352 pages; $27.95
Reviewed by Florencia Lauria
“Certain creatures laid eggs that were able to endure the dry season. Others survived by burying themselves in mud, simulating death, waiting for the return of rain,” writes Jhumpa Lahiri on the opening page of her new novel, The Lowland, introducing two of the book’s recurring questions: How do different creatures survive in hostile environments? And what do these survival strategies say about the creatures themselves?
Unlike Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of short stories known for its controlled prose, The Lowland offers a more sprawling and untidy look at the Indian-American experience. This is due in part to the shifting points of view and the characters’ textured, and at times inconsistent, psychological landscapes. The Lowland feels less claustrophobic, more open, than much of her other work. As in Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, and Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri’s characters exist in the space between Calcutta and New England. If you’ve read her other books, you’ll recognize the male academic who moves to the United States to pursue a doctoral degree; you’ll recognize the aging parents and the second-generation’s rejection of Bengali culture. But The Lowland offers some new and essential voices, such as a leftist radical who stays in India and a female academic who chooses her career over her family and her past.
The novel is set in the late 1960s and early ‘70s in Calcutta and Rhode Island. The characters live in the shadow of the Naxalite movement, a far-left radical front in India that calls for an armed revolution and the redistribution of land to the landless. The story concerns two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, who grow up together in Tollygunge. Subhash, threatened by his younger brother’s involvement in politics, chooses to emigrate to the United States. After Udayan’s tragic death, Subhash marries his brother’s pregnant widow, Gauri, and raises his brother’s child, Bela, in Rhode Island.
Early in the novel, Lahiri establishes the brothers’ shared identity: “You are the other side of me,” Udayan tells Subhash. “It’s without you that I’m nothing.” But as they grow older, their lives—so entwined at the beginning—become strange mirrors, revealing images of what each could have been had he chosen the other’s path. Udayan gets involved with the Communist party in India; Subhash moves to the United States to get his PhD in environmental chemistry. Udayan is murdered; Subhash becomes a professor. Although they both start at the same place (breaking into the Tolly Club, listening to the radio, sharing one bedroom), their choices lead them to very different ends. Their rupture is evident when Subhash returns to India after Udayan’s death. A police officer says to him, “You’re nothing like your brother”—and we feel the sting of this comment, the sadness of the brothers’ separation. The police’s remark is congratulatory—his brother was an “enemy of the state”—but Subhash can’t help but see this as a lack in himself. Throughout the novel, Subhash measures himself against Udayan’s image, wondering what kind of husband and father Udayan might have been. He is Subhash because he is not Udayan.
Lahiri manages her characters without either condemning or forgiving them. Udayan is a victim of police brutality, but he’s also a killer (the extent of his involvement in the guerrilla movement is slowly revealed as the novel progresses). Subhash asks his mother, “why did they kill him?” and she replies, “he was your brother … how can you ask such a thing?” But we understand Subhash’s love for Udayan—a love that is not ignorant of his faults or crimes. This mixture of victimhood and culpability is evident in many of the characters. Gauri is one of the best examples: we feel pity for her when we see how lonely and mistreated she is in Udayan’s absence; we want to take her with us, rescue her like Subhash does. But later, when Gauri abandons Bela and Subhash to pursue her career, our pity turns to contempt.
Lahiri weaves an impressive web of perspectives, allowing us to occupy the minds of multiple characters. This is important since it prevents us from developing a black and white understanding of her world. These characters are not good and they’re not evil. They are somewhere in between, learning to survive in their respective environments, growing despite infinite setbacks. These characters are, if nothing else, resilient.
Although Udayan is killed early in the novel, the book maintains the brothers’ twin-like relationship at its center, and this duality becomes the book’s thematic core. The characters are constantly aware of the “other side” of themselves. When Gauri meets a group of Indian women living in Rhode Island, for example, Subhash encourages her to pursue these friendships; the women wear saris, talk about cooking and raising children. “I have nothing in common with them,” Gauri tells him. These women are the female images Gauri measures herself against. The roles of “the good mother” and “the good wife” are the kind of roles she continually rejects in order to assert her own identity.
By the end of the novel we’ve come to know four generations of this family; we know how much the characters’ present lives are determined by their shared past, how tangled their old-worlds and new-worlds are. These characters define themselves in contrast to their history. “I am who I am,” Bela imagines saying to her mother. “I live as I do because of you.” As she grows older, Bela strives to be a caring and dedicated mother. She rejects Gauri’s intellectual lifestyle, her passion for academics, and instead seeks a meaningful connection with living beings; she raises her daughter, Meghna, falls in love with Drew, and learns to grow her own food.
With this large, multi-generational scope, Lahiri does what she does best: she moves seamlessly through time—sometimes pausing to describe one moment in minute detail, other times sketching the passage of many years in only a couple of paragraphs. She’s as efficient as always, her language at once simple and transfixing. When Gauri returns to Rhode Island, years after abandoning her family, Bela remembers in detail the day her mother left: “The ripe heat of August, the door to the study left open, the desktop nearly bare. The grass sprouting to her shoulders, spreading before her like a sea.” We get lost in these descriptions of the past, but we quickly snap back into the present. “Even now,” Lahiri writes, “Bela felt the urge to strike her.” This combination of lyricism and short declarative sentences makes Lahiri’s language simultaneously vast and concise.
Perhaps what distinguishes The Lowland from Lahiri’s other books is itsreliance on history. Here, more than anywhere else, the historical context—India’s political turmoil, the leftist radicals, and the fascist paramilitary forces—functions as the backdrop for the characters’ decisions, the reason behind the original split.
In The Lowland the personal and the political are one and the same. Lahiri’s characters do their best to survive in an environment that threatens to destroy them. Some stay, and some hide. Some abandon their past in order to secure a future. We are entranced by the characters’ obstinacy. Years after Udayan’s death, we see how much he still affects the rest of the family; every day his mother goes down to the lowland to honor her dead son. She looks at the water hyacinth, the place where Udayan hid from the police, and notices that “in spite of the garbage [it] still grows, stubbornly rooted.” This image is both hopeful and sad—reminding us that despite the distances we put between ourselves and our origins, we remain, for better or worse, attached.
Florencia Lauria’s reviews have appeared previously in Rain Taxi Review of Books.