Released in 2013, The Lowland was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award for Fiction. Written by Jhumpa Lahiri, winner of the Pultizer Prize, the book revolves around the story of two brothers, one an enthusiastic Naxalite movement supporter, and the other an Indian immigrant.
Jhumpa Lahiri is one-of-a-kind – she paints stories, not tells them, so that they remain with you for a lifetime. Her characters come across as peculiar, different from the cliched people you find in other books. The Lowland is where she performs her magic yet again.
The story begins in Calcutta of the 1940s and 1950s, with Subhash and Udayan’s story as little children. Lahiri establishes the essence of each character as soon as she introduces them. This is what compels the reader to go on, and explore her perspectives. Udayan and Subhash are opposites, acting as foils for one another. As they grow up, studying together, playing together, they develop different ideologies, different personalities. It is then that the Naxalite movement enters the plot. The scenario of Calcutta’s sociopolitical environment is portrayed in a sketchy, yet memorable manner by Lahiri.
Udayan, the bold and adventurous of the two, takes it up with great enthusiasm while Subhash leaves for the US, to pursue advanced studies. Udayan finds himself falling in love with a student of philosophy, Gauri, back in Calcutta. Lahiri does an excellent job of shuttling back and forth, so that the reader gets perspectives at the right time. You find yourself reading about their love story and then coming back to Subhash who is exploring the very different norms and values of the West. Udayan is a rebel, he marries against his parents’ wishes, and so does Gauri.
Subhash then finds himself receiving the news of Udayan’s death, he is shot by the police due to his involvement in the Naxalite movement. He returns to parents who are half-lost in their grief, and a widow who has to follow the norms assigned for her. Yet, Gauri remains in her world of books. He takes the first step against his parents’ wishes, he talks to Gauri about his brother’s death. The description of Udayan’s capture moves to tears. Subhash also discovers Gauri is carrying Udayan’s and her child. He marries her to help her escape society’s traditions.
Gauri’s exploration of the West is different from Subhash’s. It is curiousity mixed with a need to remain aloof from her previous husband’s brother. The new relationship in the novel is not based on love, it is a bond of reciprocity and of Gauri feeling the need to return to Subhash what he tried to give her – happiness in which she truly felt happy. Bela, Gauri’s daughter is born, and Gauri’s relationship with her own daughter is yet another facet for the reader to explore. It is different yet poignant in the way Bela is affected. The surprise is now left to you – what does Gauri do as a final step to give Subhash something in return? What becomes of Bela?
The novel is a must-read for those who love to explore how immigrants from the sub-continent adapted to the West a few decades earlier. Lahiri does a commendable job at a portrayal of family relationship that are always at the background of such stories of migration.
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri our rating: 4.5 out of 5