This is one of those times when I wish that the author of a novel had issued a statement to reviewers as to what she considers acceptable for us to reveal in discussing her book. Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland hinges on an event revealed a quarter of the way through the book and a couple of decades into the life of the central character. That event gives rise to circumstances that make up the substance of the book, but to reveal even the most necessary of those seems somehow out of order. The publisher takes the movie trailer approach: Two brothers bound by tragedy. A fiercely brilliant woman haunted by her past. A country torn by revolution. And, I, myself, could continue in the same vein: A story of dislocation, estrangement, and loneliness, of loss and regret, duty and grief. A deeply moving tale of family ties that strangle as much as bind. All true, but I couldn't go on like this without passing out from a surfeit of abstraction.
Instead, I am just going to be ruthless, and you can stop after the next couple of paragraphs if you want to come to the book in a state of innocence. (I will alert you at that point.) I must say, however, that though the novel's plot is essential, the strength lies in Lahiri's particular vision of life, which here, as elsewhere in her work, is shaded with loneliness; and also by her evocation of place, and her skill in conveying her characters' predicaments and feelings in simple, spare prose.
At novel's start, Subhash and Udayan, two brothers separated in age by fifteen months, live with their parents in a little neighborhood in Calcutta in the 1950s. Nearby is a small mosque that has survived partition, and the Tolly Club, a sporting club established in colonial days and still highly exclusive. Also adjacent are two ponds lying side by side that merge to become one in the rainy season. The ponds, it becomes clear as the story unfolds, represent, in some sense, the fates of the brothers.
We first meet the boys breaking into the grounds of the Tolly Club to hit golf balls, a venture that is the brainchild of the younger, Udayan, the leader and more outgoing and intrepid of the two though when they are caught, it is Subhash who is beaten. Both boys attend university, but Udayan gets caught up in the Maoist Naxalite movement, whose activities included assassinations and bombings. Meanwhile Subhash travels to the U.S. to study for a doctorate in oceanography in Rhode Island, accepting the idea that he will return home afterward, enter an arranged marriage, and live a traditional Indian life. This is the point where spoiler-averse readers will wish to stop.
Subhash's life is lonely, and even his thoughts of home become unsettled when his brother writes to say that he has married without their parents' permission and very much to their dismay, though the young couple are living with them. Still, Subhash carries on with his studies and even enters into an affair, though he knows more uneasiness that it has no future. Then, toward the beginning of his third year of study, a telegram arrives: Udayan has been killed. It emerges that he was shot by the police for revolutionary doings, his body never restored to the family. Returning home to offer comfort, Subhash discovers that Udayan's wife, Gauri, despised by his parents, is pregnant and only barely tolerated in the house as a servant. Subhash does what he considers the right thing and marries her himself, taking her off to Rhode Island. Somehow he feels that their shared love of Udayan is enough to build on.
With this we can say the story really begins, and in some ways it amounts to a tale of excruciating endurance for both Subhash and Gauri. The two of them are confined in a marriage that is poisoned by her inability or unwillingness to accept what has happened. The bootless nature of Udayan's political activities are horribly evident: "Udayan had given his life to a movement that had been misguided, that had caused only damage, that had been ruthlessly dismantled. The only thing he had altered was what the family had been."
A daughter, Bela, is born, but Gauri neglects her, nursing her own sorrow and frustration, and, finally, secludes herself from the family, taking up study toward what becomes a doctorate in philosophy. Subhash, who has achieved a university teaching position, has to look after the child, after everything in fact. Lahiri is as sympathetic in her portrayal of Gauri as anyone could be, and we see that this character's feeling are perfectly genuine, but that does not disguise the fact that she is a self-absorbed monster, consumed with her own plight and utterly indifferent at best to the people she should care most about.
I have certainly given enough of the plot away, suffice it to say there are further developments, for Gauri, for Bela, and for Subhash himself. Every one of them has the ring of truth, so embedded are they in a meticulously conjured context and offered from the differing points of view of each member of this unhappy family. This is a slow-building, indeed slow-moving novel, simple and powerful in style but lacking the elastic tension and clarity of Lahiri's short fiction. Still, the accumulating movement of feeling that forges and unforges relationships is acutely observed. Further, Lahiri renders with subtlety the hybrid nature of the alienation that afflicts Subhash and Gauri in part particular to their individual personalities and circumstances, in part the product of being immigrants. The novel is a painful one, though it is not entirely bleak, for Lahiri does, by the end, provide an honest reckoning, some recompense, and a redemption. Of sorts.
Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.
Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers
Read an Excerpt
Normally she stayed on the balcony, reading, or kept to an adjacent room as her brother and Udayan studied and smoked and drank cups of tea. Manash had befriended him at Calcutta University, where they were both graduate students in the physics department. Much of the time their books on the behaviors of liquids and gases would sit ignored as they talked about the repercussions of Naxalbari, and commented on the day’s events.
