Review by Geetha Kulkarni
Subhash and Udayan are brothers growing up in Calcutta, India in the 1950s and 60s. They are exceptionally close to each other and yet completely different. Thus their adult lives take diverse paths. Udayan’s idealism and impulsive temperament involve him in the Naxalite movement, a movement to eradicate inequity of wealth and poverty. Subhash who is careful and cautious, chooses a much different path. He leaves for America and leads the life of an academic in quiet and beautiful Rhode Island. Their lives intersect again as Udayan’s life leads him into the violent and dangerous waters of radicalism. Udayan dies in a confrontation with the police. Subhash marries his brother’s pregnant widow Gauri and brings her back to America. The story of their lives is the subject of Lahiri’s The Lowland.
It is a vast, sweeping novel as it spans 60 years, going back and forth between two continents. The plot is fast paced and tells a good story. I enjoyed how the plot is not revealed sequentially but gradually, covering various points in time. It moves seamlessly between the past and present. To tell the story this way needs great skill and Jhumpa Lahiri is a masterful storyteller.
The story takes the reader into historical details of the Naxalite/Communist movement in West Bengal in the 1960s, a time of great political turmoil. It was a period of peasant exploitation, peasant revolt, growth of communism in West Bengal, terrorist activities and violence. The story is told against the historical background of the movement led by Charu Mazumdar and Kanu Sanyal. Historical fiction is such an enjoyable and subtle way of learning the history of a region and the human cost of such a movement.
The book was disappointing in its characterization. Some of the characters are well and completely drawn e.g. Subhash and Bela. Gauri remains an enigma. She was not someone I liked very much but I have come to the conclusion that I do not have to like the characters in a book in order to enjoy the book itself. Long after you have completed the book, a reader is likely to ponder about the choices Gauri made. Why did she insist on holding on to the past? Why did she miss every opportunity to move on with life, to find joy, to appreciate those who had cared about her future? Why did she insist on loving the man who put his and her life at risk, who made her unwittingly participate in questionable activities? Why on the other hand could she not find love in her heart for the man who rescued her from her life in India, gave her an opportunity for an education and raised her child? The author I felt did not explain Gauri well. We do not come to understand her thoughts that might have led her to make these decisions. Udayan and Subhash’s parents also did not receive the attention they deserved. What made them act the way they did with Gauri?
The book explores themes such as the price of idealism, how choices shape our lives, our inability to let go of sorrow leaving us emotionally paralyzed. It is a novel about family, love, mistakes and lost opportunities.
I have enjoyed all of Jhumpa Lahiri’s books. I enjoyed reading The Lowland as well, though not as much as The Namesake. The Lowland was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I recommend the book for its plot, its historical backdrop and its beautiful prose. Definitely worth a read.