Two brothers forever entwined, yet so different. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri—Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake—follows the lives of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, and their family. It is a novel about their struggles and achievements, their personalities and ways of life, and how one brother’s communist involvement is a catalyst of his family’s dissolution.
The book begins with a compelling description of the titular lowland in Tollygunge, Calcutta, India—next to the home where the two brothers grew up. According to Lahiri’s diction, the lowland is a “flooded plain thick with water hyacinth.” The author goes on to describe the brothers’ childhood antics, like sneaking into the Tolly Club, a country club for the privileged members of the community.
Udayan, the younger brother, is carefree and adventurous. He is a quixotic student, who becomes embroiled in the communist-inspired Naxalbari movement. Subhash is the quiet and reserved brother. As they mature, their political ideologies change, increasing the chasm between them.
While in graduate school, Udayan marries a philosophy student, Gauri, but secretly continues his involvement with the violent movement. Udayan and Gauri live with his parents, who loathe Gauri, as they did not choose her to marry their son. Udayan sees the poverty surrounding him, as well as the Indian government’s wrongdoings, and believes that the Naxalbari movement, no matter how violent, is the answer.
The Lowland adopts a dissimilar style of writing than most other widely read novels
Instead of staying in India, Subhash decides to move to Rhode Island for graduate school. He leaves India against his brother’s pleas and makes a life for himself in America. He rebels against his parents through actions they cannot see or know about and slowly distances himself from his past life in India.
The family that was once so close becomes detached. Subhash moves away to another hemisphere. His parents’ evident displeasure in Udayan’s actions create an even bigger divide in the family. The abyss between them is so large that even the brothers’ parents no longer share the same room.
Subhash does not go back to India until he learns of his brother’s death. Udayan is killed by the police because of his involvement with the Communist Naxalbari movement. Subhash weds a pregnant Gauri to get her out of India and takes care of her. He is appalled at his parent’s treatment of her. Gauri gives birth to Bela, studies philosophy and eventually writes her dissertation, after which she leaves Subhash and Bela—more than a decade after they married.
Lahiri then describes the lives of Subhash and Bela, wrought with trauma and pain, as they try to move forward. This struggle is shown when Subhash supports Bela’s decision to live a nomadic life working on farms, even though he wishes she did not. He understands Bela’s need to do so. Lahiri details the agony of Gauri’s decision and how Gauri penalizes herself for her actions as a mother to Bela and wife to Subhash. One of these punishments is her forced cut-off from emotional relationships; Gauri is the only dissatisfied character at the end of the book. Lahiri’s portrayal of these characters, journeying through this epic odyssey of a story, truly mirrors the experience of struggle and acceptance, feelings that can be found in all corners of the world today.
Lahiri imparts to us a story full of poignant subplots, vivid descriptions and a wonderful cultural experience
The Lowland adopts a dissimilar style of writing to most other widely read novels. Events are portrayed through several points of view spread throughout the novel, and the time frame jumps around once the readers are given an introduction to the two brother’s early lives, thereby creating a somewhat fractured narrative that only comes to full fruition as the story progresses. Lahiri also refrains from using quotes to contain the spoken words of the characters, which is always a bold choice for any writer confident enough to make it. This makes for an interesting read, as the omission of quotes forces the reader to slow down and take time to digest the words to fully understand the book.
The novel is compelling, and though some parts could be condensed, contains wisdom. Lahiri teaches us that society’s mold does not fit everyone, as seen when Gauri tries to be a mother. She also shows that it is okay to fight for what one believes in, but not when innocent people are harmed. The Naxalbari movement should not have chosen a violent route that injured and killed so many innocent citizens.
All things said and done, Lahiri imparts a story full of poignant subplots, vivid descriptions and a wonderful cultural experience that will leave the reader emotionally drained, but with a fuller understanding of different walks of life.