Pulitzer Prize-winning Bengali author, Jhumpa Lahiri has written a masterly novel, The Lowland, depicting the bonds of kinship between two Bengali brothers, which also traverses the haunting memory of two lives once intertwined yet ultimately severed by politics, personality, distance, and tragic circumstances. Amid the backdrop of Tollygunge, Calcutta, India, Lahiri has set this story where place seems nearly to capitulate to characters. The book is a luminous powerhouse much like the rest of Lahiri’s body of work. The symbolism of the setting and the richly drawn characters make Lahiri a writer to be reckoned with.
The novel spans time, place, and memory, evoking feelings in the process that only a writer as gifted as Lahiri and few others can pull off. In the span of about seven decades, the book moves from the partition of India in 1947, which divided the country into the Bengali and Punjab provinces and also gave rise to Pakistan, to the advent of the Marxist Naxalite movement in the late 1960s, the independence of Bangladesh in the early 1970s and finally to life in the university city of Providence, Rhode Island during the Reagan years and beyond.
The two main characters, Subhash and Udayan Mitra, brothers barely a year apart come of age in South Calcutta in the Tollygunge region; they are inseparable but possess two very different personalities. Subhash, the older brother, is a cautious, caring, yet responsible individual who tends to think about the consequences of his actions while Udayan, is an adventurous extrovert who shoots from the hip. Additionally, Subhash journeys to Providence to attend a graduate program in chemical engineering while Udayan anchors himself to the Marxist Naxalite movement emerging in Calcutta. Subhash and Udayan become intertwined through the third main character, Gauri who marries Udayan and later journeys to the U.S. with Subhash. Without giving away the central events that shape the bulk of the story, it is worth noting it is the haunting memory of Udayan that embody the characters with a sense of emotional detachment.
Loss can lead one into the wilderness without the tethering of support such as family, friends, and professional therapy. Manifestations of grief, however, have the tendency to moor one when waves of sadness can overwhelm. In The Lowland neither Subhash nor Gauri return from the ‘wilderness’ of loss for many decades. Compounding an inability to overcome that emotional pain is the fact that they are new immigrants to the U.S. Subhash has already slowly adapted to Providence once Gauri joins him. Initially, she is reluctant to explore Providence. Yet it is academia that eventually buoys her.
At turns, Lahiri writes of the titular geographic region—the lowland—as a metaphor for the emotional reservoir where Subhash, Gauri, and later, Bela (Gauri’s daughter) remain most of their lives. The lowland itself is a low-lying region nearby the Mitra family residence in Tollygunge that lies below sea level separating two ponds and collecting water during the monsoon season. Yet, the lowland represents the pain felt by the characters unable to recover from the loss of Udayan Mitra’s untimely death owing to his radical political endeavors. The lowland refracts the memory of homeland but more aptly that of a brother, husband, and son, Udayan. Lahiri writes frequently of the lowland, especially at times when the main characters are experiencing emotional pain or struggle. Subhash, himself ruminates often on the lowland, noting that, “certain physical aspects of Rhode Island. . .corresponded roughly to those of Calcutta, India.” Even in his short-lived written correspondence with his brother, Subhash cannot shake the image of the lowland. Tragic circumstances rock the stability of these characters. The lowland which seems to represent familial memory with all of its complex feelings of love, loss, admiration, and guilt remains a steady figure. It is only in the twilight of his life that Subhash allows himself to develop a deep bond with someone he is unrelated to.
Lahiri has the uncanny ability to take you on an emotional journey through a combination of vivid descriptions of place and in meticulous unspooling of characters. It is not necessarily rumination on the part of the characters that draws you in but rather carefully drawn actions that give you an emotional connection. Of Gauri, the single-most detached character in the whole book, Lahiri shows us that despite her trenchant observations about philosophy, she refuses to dissect her feelings in the present. In fact, Gauri is afraid to form bonds with anyone, as she was intent to “extinguish Udayan’s ghost. To smother what haunted her.” I ached with sadness in connecting to the main characters as each of them experienced great loss and loneliness. The sense of loss resonated but unlike Lahri’s characters I’ve been able to not let loss subsume me.
The bonds of siblings can be strong and even if your sister or brother is no longer with you, you can carry their presence in your heart. In Lahiri’s endearing novel, many of the characters get stuck in the lowlands. On the surface they paint the picture of success as immigrants, educated professionals, and parents; however, it is their inability to move past the heartache of familial loss that prevents them from partnering with others. One wonders how the brothers’ lives would have turned out had they both have agreed to move to the U.S. or to remain in Calcutta. That is the question that haunts me long past completing this riveting book.
By Jhumpa Lahiri
385 pages. 2013.