I must confess that the first time I picked up a Jhumpa Lahiri book, it was with the utmost sense of fear, that here was another author who had won an award for writing stuff made purely for philosophical reading. That was not the case. I have, therefore, awaited “The Lowland" for the better part of the year.
Even before the book’s release there was lot of hype over it being nominated for the Booker prize. While you shouldn’t let award talk decide whether or not you decide to read any given book, I'd highly recommend picking this one up.
At the outset, let me get a few things clear. This is not a novel of intrigue, or of mystery, and not even one which you'd be astounded by in terms of sudden twists in the tale. What this novel is a triumph of is as a study of the human spirit, and how it deals with life as a whole.
Ms. Lahiri is a blessed author in the sense that she knows how to deal with, and delve into, the human soul. All her characters are intense studies, and at the end of the book, leave you feeling for them.
"The Lowland" is a study of three characters. Subhash, the dutiful son of a middle class family who does what his parents expect of him. Then there is Udayan, the rebel, the James Dean in Indian armor, who gets carried away in the flow of events. Finally, there's Gauri, a woman caught between these two brothers, and whose life changes course with every turn the two brothers’ lives take.
Subhash and Udayan lead a normal life, till the Naxalbari events sweep the more effervescent Udayan along with them. Devoid of his best friend, and his link with a normal life, Subhash decides to go away to Rhode Island to finish his studies. There, Subhash finally finds peace because he is not constantly reminded of Calcutta, Tollygunge, and his brother & best friend. Life moves along well for Subhash till a telegram informs him that Udayan has been shot.
Jolted back to reality, and reminded of that broken link, he rushes back to Calcutta, to find a family in despair, and Gauri, the young widow of his brother, who is also pregnant with Udayan’s child. Subhash then faces up to a family who doesn’t want to take Gauri in as she reminds them of their dead son, and finds in Gauri, a woman who reminds him of the broken link between him and his now dead brother. Subhash then decides to marry Gauri, and takes her back with him to Rhode Island. There, Gauri gives birth to Bela.
However, after Bela is born, Gauri chooses to leave Subhash as she feels she owes him nothing. This does not go down well with Bela, who dotes on her adopted father. As she grows up, Bela who has the reckless streak of her genetic father travels across the country and choosing to work and live on organic farms.
Bela, then chooses to distance herself from Gauri for what she did to Subhash, and refuses to let Gauri meet with her grandchild. The last letter that Bela writes to Gauri is quite poignant, and sums up the book perfectly.
If there is a flaw with the book, it is in its ending, which feels a bit strained, and contrived. I felt there wasn’t much need to explain Udayan’s misfortune in such detail at the very end, and the author would have done more justice by letting that part of the story remain a mystery.
“The Lowland” might not be Ms. Lahiri’s greatest achievement in writing (that honour goes to “The Interpreters of Maladies”); but, it still is a fine piece of prose. It captures a young India straining at the reins of neo-imperialism, the Naxalbari movement at its peak, and a family caught in all that turmoil.
I’d highly recommend reading “The Lowland” for its great depth of feeling and how it captures the inherent chaos of human lives. “The Lowland” firmly remains one on the “Best Books of 2013” for this reason on Junglee too.