The Lowland

  • Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Knopf
  • 352 pp.

Insights are lacking in this tragic tale that stretches from India to America.

When the militant Naxalite movement erupted in West Bengal in the late 1960s, some of my father’s urban, middle-class friends came under its spell. They were young enough, idealistic enough, passionate enough, and imprudent enough to think they could create an equitable society through armed rebellion, and they aligned themselves with what was initially an uprising among peasants and tribal communities fighting feudal oppression. In response, the government unleashed a brutal wave of counterinsurgent terror. Goons were organized into resistance groups that worked closely with the police in cracking down on the rebels. The leaders of the movement were brought into police custody and tortured viciously. In the ensuing days and months, thousands of Naxalite youths were killed in extrajudicial police encounters.

It is this tense period of Indian history that Jhumpa Lahiri explores in the first few chapters of her latest novel, The Lowland. Writing about Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the 1950s and 1960s must have been a leap for Lahiri, who to date has written mainly about a more intimate subject: the Bengali immigrant experience in the United States. The combination of imagination, research and sensitivity necessary to breathe life into this historical setting is unquestionably evident on each page.

Brothers Udayan and Subhash grow up in a dreary house in Tollygunge, a South Calcutta locality engulfed by post-Partition refugee camps. Brotherly love (which is also the title for the excerpt published in The New Yorker) is portrayed through a series of vignettes and gives the novel its fleeting moment of emotional nourishment. For instance, the brothers’ close bond leads them to communicate through Morse code using a buzzer Udayan installs for this purpose: “They took turns, one of them standing by the door, the other inside, signaling to one another, deciphering words. They got good enough to send coded messages that their parents couldn’t understand.”

Eventually, the brothers’ paths diverge. Udayan gravitates toward the Mao-inspired Naxalite movement, and Subhash, more sensible, comes to the United States to pursue a doctorate in oceanography. While Subhash becomes romantically involved with an older American woman in Rhode Island, tragedy unfolds in Calcutta: The police kill Udayan because of his involvement in an assassination plot. Subhash returns to Calcutta to console his parents, and in an act of impulsive gallantry ends up marrying Gauri, Udayan’s academically inclined wife. He cannot help but empathize with her plight: she is pregnant and his parents cannot bear the sight of her.

Subhash intends to rebuild Gauri’s life by taking her to the United States, where, he hopes, they will fall in love and happily bring up Udayan’s child together.

Once the intense first section of the novel is over and the story shifts to the United States, the narrative slows down. Incidentally, Lahiri does away with quotation marks denoting dialogue, and this technique, perhaps intended to build the impression of reminiscence, contributes to the lack of immediacy. Large tracts of the novel in the second half are a summarization of events, interspersed with a few short scenes in which people interact with one another. As a result, the characters transform into people who readers observe without full comprehension. This is a surprise since Lahiri’s short stories are so full of nuanced psychological insight. In “Year’s End,” for instance, Lahiri provides context for Kaushik’s mean behavior toward his stepsisters, so even though his behavior shocks readers, they also understand his motivation.

This depth of perception into characters’ psyches, however, is somehow absent in The Lowland. The most problematic instance of opacity is Gauri, who develops from an intriguing, likable person into someone with a heart of stone. Lahiri describes Gauri’s inability to correct past errors as a “feeling that ate away at her, exposing only her self-interest, her ineptitude.” She takes refuge in the study of philosophy, even as she loses her humanity. Abandoning her daughter, Bela, and Subhash – permanently and without warning – Gauri moves to the West Coast and maintains absolutely no communication with her young, suffering daughter and her second husband, two individuals who have done nothing to deserve this treatment. Even though I found myself justifying Gauri’s journey intellectually – after all, she has been through an immense tragedy – I struggled to understand it emotionally. She is the novel’s greatest mystery.

It is possible that in order to escape the sentimental direction the novel could have taken, with relationships easily slipping into place, Lahiri directs the characters headlong into severe despair. Unfortunately, the characters don’t earn their misery. Largely due to the lack of dramatic sequences, it’s difficult to grasp the rationale behind the characters’ rejection of one another and their largely self-inflicted sense of isolation and gloom.

However, the immensity of Lahiri’s skills in rendering sad, unknowable characters captivating, mostly by building webs of apt, quiet details, cannot be emphasized enough. Lahiri provides readers with haunting portraits of the characters: Bela grieving with hunched shoulders and baking zucchini bread at night after her father falls asleep; Subhash dutifully driving Bela to see a psychologist and writing out checks to her “as he might another bill”; and Gauri paradoxically being maternal with her students, serving them tea on Sunday afternoons. The journey down The Lowland’s plot may be disquieting, but the question of abandoning it simply doesn’t arise.

In the end, the Calcutta parts remain the most moving aspect of the novel. Because I lived there during my formative years, I savored Lahiri’s depiction of the city’s many essential truths: the line demarcating the middle class from the wealthy, epitomized by British-era private clubs; the intellectualism that college-going Bengali youth tend to pursue very earnestly; the hyacinth-covered ponds that are a part of the city’s charm; and much, much more.

Ananya Bhattacharyya, a writer-editor based in the Washington, D.C. area, has an M.F.A. in creative writing (fiction) from George Mason University and an M.A. in English literature from University of Mumbai. Her short stories have appeared in So to Speak, Phoebe and Washington Square Review.


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