and through them explores the themes of – love, identity, and family. The book echoes a melancholic and somber tone as it presents the two conflicting perspectives – idealistic and pragmatic.
This is Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel, after the much acclaimed ‘Namesake’. Indeed, it is different from her previous works – ‘Interpreter of Maladies’, ‘Namesake’ and ‘Unaccustomed Earth’. The story in ‘The Lowland’ is primarily set in India before moving to America, and it amalgamates the Naxalbari movement and a divergent stream of aspirations of the educated Bengali Indian youth.
‘The Lowland’ was published in 2013 and was shortlisted for Man Booker Prize that year. When I read ‘The Lowland’ back then, I was in love with Udayan’s romanticism for Communist thoughts and his passion for a revolution. His impulsive and uncaring attitude overshadowed Subhash, his elder brother in the whole story. Subhash’s invisible presence in the family, living with his mother, wife, and later his daughter felt so understated. But a second read made me realize the importance of subtleties in Subhash’s character.
‘The Lowland’ is about Subhash and Udayan, the two brothers, and Gauri, the female protagonist who plays an instrumental role in altering their lives.
I felt that it was Gauri who represents the metaphorical equal for ‘The Lowland’, the patch of land that existed between the two oblong ponds behind Subhash and Udayan’s house in Tollygunge, Calcutta (present-day Kolkata). The physical and the metaphorical ‘Lowland’ is witness to a version of reality, revealing the relativity of time and our limitations in controlling the future.
“These days it (Adi Ganga river) was stagnant, lined with the settlements of Hindus who’d fled from Dhaka, from Rajshahi, from Chittagong. A displaced population that Calcutta accommodated but ignored. Since Partition, a decade ago, they had overwhelmed parts of Tollygunge, the way monsoon rain obscure the lowland.”
The book begins in Tollygunge when the two brothers are young. A beautiful caricature of the Golf course is drawn, changing over time from being the symbol of British supremacy and arrogance to the wealthy Indian’s class status.
Jhumpa Lahiri constantly compares Subhash and Udayan, the two brothers who are similar in physical attributes yet differ in their thinking, aspirations, and outlook. Udayan, the revolutionary for the social cause who always expects to be served food when he reaches home, never helping the women, and upholding every aspect of patriarchal upbringing. On the other hand, Subhash ensures to care for the women in his family, taking a share in the household chores.
The Naxalite movement, which started in 1967, is chartered at first as a distant uprising heard over All India Radio and later through a personalized account of Udayan. The narrative gives a glimpse of the peasant uprising in the tea gardens of Darjeeling oppressed by the wealthy exploitative moneylenders. Then, the rise of two Bengali Communists leaders – Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal. Jhumpa Lahiri recreates the scene of the students’ movement and unrest across the Universities in Kolkata swamped in Communist ideology and the slogans of ‘Long Live Mao Tse-tung’.
“He remembered something he’d read recently, the final words Che had written to his children: Remember that the revolution is the important thing and that each one of us alone is worth nothing. But in this case it had fixed nothing, helped no one. In this case there was to be no revolution. He knew this now.”
I think I am yet to come across writings where an author is unapologetic about depicting the futility of the outcome of revolutionary actions. The narrative brings out the romanticism envisioned by students in the Naxalite movement, accepting the killing of innocent officials and calling certain areas Red Zones. Like Udayan, there were hundreds of foot soldiers who left behind no trace of their existence and their contribution to the movement went unaccounted for. This was the travesty of this movement in Independent India.
‘The Lowland’ is set in an imperative time zone when divergent perceptive of two generations existed simultaneously – the generation that witnessed India’s Independence and believed it to be the biggest achievement and the second generation who realized the futility of Indian Independence devoid of social justice and economic parity. The alternatives at hand with this second generation were either to fight for equal rights and opportunities or to leave the country in search of better education and employment for the west.
I think the theme of ‘Indian immigrants in America’ is Jhumpa Lahiri’s forte but also something that restraints her work. As a reader, I have come to anticipate the flow, the usual problems of adjusting to the foreign land, identity crisis, and final reconciliation with America. In ‘The Lowland’, it is Subhash who decides to study and work in Rhode Island somewhat severing his family relations. Herein comes the description of campus walks, classes, and beaches.
Yet, it is the invisible presence of Udayan that alters a seemingly simple plot.
“Her strongest image was always of time, both past and future; it was an immediate horizon, at once orienting and containing her. Across the limitless spectrum of years, the brief tenancy of her own life was superimposed. To the right was the recent past: the year she’d met Udayan, and all the years she’d lived without knowing him. There was the year she was born, 1948, prefaced by all the years and centuries that came before.”
In Gauri, one finds a charming and formidable female character. The studious girl, enchanted by books rather than other frivolous facets of life but is stuck as a daughter-in-law in a conservative family. Gauri faces loss and stands to deal with it in a courageous way. In contrast stands Bijoli’s character, mother to Subhash and Udayan. You see the irrelevance of a woman’s own life within the confines of her home; a husband and two sons define Bijoli’s life. Gauri as a mother to Bela distances herself from the responsibility and places her own identity above the expectations of motherhood.
Before Jhumpa Lahiri, the story of Indian immigrants living in the West was always perceived dramatically, an over-the-top patriotism and a dying aspiration of the immigrants to return to their land. What lacked was the in-between story, the effort taken by a generation to acclimatize in a foreign land, and the generation that was born and raised in the West. The question was not patriotism; rather it was about human emotions and lives that were altered unexpectedly.