Udayan and Subhash are brothers born fifteen months apart in the 1950s, in Calcutta. Their childhoods are happy and unremarkable and they are close. In their late teens they develop different interests, with Subhash concentrating on his studies and Udayan becoming active in an emergent political movement – the Naxalites. What follows is a family saga of profound sadness. This review is impossible to write without spoilers.
Udayan, who is exciting, passionate but selfish, marries a woman of similar political outlook called Gauri, and becomes increasingly involved with his friends and comrades, working towards a Maoist revolution. In the meantime, dull and staid Subhash goes to Rhode Island in the USA to pursue his studies in environmental science, eventually becoming an academic.
Udayan is killed one day by police, in front of his parents and Gauri, who, unbeknownst to anyone, is carrying their baby. Subhash comes back to Calcutta and decides to marry Gauri and take her back to the US to save her from the life of a widow with his parents (who, in their grief resent her and show her no warmth) and also to raise her and her brother’s child as his own. Their façade of a marriage unsurprisingly fails and Gauri, who by now is an academic in philosophy, ends up abandoning both Subhash and her daughter Bela when Bela is 10 years old. The book went downhill from here.
All the characters in this book seem unable to get past their past. And this ruined the book for me. Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my favourite authors, but this was a disappointment. I enjoyed the book until very near the end. I think I just got tired of the characters’ complete sadness, coldness and apparent inability to change. Lahiri’s characters are normally more complex and even a little more likable than the ones in The Lowland. I tried very hard to like Gauri and succeeded at times, but most of the time was just appalled at how lonely her existence was (self-imposed), and how cold and callous she was. Subhash was dull – probably the most believable of the characters. Bela also lacked any warmth and was, surprisingly for Lahiri, a bit of a caricature with her tattoo, nomadic lifestyle and ‘don’t-let-anyone-near-me’ approach to life.
I have read reviews of Lahiri’s work that suggest she should stick to short stories. Certainly the most memorable of her work I have read is a collection of short stories called Unaccustomed Earth, which is one of my all-time-top-ranking reads. The Namesake was good, but Unaccustomed Earth was better. The Lowlands did not quite satisfy the requirements of a fulfilling and engaging sage because the characters were too static and too sad. The book nevertheless contained the author’s trademark style of placid steadiness and evocative description, which kept me turning the pages. There was, however, a little bit too much description in some parts and towards the end I was a little bored.
Lahiri’s broad knowledge of a number of different things such as Rhode Island, earth sciences and India’s political history is very impressive. A lot of research has clearly gone into writing this book. One of the most interesting parts of this book for me was learning about the Naxalite movement, about which I only have minimal knowledge. It was bizarre to imagine violent political clashes occurring in the beautiful and picturesque area of Darjeeling, where I holidayed early this year (and was surprised at the heavily militarised presence…I understand this better now).