Ace author Jhumpa Lahiri’s new book the Lowland is magical and disturbing in equal measure finds out Dhanya Nair
It really must be very difficult to be Jhumpa Lahiri. Even before last week’s announcement that her latest novel The Lowland has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; the novel set my expectations sky high. Here’s why: her first book, a collection of short stories Interpreter of Maladies (1999) won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the following year, her second book, a novel this time— The Namesake—was made into a film by Mira Nair whilst her third book (short stories) Unaccustomed Earth performed the rare feat for a short story collection of going straight to #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. With her fourth book Lahiri makes sure the accolades are well deserved even though the book leaves you with a resigned bleakness.
As a story-teller, Lahiri is exquisite and I feel she is the only writer who brings justice to a popular globalised theme: about those who are uprooted geographically and struggle to retain their sense of self whilst forging new identities. Caught between the two worlds; the emotional cost her characters pay is something I can relate to yet it burdens me heavily.
The Lowland begins in Calcutta in the early 1960s where two brothers—Subhash and Udayan—are brought up as twins even though Udayan is 15 months junior to Subhash. The brothers are a study in contrast. Whilst Subhash is the obedient and cautious one Udayan is compulsive, rebellious and yet the parents’ favourite. Growing up they are inseparables and discover the world in their home in Tollygunge together.
The time is mid-’60s, when the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorises America to bomb North Vietnam, when auteur director Satyajit Ray’s Charulata is released in Calcutta and when the Communist Party of India is split. Then, in 1967, the brothers hear about a Maoist style movement taking place in Naxalbari as well as about the heroes of the movement– Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal. This is where the separation between the two begins.
Subhash, perhaps sensing the danger leaves Calcutta to pursue his oceanographic studies in Rhode Island while Udayan entrenches himself in militant politics. Udayan pays for his idealism with his life leaving behind not just ageing parents but a pregnant wife too—Gauri—the second pivotal character. Subhash marries Gauri hoping to tide the turn for her by bringing some normalcy back to their lives. But alas if only! Death, violence and betrayal is told with restraint in a second-hand manner yet what evokes you is the minutiae of relationships – between brothers, between an unhappy husband and wife, and between parents and children.
Despite their flaws, Lahiri gives each character unflinching dignity whether it is Udayan who swaps exam papers for the gun for a lost cause or Subhash who is portrayed as the weak one only to emerge as a bigger hero, Gauri who is incapable of love and Bela, their daughter who despite everything manages to retain her warmth and love. Lahiri states writers like Thomas Hardy, (Irish) William Trevor and (Canadian) Mavis Gallant as her inspirations and the Spartan elegance of the Lowland is quite a testimony.
The Lowland invokes a magical story out of human relationships and the subsequent tension but the melancholy which accompanies it refuses to leave you in a hurry.
The Lowland is available on Bloomsbury.
SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2013