It is a story of love and loss spanning six decades but expertly wrapped up in 340 pages. What else, but pithy prose, can you expect from an author with the prowess that received a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for a short story collection?
We start off in a middle class neighbourhood of 1950s Calcutta, India (back when it was still called that) and end up 1000s of miles away in another part of the world. Lahiri with her usual keen sensibilities portrays with delicacy a variety of familial bonds: my favourite amongst them being the love between the brothers Subhash and Udayan. The narrative starts with them and ends with them, but in between we see their lives and lives of those closest to them being rocked and then ravaged by the Naxalite movement.
The movement began in the spring of 1967, in the village of Naxalbari in Darjeeling district, close to the border between India, Nepal and Pakistan (back then Bangladesh was still Pakistan). Lahiri has crafted her story around the socio-political tensions caused by the emergence of a violent communist revolutionary organisation. The research is well done and I am happy to note the reference books that Lahiri used to understand the movement listed in the Acknowledgements. Personally, as a 90’s child, all I can remember of the Naxalites is gruesome images of guerrilla soldiers posing with decapitated heads and swords that I saw on the cover of magazines like India Today. I learnt more about the movement a few years ago when I read India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha (a key reference for anyone interested in modern India). Here’s a related excerpt from India After Gandhi (page 426, 2008 paperback edition)
In the villages , Naxalites had hoped to catalyse unrest by beheading landlords; in the city, they thought that the same could be achieved by random attacks on policemen. Kipling had once called Calcutta the ‘City of Dreadful Night’; now the citizens lived in dread by day as well. The shops began closing in the early afternoon; by dusk the streets were deserted. ‘Not a day passes in his turbulent and tortured city’, wrote one reporter, ‘without a few bombs being hurled at police pickets and patrols’. The police, for their part, raided houses and college hostels in search of the extremists. In one raid they seized explosives sufficient to make 3,000 bombs.
This passage essentially sets the tone for the most dramatic part of The Lowland. Around this time we are also introduced to another character which also became the one I found most intriguing: Gauri. As the tempo of the political movement dies down within the story we see that Gauri emerges to fill that void and thus becomes the tumultuous force. Unfortunately since I will never reveal the intricacies of the plot in any of my reviews I cannot go into detail about why Gauri made me sad and angry in equal measure. Her characterisation is complex. It’s not surprising then that there is a thread of approximately 60 (rather elaborate) comments in Goodreads just for Gauri.
Sparing the nitty gritty, the plot is simply not air-tight. Some twists are obvious and one can smell them coming a mile away and others are just unrealistic. I read first 120 pages of The Lowland as Brotherly Love which appeared in The New Yorker magazine in 2013. I thought it was brilliant. I didn’t wonder what would happen next in the story. Honestly, I didn’t need the rest of the novel.
Yet, I am happy to have read The Lowland – A Novel for it has wonderful prose and Lahiri is a terrific writer. Being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013 is not completely unjustified. She writes what she knows best and does it very well. But if you are going into the novel being a big fan of Lahiri’s previous works then I would urge you to not have vey high expectations. It is subpar to The Namesake.
I understood the significance of the title only upon finishing the book.
Once, within this enclave, there were two ponds, oblong, side by side. Behind them was a lowland spanning a few acres. After the monsoon the ponds would rise so that the embankment built between them could not be seen. The lowland also filled with rain, three or four feet deep, the water remaining for a portion of the year.
Lahiri’s choice of setting: middle-class Tollygunge with its high-class Tolly Club and the lowland, is as much a part of the story structure as the Naxalite movement. I find that the merging of the two ponds to create a lake over the lowland for a part of the year is a metaphor for how the lives of Subhash and Udayan come together to then be cleaved apart time and again. The Tolly Club teaches the two brothers two different lessons to two different ends. The lowland eventually becomes Udayan. The setting, for me is a wonderful character within the novel. I daresay I prefer it to some of the humans.
As always, I leave you with a passage from the book that spoke to me personally and may even have inspired a poem that I wrote around the time I was reading the book,
Once more the leaves of the trees lost their chlorophyll, replaced by the shades he had left behind: vivid hues of cayenne and turmeric and ginger pounded fresh every morning in the kitchen, to season the food his mother prepared. Once more these colours seemed to have been transported across the worlds, appearing in the treetops that lined his path.
Just as time stood still but was also passing, some other part of her body that she was unaware of was now drawing oxygen, forcing her to stay alive.
Sigh. Jhumpa Lahiri is a truly gifted wordsmith.