The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

18811235Fiction – print. Vintage, 2014. 415 pgs. Purchased.

In the 1960s, two brothers born roughly fifteen months apart explore the lowlands of Calcutta with a particular fascination for the Tolly Club, a golf course established for whites only by the British during the colonization of India. Their exploratory exploits are interrupted first by a policemen tasked with enforcing the club’s exclusivity and, later, by their pursuit of higher education.

Udayan, the younger brother, went to the Presidency to study physics; Subhash, the older, went to Jadavpur to study chemical engineering. At the Presidency, Udayan is exposed with the ideas of Marx and Mao, and he joins the Naxalite movement, calling for the redistribution of lands and capital to the Indian people from both the British remaining in India and the upper classes who have seized power. Udayan tries to pull Subhash into the movement, but Subhash does not see the appeal and chooses instead to pursue a PhD in America because of the scarcity of jobs in the newly renamed city of Kolkata.

As the physical distance between the two brothers increases, the emotional distance increases as well. Subhash focuses on his work in Rhode Island and life as one of the few Indian immigrants at his university while Udayan is pulled further into the Naxalite movement. So far, in fact, that he presumes his letters to Subhash are being read for clues as to what he and the Naxalites are planning and largely stops writing to his brother, only making an exception to inform his brother that he has married a woman of his choosing rather than allowing their parents to arrange his marriage as tradition and custom dictates.

As the novel moves forward in time, Subhash is pulled back to the lowlands of Kolkata when his brother is murdered by the West Bengal police force. Horrified to learn that his parents plan to kick their daughter-in-law out after she gives birth to Udayan’s child, Subhash offers to marry Gauri, bring her to America, and raise his niece or nephew as his own child. Gauri agrees yet her own wants and desires, her own needs and grief make it difficult for her to find a place in the family formed between Subhash and her daughter, Bela, and her ultimate decision shapes how the family moves forward into the future.

Haunting and haunted. Those two words best summarize the content and feeling of Lahiri’s novel. Subhash and Gauri are haunted by the past, by the loss of Udayan and the secrets they keep from each other and from Bela to create a family out of the ashes of what was left behind. Bela, who moves from newborn to four-years-old to college to aimless twenty-something in the course of the novel, is haunted by secrets she does not know exist.

And the writing itself is haunting; a chill invoked with every word and phrase to reiterated over and over again how difficult life in exile can be. Exile in America as an immigrant. Exile in marriage as an unhappy participant. Exile in life when one is unwilling to forgive or when one crosses into the taboo (for example, a woman who does not immediately and instinctively find fulfillment with motherhood).

This is not a warm book; it will not sweep you away with descriptions or emotions. Yet the stark and, yes, haunting way that Lahiri writes builds up the emotional connection over time. The conclusion, which may have felt contrite under another author, feels natural.

The Lowland was both a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award and shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize.

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