The Lowland: A Review


Flawed, yet impressive

“Udayan had given his life to a movement that had been misguided, that had caused only damage that had already been dismantled. The only thing he had altered was what their family had been.”

Penned by the acclaimed author, Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland is a story of two brothers, Udayan and Subhash Mitra who come of age during the 1950s-60s in Calcutta. Both are affected by the naxalbhari movement at that time. Their paths diverge as the elder, and the more restrained and cautious of the two, Subhash flies to The Unites States of America for further education, and Udayan the younger and the rebellious of the two, stays behind in Calcutta and involves himself in the Naxalite uprising in the late 1960s. The rest of the novel is based on the consequences of their respective decisions.

The book shortlisted for the coveted Man Booker Prize 2013 involves multiple themes. The most glaring being the theme of violence, both literal and emotional, which is often woven within families and relationships.

Then there is the theme of family and parenthood; how it is to bring up a child. The book also deals with the impact of history and its repercussions on a family. It’s a book about love, about loss, about distance and separation, and about loyalty and betrayal.

The novel’s trajectory expanses close to six decades. It begins, during the post partition era, early 1950s, up till the modern day. Udayan is a Maoist and, his involvement with the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) and his eventual death, fairly early in the novel, is the turning point of the story. The incident leaves a lasting effect on his immediate family, particularly his pregnant young wife Gauri who witnesses the staged “encounter” and never really overcomes from the experience, and his elder brother Subhash, who marries Gauri taking pity on her and to fill his own loneliness. Both are in a way haunted by Udayan’s ghost throughout their lives and through the course of the novel. The trajectory of their lives is determined by his brutal killing in the “lowland” facing their ancestral home in Calcutta.

Lahiri, with her tremendous insight lets the situations be real and raw. Both Gauri and Subhash are complex and nuanced characters although a little emotionally detached with shades of dark and light. Their actions, no matter how well intentioned, modern or traditional keep hurting one another through the narrative. Both are caught in a web of their own making and the more they try to free themselves, the more it ensnares them.

This is especially true for Gauri, the most intriguing and the most vivid character I found in the book. Gauri was first married to Udayan, whom she deeply loved and then was compelled to marry his ever sensitive older brother Subhash to escape her cold hearted (towards her) in–laws and the violent atmosphere of Calcutta and moves to Rhode Island in America with him.

She was a woman born ahead of her times, unsuitable both by temperament and intellect to the conventions demanded by her culture i.e. being a good wife, a good mother, and a good daughter in-law. She was none of it. She abandons Subhash and Bela, her daughter by Udayan whom Subhash brings up like his own beloved child, and pursues her scholarly ambitions in California. Lahiri’s insight into her inner conflict of choosing her intellectual life over the demands of wifehood and motherhood is liberal and beautifully rendered. Although I understand her intellectual ambition, but her decision to abandon Bela, her sole link to Udayan, whom she loves and misses passionately is a bit baffling and incredulous, emotionally speaking.

Thus, the novel falters in characterisation, the extremely loving and caring Subhash, who tries to heal the wounds left by Udayan including those seared in Gauri’s heart, and brings up their daughter as his own single-handedly is portrayed without much warmth. Also, the revolutionary exuberance of Udayan is hardly perceivable. But, having said that, it does not take much away from the impact the book has on its readers.

All in all, The Lowland is worth a read. It offers an interesting insight into the minds of a dysfunctional family and chaotic emotions of people during the Naxalite movement. A movement that transformed a normal, middle class, Bengali family for generations to come.

Sukriti Mathur

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