The Lowland

Jhumpa Lahiri

Grief. It’s the primary emotion underlying the book. Everything is tinged with it - even the most evocative descriptions of beautiful landscapes - warm, marshy Tollygunge in Kolkata in the ‘70s, the harsh yet gorgeous Rhode Island coast. This is my first Jhumpa Lahiri and the emotion doesn’t surprise me. I watched The Namesake and saw the same. 

Subhash and Udayan Mitra are brothers growing up in the Kolkata of the sixties. It’s a middle class childhood spent playing football in the fields beyond the lowland that flooded in the monsoon, sneaking into the exclusive Tollygunge Golf Club in the neighbourhood, spying Bengali actresses outside Technician's studio, working hard at their lessons in school. Subhash, older by a year  is the conventional, timid brother; Udayan the quick and impulsive one. While Subhash is content to let things flow, Udayan questions, prods, pushes. As they move into college, their lives diverge irrevocably.

The Naxalite movement in the ‘70s always had a romantic feel to it. CP Surendran’s Iron Harvest tells it as it was - a doomed uprising, brutally put down by governments in Bengal and Kerala. The Lowland revisits it, in a far more particular, individual manner. As fiery Udayan gets caught up in the ideology, Subhash is content to move away to America, far away from the uncomfortable debate about the rights and wrongs of a movement that is the closest we ever came to a revolution. But Subhash cannot move too far away. The consequences of Udayan’s actions bring him back - to a family forever broken, to a sister-in-law Gauri and an unborn child. And when Subhash tries to repair some of the damage in a way that is more Udayan than Subhash - impulsive, uncaring of repercussions - all their lives are irrevocably changed.

Gauri is complex. She can never stop loving Udayan even if he was a man who risked that love for a belief system. Her grief though is complex - underlying it is her knowledge of the reality of Udayan’s last days and her ambivalence towards his actions. Her consequent actions - towards Subhash and her child Bela - are tinged with this complexity and are quite inexplicable to a world that has prescriptive notions of marriage and motherhood. But to me, she is the heart of the novel. Beautiful, torn, unable to tear herself away from the past, she wanders through Subhash and Bela’s lives as a wound that refuses to heal. 

Subhash, Bela, Gauri - three lives charted by events in Kolkata in the seventies. Jhumpa Lahiri delineates them through exquisite prose that can on occasion bring you to tears. It is a novel that reminds you of the worlds of Anita Brookner, Anne Tyler, even sometimes Arundhati Roy - human stories, individual, particular, minutely observed. I liked Jhumpa Lahiri. I will be reading more of her.


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