The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri. Bloomsbury, £16.99

Cool and detached, this novel of family bonds and political passions blunts the tragedy of its time

The greatest threat to today’s Indian state, we often hear, is the Maoist movement smouldering across the Subcontinent. But not too many people remember the Naxalite movement, an earlier version of Maoism that erupted in Bengal and southern India in the 1960s. Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel takes us back to that period and chronicles a series of personal tragedies originating from that quest for total revolution.

The Lowland is the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan Mitra, the very different choices they make in the 1960s and their enduring consequences. Udayan is the charismatic, perpetually adventurous child who grows into a Naxalite revolutionary, whereas the slightly older Subhash is caring, intelligent, emotionally mature – and, it has to be said, ever so slightly dull. Both study science (like all good middle-class Bengali boys of that time). Subhash then goes off to the US for higher training in oceanography and ends up spending his life there. Udayan becomes a schoolteacher, marries and gets ever more involved with bomb-making and other terrorist activities. 

He is killed in an “encounter” staged by the police and his pregnant wife Gauri, who watches the assassination, never recovers from the experience – even after the ever-sensitive Subhash, pained by her futile, lonely life as a widow in his parents’ household, marries her and takes her to America. 

When her daughter Bela is born, Subhash is delighted but Gauri, a former student of philosophy, is more interested in resuming her intellectual interests than in quiet domesticity. When Subhash and Bela return from a trip to Calcutta, they find she has left them for a university job in California. Bela, understandably, never forgives her mother and when Gauri returns at the very end, the reunion is explosive. Except for the suggestion that Bela’s daughter Meghna might one day reconnect with her grandmother, the family tragedy that began in Naxalite Calcutta continues to unfold across time and the oceans.

The Lowland has received much pre-publication praise and has been long-listed for the Man Booker prize. The unfolding of the tragic family saga is certainly affecting and Lahiri, as always, is adept at portraying the lives of diasporic Indians without condescension. The novel is rather less effective, however, in its characterisations. One understands why Gauri wants an academic career but her decision to abandon Bela, her sole link with her first husband whom she misses acutely, is hardly credible in emotional terms. It is hard to believe that the young Gauri we meet in the earlier chapters is capable of this flinty, unrelenting coldness. 

The entire novel, in fact, has an emotionally detached tone that reduces the impact of the tragedy. The caring Subhash is portrayed without much warmth and we scarcely perceive the revolutionary charisma attributed to Udayan. Although Lahiri has done much research on the Naxalite movement, she cannot quite evoke its chaotic passions. The laconic, almost clinically  disengaged prose seems uninterested in feelings of any kind, whether personal or political. The Lowland chooses to be a novel about unfathomably dysfunctional people, and not the epic human tragedy it could easily have been.

Chandak Sengoopta teaches history at Birkbeck College, London, and is writing a new biography of Satyajit Ray