When I read The Namesake about a decade back, I didn’t aspire to write. But I decided that if I chose to write, I would want to be a writer like Jhumpa Lahiri. You know…fanciful, wishful thinking! In 2003, fresh out of college and having studied the very new Indian writing in English, I fell in love with a this emergent genre of writing. Powerful, moving and evocative, Lahiri’s writing made me look at my concept of Indian-ness and everything drives my identity.
Ten years later, when I pick up another Jhumpa Lahiri, I know what to expect. After all, here is a writer who has come to represent the voice of the immigrant Indian so beautifully. But here there is a remarkable twist of tactic. It is no longer only about the immigrant Indian. It is no longer about a protagonist’s identity. It is about his past, his present and his future. It is about politics. It is about ideology. The Lowland is all that and more.
For those of you haven’t read the book, here is the book blurb from Goodreads:
“Two brothers bound by tragedy; a fiercely brilliant woman haunted by her past; a country torn by revolution. A powerful new novel–set in both India and America–that explores the price of idealism and a love that can last long past death.
Growing up in Calcutta, born just fifteen months apart, Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable brothers, one often mistaken for the other. But they are also opposites, with gravely different futures ahead of them. It is the 1960s, and Udayan–charismatic and impulsive–finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty: he will give everything, risk all, for what he believes. Subhash, the dutiful son, does not share his brother’s political passion; he leaves home to pursue a life of scientific research in a quiet, coastal corner of America.
But when Subhash learns what happened to his brother in the lowland outside their family’s home, he comes back to India, hoping to pick up the pieces of a shattered family, and to heal the wounds Udayan left behind–including those seared in the heart of his brother’s wife.
Suspenseful, sweeping, piercingly intimate, The Lowland expands the range of one of our most dazzling storytellers, seamlessly interweaving the historical and the personal across generations and geographies. This masterly novel of fate and will, exile and return, is a tour de force and an instant classic.”
At many levels, The Lowland is a book of expectations. Expectations of parents, sons, siblings, wives, husbands, revolutions, the country’s…every character in the book has expectations to deal with. For here are a set of parents who toil through the lives, build a home and raise it just like their sons, hoping and expecting their sons to live in it. A mother who expects her son to marry a girl of her choice. A brother who expects his sibling to follow his path of ideology. The other driven by his duty towards his parents picks a path that they approve of, but fail to walk the whole road. He never returns. He too doesn’t marry the girl of his mother’s choice. He too abandons them to do his own bidding. A widow doesn’t live up to the expectations of her mother-in-law. Or even to the memory of her slain husband. In fact for that matter, she doesn’t live up to the expectations of her own daughter. The only one who does justice to some of the relationships he lives through is Subhash. Subhash as a father and a husband plays his part well…a bit too sincerely, to be honest.
The Lowland is also a complex and intricate tale of siblings. Udayan and Subash, two brothers who grow up together, inseparable and very alike almost look at one another as shadows. Rather early in the book, when the story begins in the past, we are told how the elder looks at himself as inferior to the younger. A compelling force drives him to match up to his brother. He loves him, no doubt. But in everything they do, Subhash tries to keep up with Udayan. It is not until they grow up, do their personalities walk different paths. As Udayan is sucked into the Naxalite movement, Subhash steers away. Choosing the safer shroud of academics and a safer, farther haven of the United States of America.
In a typical Jhumpa-risque way, Subhash’s American life pans out just as I expected. A life of a loner, one far removed from his family and brother, there is a fleeting affair too casual and flippant to be called a romance.
At one point of the story, I began predicting the story. I hadn’t read reviews of the book, but I could sense what was in store. For instance, I knew Subhash would marry his wife’s brother. I also knew the marriage would be an unhappy one.
Gauri’s is powerful. Yet too cold and distant. Her dreams are never revealed. Only her place in the story is juxtaposed with those of other characters. She left me with a feeling of unease. Of not knowing what her motivations were. Or why she does what she does. But here is a character for who America is a place of liberation. She never surrenders her Indian identity. She keeps her passport and her identity as Mrs Mitra. But she also earns a new one. She becomes a renowned Professor. She snips her locks that Udayan loved so much. She abandons her life as a mother and wife. She lives with the ghost of a husband she had briefly. I have a problem with Gauri. But then maybe because it is a personal reading of a character who is a mother. As one myself, I have trouble accepting a character who abandons her child from the moment she is born. I look at it as a failing. And as I read through the book, I kept looking for that one moment that would absolve her of her imperfection. I couldn’t find any. Maybe she was meant to be like that.
The Lowland is not the perfect book to understand the Naxalbari movement. But it is a telling tale of how the revolution affected hundreds and thousands of men. Of how young boys believed that they could change the face of the country, rid it of its imperfections that had begun to creep in. The Lowland in that is a perfect picture that helps the reader understand history and society of Bengal. One passage that deeply moved me is below:
“She wants to know who has done this. Who has desecrated this place? Who has insulted Udayan’s memory this way?
She calls out to the neighbours. Who was responsible? Why did they not come forward? Had they already forgotten what happened? Or were they unaware that it was here that her son had once hidden? Just beyond, in what used to be an empty field, where he’d been killed?
She waits for Udayan to appear amid the water hyacinth and walk toward her. It is safe now, she tells him. The police have gone. No one will take you away. Come quickly to the house. You must be hungry. Dinner is ready. Soon it will be dark. Your brother married Gauri. I am alone now. You have a daughter in America. Your father has died.
She waits, certain that he is there, that he hears what she tells him. She talks to herself, to no one.”
The Lowland reminded me of an uncle. A now very close family friend, who Maa says was in throes of Naxalbari way back in the late 1960’s. He had a body-warrant, she says. At once, alarming and exciting for me to know. A reading of Udayan’s story therefore is an close encounter for me, and anyone who has heard stories about the movement.
The Lowland is gripping and poetic. It is a powerful tale of love, belonging, duty, responsibility, loneliness and dreams. It is the story of a nation. Of political courage and aspirations. It is the story of an unfinished life. Of a life interrupted. It is also the story of a relationship halted, of discovery, faith and unconditional belonging.
Ten years later, I still want to grow up to write like Jhumpa Lahiri.