Thoughts on Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Lowland”

If there is a word superlative to best I would use that word for Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. I had picked up the book during an outing with friends in February but could sit down to read it only now. While reading it you could not discern that it’s only her second novel. What amazing craft! Storytelling comes natural to her and it is evident in her flawless narration.

The first thing that came to my mind while reading The Lowland was that it reminded me of The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh in many ways. The back and forth narrative, the varying degrees to which the characters return to their memories, the intermingling of time and space and the contrast between personal and public memory. And yet the novel is different, completely on a different plane. I would take the liberty to say that once I began reading I wanted to devour the book, to jump into the narrative, to make it one with my soul. Some books have that power on you.

Anyways coming back to the novel. First of all it’s a must read purely for the reason that you get to see and read about a Calcutta that you might have never known. It’s the affliction of memory that it most certainly forgets events which at one time had been of utmost importance. The novel moves back and forth from Calcutta to Rhode Island in America. The characters and events are so real that you would question their fictionality.

The novel revolves around two brothers Subhash and Udayan Mitra, “born fifteen months apart”, who are often mistaken for each other. The novel traces their lives, Subhash’s till his old age and Udayan’s till the time he breathes his last. Subhash and Udayan are poles apart and yet they are inseparable. Subhash is the elder always content with his lot, seldom vying for his parents’ attention. Udayan is the one who is always laden with ideas, leading and always needing parents’ attention.

Both Udayan and Subhash fulfill the quintessential Indian dream of making it big in the academic field – Subhash getting into Jadavpur and Udayan in Presidency. And that is when their lives and destinies begin to bifurcate. Udayan slowly gets caught up in the Naxalite movement which had begun in the then Bengal. Subhash like his father remains passive towards these movements, working towards his academic and career goal.

Subhash later moves to America for a PhD and Udayan remains behind, critical of his brother’s decision to fall into the traps of capitalism but nevertheless misses him, hoping for him to return. Beyond crossed ideologies, the novel also highlights the changes a relationship undergoes. As siblings they have shared the same house, same room, same bed and even have same memories but as adults they move away creating separate spaces for themselves. The most obvious motif of this difference is the different continents the brothers chose to live in.

Gauri, the female protagonist, is one who leaves a strong impression long after the novel ends. I kept thinking about her, her choices and how the events in her life affected her. Gauri is first introduced through a photograph which Udayan sends to Subhash announcing his sudden marriage. Gauri is a young girl, observant, reads philosophy and loves Udayan. Her  life is turned upside down when Udayan gets killed. Subhash returns to India and soon after marries Gauri, who is pregnant, to provide her the freedom which his brother might have desired for his wife.

The novel constantly throws light on how different characters deal and perceive Udayan’s death. His parents feel an emptiness which gnaws at their heart till the end of their lives. To Subhash it’s a mystery, a puzzle, the last piece for which he may never find. To Gauri it’s a devastating event, the memory of which doesn’t leave her and which changes her in ways more than one.

The novel brilliantly maps out the transformation of all the characters after Udayan’s death and perhaps Gauri is the one who changes the most. She changes overnight, cutting her long hair short and changes her attire. She forsakes everything which might remind of her old life and later she forsakes Bela, her daughter too.

Bela is an important character. Bela is someone who replaces Udayan in both Gauri’s and Subhash’s life and they both react to her in their own way. While Gauri wants a greater right on Bela, she rarely displays any motherly affection for her. On the other hand Subhash is very attached to Bela, filling in the role of the father who had been killed without the knowledge of the child.

Bela plays a vital role in the narrative, helping to untie certain knots and helping her parents Subhash and Gauri realize their true self. In my opinion Bela constantly reminds Gauri of her dead first husband and the bonds that he left behind.

Bela is brought up in a fragmented home and finds herself incapable of making her own home. She is forever tainted by her mother’s departure but finds a sense of closure after Subhash reveals the truth about her father.

By the end of the novel each character finds a certain closure in life. In the end we also discover the complete truth about Udayan’s death as opposed to the characters in the novel except Gauri who remain in dark till the end.

Why I absolutely loved this novel is because it doesn’t go chronicling a fantastic event but reveals the struggle of a bunch of ordinary people who struggle with the memory of a horrific event in their lives. I love the way even small details are sketched out. To read about ordinary people, trying to move on in life, trying to cope with a tragedy in their life.

What I absolutely love about the novel is it’s strong women characters. Bela, Gauri or even Subhash’s mother are strong women, not afraid to take their decisions and stick to it. Gauri carves out a separate path for herself and moves out of the house Subhash and she made together. Bela, after the fragmented childhood, finally establishes her own separate identity, something which helps her change the world in her own little way.

Gauri’s departure leaves a void in Bela’s heart for which she blames Subhash but it after learning the truth and becoming a mother she forges a new bond with Subhash. The novel plays with the significance of a child’s relationship with each of their parents. We see it in case of Subhash, Udayan and their parents, Gauri and Bela, Subhash and Bela and finally Bela and Meghna. Holly and her son somewhere foreshadow the relationship between Subhash, Gauri and Bela and the psychological effect Gauri’s estrangement might have on Bela.

The novel is rich in metaphors that relate to time and space. For example, Bela’s name itself stands as a metaphor for time. Bela in bengali means time. The novel also plays with the notion of past. For young Bela everything that has happened in the past has happened yesterday. Does time really pass? It’s the memories that overlap with the notion of time.

Space occupies an important place in the novel. It keeps returning to the lowland. Even when Subhash is in Rhode Island certain places remind him and take him back to the Lowland. Lowland in Tollygunge is the place where their lives begin to change.

One curious thing in the novel is the contrast between the conducts of Subhash and Udayan. While Subhash is the one who has always listened to his parents and Udayan has done otherwise, it is Udayan who stays back to live with his parents and Subhash leaves them.

Among the two brothers, it is Udayan who always hogs the limelight. Always being the first, he is also the first to get married. But he wishes Subhash to become a father first and in a twisted turn of fate Subhash becomes a father first albeit to Udayan’s child.

Woman and her sexuality have been addressed in a way that is not stereotypical. The women in the novel are not afraid to explore their sexuality and their physical needs. So Gauri might not love Udayan but she doesn’t hold back from fulfilling her physical desires. Later on too she doesn’t refrain from expressing her sexuality. Her small affair with Lorna also solidifies her personality, allowing her to explore a new aspect of her identity.

The novel doesn’t romanticize the naxalite movement. It simply puts before us the limited experience of a person who is involved in the movement and those of his family. The contrast between public and private memory is very profound in the last part of the novel where the other people and the new generation of Tollygunge has completely forgotten Udayan and it is only his ageing mother who still haunts the stone tablet to honor her son’s death.

Udayan’s manner of death and the administration’s refusal to hand over his body is also a metaphor for the recorded history and actual events. Years later when one of Gauri’s student turns up to chronicle the events of Bengal during naxalite movement, Gauri feels this contrast in the most profound ways and even being a party to the chronicling of recorded history which may or may not be true.

I wouldn’t tire of writing the book. Evan after I finished reading it a week before, it still occupies my mind, making me envision certain scenes from the novel, forcing me to analyse. It’s a must read on my list and has become one of my personal favorites. If you wish to read about an extraordinary event which changes the course of life of ordinary people then you must pick this up.

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