The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri is an ambitious book. It is a story of brotherly bonds intermingling with a vicious political environment. The two brothers – Subhash and Udayan are just 15 months apart. Subhash is the elder one but he hardly remembers a time that Udayan wasn’t in his life. The two brothers, although similar in age, are poles apart in their personalities.
Udayan is charismatic but reckless. Subhash is dull but responsible. Their choices and perspectives couldn’t be more opposite.
They live in Tollygunge, Calcutta. The ‘lowland’ is a marshy stretch of land thick with water hyacinth between two ponds in their neighborhood. The symbolism is clear – two ponds, two brothers, sometimes cut-off, sometimes inseparable.
I read The Lowland twice and cried both times. But, then, I am a serial crier. And this book, much to my dismay, is not free of flaws.
The beginnings of the book are filled with the childhood tales of Subhash and Udayan. Much of it was nostalgic for me – having two stark opposite brothers myself. The novel can feel a bit slow at the start. But it quickly catches up.
(I read somewhere that reading Lahiri’s work is like learning how to ride a bike – you might wobble at first, even fall, but you slowly get into the rhythm)
As Subhash and Udayan grow up, they converge into different paths. Udayan becomes involved in the militant politics of Calcutta (the Naxalite movement) while Subhash moves away to Rhode Island to pursue scientific research.
At this point, the story becomes as much political as it is personal (much like life). The intimacy between the two cannot be denied. And like all of Lahiri’s works, The Lowland also examines the unhappiness of a family at its core.
While Subhash dedicates himself to personal improvement (consisting of loneliness away from his family), Udayan is deeply entrenched in the collective good. The story gets morally ambiguous – portraying the harshness of youth or their selfishness, whatever you choose to see.
We take a drastic turn when we learn that Udayan has eloped with a woman, Gauri, who his parents disapprove of. Subhash is seen struggling with feelings of jealousy, shock, wonder, and guilt. I personally loved how the character is seen battling with difficult emotions present in him simultaneously.
The story keeps giving such bombshells. SPOILER ALERT: Udayan dies. He is executed by policemen near the lowland right in front of his house. I remember this moment in the novel with gut-wrenching vividness and excruciating detail. His family is able to see his killing from their balcony – Udayan’s parents and his pregnant wife.
Subhash rescues Gauri from his parents and the cultural woes disposed of a widow by taking her to Rhode Island. They marry and raise Udayan’s daughter, Bela. But when Bela is a tween, Gauri escapes in an attempt to leave her life behind.
Gauri is my favorite character in the book, although much of her remains unexplored (more on that later). Her character is unsuited in both temperament, intellect, and ambition to the times and culture she lives in. But after coming to the States, getting the liberation she subconsciously desired and deserved, she is able to create a life of her own. Gauri reinvents herself completely at the terrible cost of breaking up her family.
What I want to highlight here is Calcutta acting as a metaphor for something no one in the book is able to escape. Gauri cannot run to the end of the world to find herself. Subhash cannot leave the city behind despite decades of living abroad. Udayan’s mother dies staring at the place her son was killed.
We see four generations in a mere 415 pages in The Lowland. Bela is explored until she becomes a mother herself. She has inherited her father’s radical streak despite not learning about her true parentage until she turns 40. Lahiri doesn’t let us forget the enormity of emotionally charged looming secrets and how it affects the lives of those carrying them around.
Unlike Lahiri’s The Namesake, there is no clear-cut-neatly-sorted plot. The story keeps swinging back and forth in time, narrated from multiple perspectives. But this doesn’t deprive the book of its shortcomings.
Shortcomings of “The Lowland”
Encompassing seventy years of family history is not everyone’s game. But Jhumpa Lahiri, being the brilliant storyteller that she is, manages to keep us hooked till the end. However, there were some things in the story that could improve:
1. The characters of the novel are frozen into types. Subhash remains steadily capable but dry throughout his early twenties and middle age. Udayan, in his shorter lifespan, is only rebellious but sweet. Gauri is not transparent from the start to the end. But the reality is – people grow, evolve, change. It is hard to digest that Subhash remains the same way in his forties as he was in his twenties.
2. Although the political landscape is vividly described as an intricate part of Udayan’s life in the beginning, after his untimely death, much of the movement remains unexplored (or only described in fleeting glimpses). The impact of politics on everyday life is suddenly deprived to the reader.
3. I longed to hear a story from Gauri’s perspective. But the few times that happened, it was rather unsatisfying. Her character was too interesting to be left opaque. Stemming from her familial past, marrying young in a family that wasn’t accepting of her, hiding her husband’s political involvements, witnessing his death while bearing their child, uprooting her life by moving to the States, marrying her dead husband’s brother, raising her daughter while hiding his true father, running away from being a mother, having attractions towards a woman, loneliness, to finally reconciling with her daughter & granddaughter. Her character’s story receives an unjustifiable ignorance and ending.
4. Personally, I find the running-away mother story too stale. The presence of a disapproving, absent, dominating mother is far too common. And Gauri was that mother in the beginning. But then Lahiri punishes & compromises her character for not being the archetype “good mother.”
If you loved The Namesake, you might love this one too. The writing style is familiar and similarly captivating with its declarative sentences. But if you are a short-story reader of Lahiri’s, you might reconsider reading this book – it does not have the emotional tension with the character a novel so desperately needs.
And if you have never read Lahiri, I’d suggest beginning with The Namesake and then reading The Lowland.
Find this book on Amazon here.