Perilously stretched, but yet unbreakable ties of blood, obligation, and love link three generations of a Calcutta family in Pulitzer-winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. It’s a pleasure to read a book so well put together, in which Lahiri saves something of a surprise for the end.
The story centers on two brothers in a family living alongside the lowland, a marshy area of ponds and fields, “thick with water hyacinth” next to their home in the city’s outlying area of Tollygunge. In the monsoon season, the water rises and floods the lowland and the two ponds merge. Not until the next summer does the water completely evaporate.
Subhash is the older and from childhood the more responsible brother, and Udayan the risk-taker. They are as inseparable as the nearby ponds throughout their school years. It’s the 1960s, and they still are living at home until after graduate school, when Subhash takes the dramatic step of immigrating to the United States for postgraduate study.
At first, Udayan pleads with him not to go. He’d gone to the countryside to do some work and returned very ill. When he recovers, “some part of Udayan was elsewhere. Whatever he had learned or seen outside the city, whatever he’d done, he kept to himself.” What he’s done is become involved in the Naxalite movement—the Maoist Communist party of India. It inspires him. It also is deadly dangerous. Subhash is not interested in this new passion of Udayan’s and resettles in Rhode Island.
Through his political work, Udayan meets and marries Gauri. They live with his parents, who expect her to be a traditional Indian wife, but she is university-educated and the situation is uncomfortable. Then the police come. Udayan tries to hide under the water in the lowland, but in front of his parents and wife, they murder him.
When Subhash returns to the aftermath, he sees Gauri’s position in the family is untenable, marries her, and takes her back to the States. The rest of the book is about his and Gauri’s relationship and how each of them relates so very differently to their daughter Bela, formed her from presence and absence alike, including the absence of Udayan.
A novel covering such a long swath of time necessarily skims a great deal, but in a sense, time has not moved on at all, and both Gauri and Subhash (who wasn’t even there) are stuck in the moment of Udayan’s death. It’s only by breaking free that their world will open up again. Hoping that they can keeps you reading.