The Lowland | Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel, The Lowland (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013) gets off to a sluggish start. We are in Calcutta (now Kolkata), in the 1950s, as the book opens, with brothers Subhash and Udayan Mitra, who are growing up in their inveterately Bengali middle-class parental home in Tollygunge. The boys are intrigued by the goings-on in the posh Tolly Club, which lies just beyond the eponymous lowland, source of a life-changing tragedy later in the story, near their house and out of bounds to most of humanity. Led by Udayan, the younger but more daring of the two, the brothers sneak into the club’s golf course to steal discarded balls, until a policeman catches them one day and ticks them off.
Lahiri’s attention to detail is meticulous, her pace unhurried, often coming across as halting and hesitant, in the first 30-odd pages. Reading her work is like learning to ride a bike: you wobble a little in the beginning, maybe take a fall or two, before finding your rhythm and learning to relax in the cadence of her prose.
The characters in The Lowland, as in much of Lahiri’s previous work, are etched exquisitely—intimately realized in their physical details as well as in their private geographies. And yet, in spite of the ostensible poise of her style, there is a deeply unsettling quality to Lahiri’s storytelling, a tense self-restraint that sometimes lets its guard down and yields unexpected turns in the plot, offering us glimmerings into personalities we had written off as unremarkable.
From the sedate Calcutta of the 1950s, we move into the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, when the Naxalite movement unleashed violence and mayhem in the city. Hundreds of men and women, suspected of sedition, were rounded up, tortured, killed, or forced to disappear, a version of which continues to happen in modern India, maybe more discreetly.
In the interstices of the revolutionary uprising, between Che Guevara’s execution and the formation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), the selfsame lives of the Mitras are also transformed by a sordid sleight of hand. In Lahiri’s richly-atmospheric revisiting of history, revolution does not as much change the fate of a people as it does the destiny of a family: “The only thing (Udayan) had altered was what their family had been,” we are bitterly informed.
With life in Calcutta being violent and volatile, Subhash, the pragmatic elder son, decides to move to Rhode Island, in the US, for higher studies, while Udayan, driven by youthful idealism, decides to shun the beaten track. He joins the rebels, gets married to the girl he loves, and is dead by the age of 26 in a freak encounter with the police. Think of the siblings Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, in a context that could not have been more apart from 19th-century England.
With just 15 months between them, Subhash and Udayan share a bond that extends, with a wrenching irony, to the woman, Gauri, they both get married to, and the child, Bela, they become fathers to. That these affinities and alliances are forged out of exigency, Lahiri never allows her characters, or her readers, to forget. It is this awareness, of being disinherited of a comfort that most people take for granted—the fact of their origins—that keeps us on the edge all along The Lowland.
As Subhash and Gauri blunder through their marriage and Bela grows into a young woman, and eventually becomes a mother herself, without any knowledge of her real parentage, we feel besieged by the emotional see-saw of Lahiri’s narrative. We are oppressed not so much by the enormity of the knowledge, or even by the possibility of its disclosure, as by the enactment of it in the daily lives of the people who dwell in its shadow. They were “a family of solitaries”, Subhash acknowledges the reality of his life with Gauri and Bela at one point. “They had collided and dispersed.”
Subhash’s description is also apposite for much of the dramatis personae who have appeared in Lahiri’s fiction so far. From the couples locked in unhappy marriages in Interpreter of Maladies to Gogol in The Namesake to Hema and Kaushik in Unaccustomed Earth, her most memorable characters are inherently skittish, not simply because they are uprooted from their familiar surroundings, but rather because they have to fiercely struggle to hold on to a sense of the self.
In The Lowland, for instance, after Udayan’s death, Gauri is unable to cry, especially in the presence of others, but there were “tears disconnected to feeling, that gathered and sometimes fell from the corners of her eyes in the morning, after sleep”. Although less cerebral than Gauri, Subhash too refuses to let his defences down when his American lover, Holly, asks him what he misses most about Calcutta. “It’s where I was made,” he states blandly, admitting his tie to the place but also signalling his clinical detachment from it—rather than being a home to him, Calcutta is the place that drove him out into the world, in order to flee a life that he chose not to embrace, unlike Udayan who could be happy to know the world through just a shortwave radio.
One of Lahiri’s finest achievements in The Lowland is to show the illusory nature of escape: that exile does not necessarily bring reprieve from the shackles of convention. Udayan does not have to go to America to have the life he wanted for himself, fraught as it may have been with danger, or to marry the girl of his heart. Running away to the ends of the earth cannot save Gauri from herself. Subhash cannot protect himself from having to tell Bela the truth about her real father. One thinks of C.P. Cavafy’s ruthless lines in The City (in Daniel Mendelsohn’s translation from the Greek): “You’ll find no new places, you won’t find other shores./The city will follow you.” In Cavafy’s poem, as in Lahiri’s stories, the city is as much a real place as it is a metaphor for all that we cannot leave behind.
Like the tales of Raymond Carver, John Cheever, William Trevor or Mavis Gallant, Lahiri’s stories are rooted in the world of circumstances but they also gesture towards something beyond—the “beyond” that was promised to us in the subtitle of her first collection, Interpreter of Maladies: Stories of Bengal, Boston and Beyond. Into this beyond—the wilderness of the human heart, that most irrational of spaces—we are taken, once again, in The Lowland.