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Book review: The Lowland, By Jhumpa Lahiri

Brothers entwined in a family tragedy

In her first novel, The Namesake, and her two collections of short stories, the Pulitzer Prize laureate Jhumpa Lahiri explored the American-Bengali immigrant experience. The Lowland, her ambitious Man Booker-shortlisted second novel, follows the fortunes of four generations of a family in Calcutta and Rhode Island across 60 years. Its starting point is an archetypal relationship between two brothers.

Subhash and Udayan were born in suburban Calcutta 15 months apart in the troubled aftermath of the Second World War, when India gained its independence and Bengal was eventually partitioned after civil war. Hindu refugees from the largely Muslim east poured into Calcutta in the west, and Lahiri paints a vivid panorama of the fast-developing city. A patch of countryside with two ponds behind the boys’ house, near the exclusive colonial Tolly Club, is used to great effect as a recurring motif of change. When the boys played there as children it was a beautiful area, populated by foxes and birds, the ponds overgrown with wild hyacinth, but as the years pass it becomes a rubbish dump, and is finally completely built over.  It’s here in the lowland that the novel’s terrible, defining event takes place.

Lahiri’s greatest ability is to write perceptively about families with warmth and humanity, but never sentimentality. She identifies the sinews that binds them together, sinews that should stretch to accommodate difference, but which all too often constrict to resist it. She portrays with deft strokes how each family member, willingly or otherwise, is affected by the others. Subhash and Udayan’s parents are middle-class Hindus, who educate their sons highly, yet expect them to follow the old traditions. Their fatal flaw is that though they love both children, they all too obviously prefer bright, adventurous Udayan.

Instead of resenting this favouritism, cautious, obedient Subhash joins in the general adoration of his brother. He has “no sense of himself without Udayan”. The two are inseparable as children, and Subhash’s loyalty to his brother will affect the way he lives his whole life. Udayan, instead, grows up putting ideals of social justice first and family second. He goes his own way, even marrying his bluestocking girlfriend, Gauri, without his parents’ knowledge. Subhash’s break from his family is gentler – he goes to study in America, settling in Rhode Island. There, he turns down an invitation to an anti-Vietnam war demonstration. “It’s not my place to object,” he says, in stark contrast to his brother’s chosen path.

The story at the heart of The Lowland is how Udayan’s involvement in radical activist politics devastates the entire family. A student who becomes a teacher, Udayan is drawn into the militant Maoist Naxalite movement in Calcutta. By the early 1970s, Naxalites in Calcutta were carrying out acts of terrorism, assassinating individuals they identified as “class enemies”. In a police reprisal for these, Udayan is trapped and brutally executed one evening in front of his wife and parents. 

The remaining three-quarters of the novel examines the profound effects of this shocking murder. Gauri, it turns out, is pregnant, and in a dramatic rebellion against his grieving parents, who wish to adopt the child and sever links with their daughter-in-law, Subhash marries her himself and takes her back to America.

The mismatched pair’s marriage of convenience, their differing experiences of parenthood and of putting down roots in a strange country is all tenderly and convincingly evoked. Gauri, arguably the novel’s most complex character, is a solitary scholar from a fragmented family, who’d never expected to marry until she fell in love with Udayan. She could not fit the traditional domestic role in which her mother-in-law placed her. Now she’s frozen in mourning for Udayan and is expected to cleave to the newborn girl, Bela, in his memory, but she finds she can’t. It’s a great achievement of Lahiri’s to present Gauri in a sympathetic light as she follows her own sequestered path as an academic and ponders the extent of her collusion in Udayan’s crimes. Bela in her turn must deal with the truth about her parentage, her complex relationship with her mother and the utter foreignness of the city far away to which she’s told she belongs.

The early confidence of this absorbing novel and its ambitious epic scope begin to dwindle towards the end, as though the mighty power of the wave that broke upon the family at Udayan’s death is spent. It’s partly because he died only a quarter of the way through, partly that with his death the epic political angle ends too, and Calcutta fades into the background. Yet though the book ends quietly, such is the strength, individuality and vividness of Lahiri’s characters, that it’s a loss when their voices finally fall silent.

Rachel Hore’s new novel, The Silent Tide, is published by Simon and Schuster

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