Best known for her highly lauded short story collections and novel The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri has again emerged with a skilful examination of the highly distinct religious, social and ideological differences between India and America in her latest work The Lowland.
The Lowland begins in South Kolkata and follows India’s newfound emancipation from Britain. Central to the narrative is the relationship between brothers Subhash and Udayan. Born fifteen months apart and inseparable from the outset, tales of the boys’ initial mischief give way to graver instances of flouted conventions, when the younger Udayan becomes embroiled in the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency.
Subhash grows wary of the movement and the brothers’ uncomplicated bond is replaced by an ideological parting of ways. Subhash escapes to the United States to study chemistry, while Udayan begins a relationship with a philosophy student named Gauri, distancing himself from the Naxalite movement. An unexpected turn of events then changes all three of their lives irrevocably, kick-starting a saga across two continents and four generations.
Lahiri weaves a broad tapestry of embedded meanings and employs haunting imagery to resounding effect. But while the profound historical context, ‘the concentrated stench of so much life’ and the fractious politics of India jump out from the pages, the contrasting chapters that take place in the suburban expanses of Rhode Island are rendered dour by comparison.
Lahiri’s past work, particularly her short stories, were enriched by her poignant delivery and the sense of love and loss that permeated through each page. Yet in The Lowland, Lahiri’s characters come across as flat and predictable, as the story languishes in parts due to heavy-handed storytelling. Udayan, Subhash and Gauri are never accorded the same nuance and multidimensionality as the places, scenes and sensations that Lahiri so expertly conjures. Udayan remains a caricature throughout, his motives and actions never adequately explained, while Gauri is portrayed as unfeeling and cold—reminiscent of the bookish and aloof Moushumi Mazoomdar character of Lahiri’s The Namesake. A story arc two-thirds into the book, involving Gauri in the throes of a lesbian love affair, feels half-hearted and pointless—the few brief paragraphs devoted to it are incapable of conveying its significance.
At her best, Lahiri’s lyrical storytelling, potent symbolism and the brutally harrowing culmination of events allow the novel’s simple truth to emerge:
Most people trusted in the future, assuming that their preferred version of itself would unfold. Blindly planning for it, envisioning things that weren’t the case. This was the working of the will. This was what gave the world purpose and direction. Not what was there but what was not.
The Lowland belongs to a larger milieu of Indian post-colonial literature where personal stories are entwined with the political upheavals that defined post-independent, post-partition India. This literature includes Kiran Desai’s 1996 Man Booker Prize winner The Inheritance of Loss on the Nepalese 1980s rebellion in West Bengal; Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance on India’s emergency period in the 1970s; and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy about Hindu-Muslim strife, the abolition of the Zamindari system and land reforms (these last two themes also being catalysts for the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency in The Lowland). In a similar vein to Aravind Aradiga in White Tiger and Arundhati Roy in The God of Small Things, Lahiri delves into the class and cultural tensions under India’s entrenched feudal system that led to the disillusioned Darjeeling peasants’ rebellion.
A point of difference that The Lowland makes to its precursors is that it is more concerned about the discombobulated migrant experience. While Desai chronicled the menial blue-collar work that greeted many Indian immigrants upon arrival in America, the academic creations of Lahiri’s world hold professional jobs and in the case of Gauri, come to see America as the home that India never was.
Just like her predecessors, Lahiri has crafted a multilayered narrative shaped by larger political struggles and social circumstances. In the end, however, her seemingly epic saga comes across as clinical and overly familiar, as weaknesses in characterisation and storytelling leave it wanting of deeper meaning.