‘East of the Tolly Club, after Deshapran Sashmal Road splits in two, there is a small mosque. A turn leads to a quiet enclave. A warren of narrow lanes and modest middle-class homes.
Once, within this enclave, there were two ponds, oblong, side by side. Behind them was a lowland spanning a few acres’.
The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri, Pg.3
Jhumpa Lahiri immediately draws us into modern-day India – a small village called Tollygunge in southern Calcutta, to be precise – where the events that are about to unfold are firmly steeped in the past; in an India different from the one we have first witnessed, where there was once ‘a lowland spanning a few acres’ (pg.3). It is clear that this lowland, of which the novel is named after, plays a crucial role. In fact, it feels ever-present, even when the setting shifts hundreds of miles to the United States. The Lowland follows almost the whole life-span of the Mitra family. Subhash and Udayan are brothers, there is only a fifteen month age-gap between them. Subhash cannot remember life before Udayan was born and they have been inseparable ever since.
‘Subhash was thirteen, older by fifteen months. But he had no sense of himself without Udayan. From his earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there’.
The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri, Pg.7
However, they appear to be complete opposites in character. Where Subhash is cautious and shy and would put his family’s safety before his own beliefs, Udayan is bold and daring and fights for a higher cause, disregarding the consequences of his actions. When the 1967 Naxalbari incident occurs, not only does this highlight India’s fractious state, but it also serves as the beginning of the Mitra brothers’ growing separation. As the brothers enter different universities, their interests begin to diverge. Subhash channels his energies into science as Udayan becomes even more embroiled in the growing Naxalite movement – a radical, left-wing guerrilla campaign headed by former leaders of the Communist Party of India (Maoist).
Their separate ideologies – political or otherwise – become even more concrete when Subhash moves to America to continue his education in Rhode Island. We follow the narrative from Subhash’s point of view, as he begins to navigate a world completely different from his hometown in India:
‘[…] he was no longer in Tollygunge. He had stepped out of it as he had stepped so many mornings out of dreams, its reality and its particular logic rendered meaningless in the light of day.
The difference was so extreme that he could not accommodate the two places together in his mind. In this enormous new country, there seemed to be nowhere for the old to reside. There was nothing to link them; he was the sole link. Here life ceased to obstruct or assault him. Here was a place where humanity was not always pushing, rushing, running as if with a fire at its back’.
The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri, Pg.41
He experiences a new sense of freedom, though he also recognises his own limitations: ‘Here, each day, he remembered how he’d felt those evenings he and Udayan had snuck into the Tolly Club. This time he’d been admitted officially, and yet he remained vigilant, at the threshold. He knew that the door could close just as arbitrarily as it had opened. He knew that he could be sent back to where he’d come from, and that there would be plenty to take his place’ (pg.44). Living with a very politicised, American roommate opposed to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, Subhash recognises the restrictions on his free speech. He could not possibly speak out against a country that has opened its doors to him, just like he couldn’t speak out against the incidents that occurred in Naxalbari for fear of his family’s safety. However, events thousands of miles away conspire against him and he finds himself sucked back into a radically different world in Tollygunge.
‘Udayan had given his life to a movement that had been misguided, that had caused only damage, that had already been dismantled. The only thing he’d altered was what their family had been’.
The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri, Pg.135
The narrative shifts between Subhash’s point of view as he tries to pick up the pieces of his brother’s actions to the view-point of the pregnant wife Udayan has left behind – Gauri. I found Gauri such a fascinating character; one that I simultaneously admired yet pitied. She does not follow the expectations placed on her in 1970s India and even denies the universal acknowledgement of what it means to be a mother.
‘She was failing at something every other woman on earth did without trying. That should not have proved a struggle. Even her own mother, who had not fully raised her, had loved her; of that there had been no doubt. But Gauri feared she had already descended to a place where it was no longer possible to swim up to Bela, to hold on to her’.
The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri, Pg.195
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot but I found Gauri and Bela’s relationship one of the most poignant in The Lowland. I find it admirable when an author takes as one of their leading characters a woman who does not conform to the loving, caring mother-figure we have all come to assume women become when they have a child. Perhaps Bela reminds Gauri too much of the man she once loved, the man she would have done anything for and, as we eventually learn, did do anything for. Or perhaps Gauri is just not the mothering type. Whatever the case, Lahiri shows the fragility of human relationships and how they have the ability to upend and destroy our lives as well as showing us how life continues to carry on regardless.
What struck me most about Lahiri’s writing is the sheer simplicity of it. She can get to the heart of the matter in only a few words. For example, Udayan’s reasoning behind his support of the Naxalite movement is straightforward, resonating a universal truth: ‘If we don’t stand up to a problem, we contribute to it’ (pg.34). This sentiment is reflected in Udayan’s unknown daughter, Bela, decades later, ‘What we consume is what we support’ (pg.269). Also, as someone who didn’t know too much about the communist influence in India in the 1960s/70s I found Lahiri’s treatment of this turbulent time to be just enough to illuminate without lecturing, though I have read a couple of reviews and opinions from people much more knowledgable about the Naxalite movement who would say otherwise.
Unlike my experience of reading Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, The Lowland was a refreshing break from such experimental literature. However, it is just as intricate and complicated in its exploration of family trauma. Lahiri is in control of her tale, slowly unravelling subjective truths until they form a whole and a very powerful ending. I completely understand why she was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize and has been shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014.