Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Originally Published: 2013
Genre: Literary Fiction, Culture, History, Family Saga
Note: No spoilers here! Happy reading!
The Lowland written by Jhumpa Lahiri is a novel rooted in emotions, against the backdrop of the Naxalite Movement of the 1960s in West Bengal, India. The story of two brothers – Subhash and Udayan – bound and separated, like two poles of a magnet, is about the conventions and contentions in a relationship between brothers, between husbands and wives and between parents and children.
In this review, I shall not be going into the details of the political and historical events as they hold no interest for me. I have understood it as a stimulus for Udayan’s character in the novel and I shall discuss it accordingly.
Lahiri writes without the sense of a hindrance in thought. I feel like The Lowland could be narrated and it would sound like a seamless flow of thought, ebbing only to make connections or to draw parallels.
The narration shifts points of view and is a non-stop relay, with characters changing positions and presence. The use of interior monologue is exquisite and I came to like the novel for the quality and range of language used in terms of vocabulary and imagery, as well as for the tone that an interior monologue brings to the story. The story itself could have been bland, in my opinion, but Lahiri’s style and structure carried me through to the last page.
Cadence is an element that appeals to me when a novel delves into the lives of the characters across decades. The rhythm is important because it’s essentially a long journey and not everything along the way is going to be significant. There are undertones and clues that come into play in a saga and we need to pick them up as we go, even if they don’t make sense right away.
One such clue is the metaphor that Lahiri creates with the lowland – a set of two ponds that flood and form one water body in the monsoon. The two ponds symbolise Subhash and Udayan who look alike, but are different in their moral compositions; they complete each other and later contradict each other. They drift apart, but are brought together by circumstances that may or may not be in their control.
The imagery that Lahiri uses are inspired by the brothers’ childhood and culture and is used to create mental photographs that allow you to see through their eyes and in turn understand the nostalgia that results from it. There is this continual sense of longing – when the brothers are together, they long to find themselves or to find a purpose to fulfill and when the brothers are apart, they long to regain the identity they hold for each other and also bear a longing for the days that weren’t as complicated when they were growing up.
Gauri and Bela are the characters that stir up the past, each with their own purpose and offer links to what they have all left behind. They are able to ease that shift in time for the reader and the references keep details fresh. Gauri follows conventions and finally breaks free, whereas Bela, her daughter, is free from rules, for none are created for her. Bela brings with her a new realm of the relationship between parents and a child; the intimate brotherhood encouraged by their parents and Bela’s poor kinship create a stark contrast as proof for generation gaps.
The change of place – from India to America – also contributes to the sense of longing and belonging, to the change in lifestyle and values, to the sense of the unknown and mostly to the surge of emotions as the novel progresses.
The novel, for me, goes to show that no matter what age we are at, we need a sense of belonging, of love and of acceptance. Circumstances change, but that doesn’t mean they always bring out the best in us. There are a number of reality checks in the way the characters respond to these changes and it makes for a relatable read.
In addition, the outward expression of our inner selves – Subhash through his meticulous marine research in America and Udayan through his role in the turbulent Naxalite movement – is a key thread that runs throughout the story. There is only so much we can keep in and only so much that we can let out. At the end of the day, peace comes from being able to accept yourself, for yourself.
Reader. Learner. Dreamer.
I am all about the little things in life!