Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Publisher: Random House
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The Lowland sees Jhumpa Lahiri re-treading familiar ground with her usual skill. A satisfying read for her many fans even though it does not tread any new ground, this book was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.
The Lowland starts as the tale of two brothers; Udayan the iconoclast, and Subhash the conformist. Udayan becomes a revolutionary and ends up doomed, Subhash chooses to be just a regular guy in the pursuit of happiness – but with one exceptional action – the reverberations of which affect him deeply, all his life.
Then there’s Udayan’s young wife Gauri, a willing, infatuated victim of his fiery ways. His actions change the course of her life, leaving her in a terrible predicament from which she is fortuitously rescued. But the manner of her rescue does not lead her to permanent happiness, and she remains dissatisfied – until she makes a cold, cruel decision of her own.
Udayan, a young, thoughtful man, starts off as the voice of social conscience in the book. Attracted by the strident form of Mao-inspired communism sweeping through 1970s Bengal, he becomes a Naxalite for all the right reasons. Later, however, there are personal glimpses of him that give us the whole picture. In particular, there is a singular incident of comparison between the two brothers in which, for once, Subhash trumps Udayan:
Udayan had wanted a revolution, but at home he’d expected to be served….
Lahiri has always written about the immigrant experience, and here too, the central characters are transplanted from India to America, but the focus this time is not on finding oneself in strange lands and encountering challenges there, but on tangled personal relationships; between brothers, husbands and wives, parents and children; and on the struggle to make compromises and find happiness. Languid, gently sad, the writing draws us into the lives of her characters. They refuse to be involuntary victims of their circumstances, but don’t always make the best choices for themselves either.
The imagery in the book is exquisite; the teenage Udayan’s footprints mischievously planted in drying cement, which endure beyond his own life, a tribute to both his own rule-breaking bravado and his parents’ indulgence towards him; the eponymous lowland, a symbol of societal inequality that the two boys regularly try to bridge; the turquoise shawl gifted by Subhash to his widowed sister-in-law in defiance of parental disapproval, a gift she cherishes long after events of greater magnitude would seem to have eclipsed its importance.
My biggest gripe with ‘The Lowland’ is that many of the characters seem to be clones of characters in her other works. Subhash seems like another version of Gogol Ganguly – likeable but not striking, somewhat emotionally inept, struggling to establish an identity distinct from that planned for him by others. Gauri has shades of Twinkle and Moushumi, stretching out towards goals only she can see, and with a traumatic relationship in her past that interferes with her current marriage.
I also wish the conflicts in Gauri’s psyche had been better described. I made excuses for her continual negligence towards her daughter because I wanted to like her in spite of her unmaternal ways. But Subhash is so driven-as-pure-snow, she appears an ogress in comparison. At one point in the story, she engages in a casual lesbian relationship, which serves no function whatsoever in the plot. One wonders why it was included.
The Lowland will enchant you with its lyrical language, its haunting beauty and the realism in its easily identifiable characters. But I await the day Lahiri writes a story in which she herself, like her characters, wades into unfamiliar waters.