Jhumpa Lahiri has specialized in writing short stories and novels around the immigrant experience. Her forte is that of writing on people of Indian origin living in USA. Undoubtedly, she has established a reputation as a leading fiction writer and has been short listed for the Man Booker Prize this year.
In her latest book “The Lowland”, Jhumpa Lahiri blends the political and personal in a dexterous manner and makes the story gripping and the book unputdownable. The story encompasses five decades of history centering around the lives of one family. The human emotions are depicted in full force. Inter-generational bonding, love, disagreement, independent thinking, selfishness and violence.
It is about two brothers with an age difference of about eighteen months - Subash and Udayan. They hail from a middle-class Bengali family. They are deeply attached to each other and are inseparable as children. They share a lot of common interests and exhibit a scientific temperament. The talented brothers study together and lead a happy carefree life. They look and sound alike. At the same time, they are like opposites. Udayan is impulsive. Subash is placid. They live in Tollygunge, a South Calcutta locality. The book derives its name from a pair of ponds in front of their house which overlap during the rains and become one waterbody and separate during the dry season choked with water-hyacinth. leaving a lowland in between. The identities of the brothers are
like the ponds-together and separate.
Unfortunately while in college, Udayan gets drawn to the Naxalite movement which dominated West Bengal in the mid-sixties. It was a radical and violent Communist movement idolizing Mao-tse-tung. It was a war waged against the State of West Bengal. While the elder brother Subash realized the risks of what Udayan was doing, he could not persuade his daredevil brother to give it up. Subash leaves for USA to pursue higher studies in marine chemistry. Udayan gets actively involved in guerilla warfare and is accused of murder. His girlfriend Gauri gets sucked into the vortex of the misguided movement. He marries her and they live together for a short while before Udayan is shot dead in a brutal manner in the lowlands in front of their house by the Police who
come searching for Udayan for his anti-State activities. The author is brilliant when she explores the ways in which Udayan’s kith and kin are affected by his death. The whole family is devastated with the apple of their eyes becoming a victim of his own violence.
Subash returns to India on hearing the tragic news Gauri is pregnant and is ill-treated by Subash’s mother. Looking at the depressed state of affairs and his love for Udayan, he considers his duty to lift her out of the morass at home and take her to USA. He decides to marry Gauri and convinces her that it is in her best interests. Gauri agrees though Subash’s mother warns him that he will never receive any love from her because she is wedded to Udayan. Ignoring his mother’s objections, he gets married and sets off for Rhode Island to continue his academic career. Gauri follows him and later delivers Udayan’s child whom Subash names as Bela.
Over time, the incompatible couple drift apart. When Subash and Bela return to Kolkata on the death of Subash’s father, Gauri leaves a note behind in their Rhode Island home and abandons the family for pursuing her interest in Philosophy in Southern California. In the absence of the mother, Bela grows up under the loving care of Subash who she believes is her father; however the trauma of her mother abandoning her remains deeply etched in her memory. She grows up like other American children. She has independent views and is decisive in her own way. She becomes an environmentalist. Subash is lonely and develops friendship with a woman. Bela becomes pregnant and when asked by Subash about the father she says that she doesn’t care. A girl child is born who
is named Meghna by Subash. Subash gives away the long-held secret of true fatherhood to Bela who is totally shattered.
Subash decides to put an end to the sham marriage and emails to Gauri to sign the papers for divorce. Gauri obliges and decides to drop in at Subash’s home on her way to a conference in Europe to hand over the papers. When she arrives at Subash’s home, she finds that Subash is not there. She meets Bela who totally ignores her and questions her as to why she has returned. Bela show her mother the door.
Each character in the novel is strong but Gauri is the most vibrant character. She is intelligent, rebellious, unconventional, fiercely independent, extremely selfish and a neglectful mother. And enigmatic too. She has the most tragic trajectory in the novel.
While the first half of this marvellous book concentrates on the Naxalite movement, the second half deals with the impact of the shock of Udayan’s death on the family. This is an exceptional novel by an exceptional author. The storyline is suspenseful, the prose beautiful and written with great clarity. The underlying theme of the book is the dislocation of immigrants and how their lives are impacted. Lot of parallels can be drawn between the author’s earlier books and “The Lowland”. In carefully measured words, the author gives the readers a peep into the hidden emotions of family life and the choice of words make it an outstanding book and certainly Jhumpa Lahiri’s best so far.
The book lingers in one’s memory for a long time.