The discussions strayed to the insurgencies in Indochina and in Latin American countries. In the case of Cuba it wasn’t even a mass movement, Udayan pointed out. Just a small group, attacking the right targets.
All over the world students were gaining momentum, standing up to exploitative systems. It was another example of Newton’s second law of motion, he joked. Force equals mass times acceleration.
Manash was skeptical. What could they, urban students, claim to know about peasant life?
Nothing, Udayan said. We need to learn from them.
Through an open doorway she saw him. Tall but slight of build, twenty-three but looking a bit older. His clothing hung on him loosely. He wore kurtas but also European-style shirts, irreverently, the top portion unbuttoned, the bottom untucked, the sleeves rolled back past the elbow.
He sat in the room where they listened to the radio. On the bed that served as a sofa where, at night, Gauri slept. His arms were lean, his fingers too long for the small porcelain cups of tea her family served him, which he drained in just a few gulps. His hair was wavy, the brows thick, the eyes languid and dark.
His hands seemed an extension of his voice, always in motion, embellishing the things he said. Even as he argued he smiled easily. His upper teeth overlapped slightly, as if there were one too many of them. From the beginning, the attraction was there.
He never said anything to Gauri if she happened to brush by. Never glancing, never acknowledging that she was Manash’s younger sister, until the day the houseboy was out on an errand, and Manash asked Gauri if she minded making them some tea.
She could not find a tray to put the teacups on. She carried them in, nudging open the door to the room with her shoulder.
Looking up at her an instant longer than he needed to, Udayan took his cup from her hands.
The groove between his mouth and nose was deep. Clean-shaven. Still looking at her, he posed his first question.
Where do you study? he asked.
Because she went to Presidency, and Calcutta University was just next door, she searched for him on the quadrangle, and among the bookstalls, at the tables of the Coffee House if she went there with a group of friends. Something told her he did not go to his classes as regularly as she did. She began to watch for him from the generous balcony that wrapped around the two sides of her grandparents’ flat, overlooking the intersection where Cornwallis Street began. It became something for her to do.
Then one day she spotted him, amazed that she knew which of the hundreds of dark heads was his. He was standing on the opposite corner, buying a packet of cigarettes. Then he was crossing the street, a cotton book bag over his shoulder, glancing both ways, walking toward their flat.
She crouched below the filigree, under the clothes drying on the line, worried that he would look up and see her. Two minutes later she heard footsteps climbing the stairwell, and then the rattle of the iron knocker on the door of the flat. She heard the door being opened, the houseboy letting him in.
It was an afternoon everyone, including Manash, happened to be out, and she’d been reading, alone. She wondered if he’d turn back, given that Manash wasn’t there. Instead, a moment later, he stepped out onto the balcony.
No one else here? he asked.
She shook her head.
Will you talk to me, then?
The laundry was damp, some of her petticoats and blouses were clipped to the line. The material of the blouses was tailored to the shape of her upper torso, her breasts. He unclipped one of the blouses and put it further down the line to make room.
He did this slowly, a mild tremor in his fingers forcing him to focus more than another person might on the task. Standing beside him, she was aware of his height, the slight stoop in his shoulders, the angle at which he held his face. He struck a match against the side of a box and lit a cigarette, cupping his whole hand over his mouth when he drew the cigarette to his lips. The houseboy brought out biscuits and tea.
They overlooked the intersection, from four flights above. They stood beside one another, both of them leaning into the railing. Together they took in the stone buildings, with their decrepit grandeur, that lined the streets. Their tired columns, their crumbling cornices, their sullied shades.
Her face was supported by the discreet barrier of her hand. his arm hung over the edge, the burning cigarette was in his fingers. The sleeves of his Punjabi were rolled up, exposing the veins running from his wrist to the crook of the elbow. They were prominent, the blood in them greenish gray, like a pointed archway below the skin.
There was something elemental about so many human beings in motion at once: walking, sitting in buses and trams, pulling or being pulled along in rickshaws. One the other side of the street were a few gold and silver shops all in a row, with mirrored walls and ceilings. Always crowded with families, endlessly reflected, placing orders for wedding jewels. There was the press where they took clothes to be ironed. The store where Gauri bought her ink, her notebooks. Narrow sweet shops, where trays of confections were studded with flies.
The paanwallah sat cross-legged at one corner, under a bare bulb, spreading white lime paste on stacks of betel leaves. A traffic constable stood at the center, in his helmet, on his little box. Blowing a whistle and waving his arms. The clamor of so many motors, of so many scooters and lorries and busses and cars, filled their ears.
I like this view, he said.