It takes only one incident to change the destinies of many. Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel since The Namesake, The Lowland, is a striking reflection of this sad reality. It is sad because the novel at its core disturbs our own peace, makes us want to reach out to a relevant past, help change an action, set fresh wheels in motion and reclaim what is lost in not one, but many lives.
Set in post-colonial India in a middle-class Bengali household in Tollygunge in then Calcutta, the novel sheds light on the Naxalite movement — a peasant revolution — that emerged in the Naxalbari district of West Bengal in the mid 60s, and spread like wildfire among the urban youth. In the process, it also becomes a revelation on how the revolution dismantled a family and dissolved many a hope.
Subhash and Udayan Mitra, brothers born only 15 months apart, were inseparable as children. As kids, Udayan’s daring and fearlessness drew Subhash in; despite being the older of the two siblings, he not only became a participant in Udayan’s daredevilry, trespassing into Tolly Club and stealing golf balls, but also often acquiesced to his ways, joining school a year later to assuage a stubborn Udayan, who “protested at the notion of Subhash going without him”.
Having done exceptionally well in high school, the two brothers for the first time, part ways joining different colleges on either side of the city. In their separation, though brief, they unknowingly etch out different paths for themselves. Udayan, who by then is gravely affected by the government’s apathy toward the peasant cause, hopes like always, to excite Subhash’s interest. And like always, Subhash, who is both amused and fascinated by Udayan’s passion, also tries to reach out, only this time unsuccessfully.
Their distance grows wider when Subhash secures a fellowship to pursue a PhD in oceanography at a university in Rhode Island. Continents apart, it appears that their separation is sealed, with only letters written sparingly by Udayan, initially glorifying the movement and Mao Tse-tung’s ideals, and later about his elopement with a young, voracious reader Gauri and life back with their parents, who are unaccommodating to his new bride.
Nothing draws him to Tollygunge for a while. Nothing, but a telegram from home: “Udayan killed. Come back if you can.”
He returns to find his family ruined. His grieving parents won’t talk; Udayan’s wife Gauri, a ghost, carrying her past in her womb, is now an object his parents are willing to wash their hands off. Upset by the developments, and at the same time, seemingly attracted to Gauri, Subhash makes her a proposition of marriage and offers to take her to Rhode Island, to save her the ignominy of his parents and rid her off her haunting past. Gauri, who finds it hard to distinguish Subhash’s voice from her now-dead husband, hesitantly accepts his offer.
From here, the narrative takes a turn, which one wished could have been dreamy, and just like Subhash believed, a hope for a better future for his brother’s wife, the child she carries, and for him too. But Lahiri, who at her best is the master of the unpredictable, weaves a poignant tale, in which her characters’ melancholy-driven impulsiveness continues to drive her story.
Gauri gives birth to Bela, but in her she sees Udayan, her own failure at preventing him from being involved in the movement, the blood that is still fresh on her hands and the reason for all her sadness. Subhash, who in Bela, sees the cause of all his joy, hopes to one day secure her mother’s love. His only fear is that his daughter will someday know that she is not his. Back home his parents rot; their grief compounded by their second son marrying the same woman they could never accept. In doing so, they are denied happiness, twice.
The story moves, but moves with so much sadness that it makes you feel heavy from within. The characters alter between living in the past and dealing with the present. In the end, happiness is retrieved, but grudgingly.
Lahiri’s work took me back to another powerful writer Mahashweta Devi’s play Mother of 1084. While it may appear to be a socio-political commentary, at its heart it is very emotional; there are no judgments being made about the movement, there is just gloom; it is a reflection of lives altered with an action, for some considered ennobling, for some unpardonable, but for a few, a tragedy that unveils itself differently with every passing day.
As a diasporic Indian writer, Lahiri’s work becomes an important critique on grief that can never be escaped, even continents away. You take it along with you, weave a life around it, in the quest of happiness.
What is most interesting is that Lahiri gives everyone a chance to tell you their story, not with the intention to justify their actions, but to convey what needs to be heard. Her narrative once linear, slowly and craftily shifts, between the past and present. Her intelligent craftsmanship does not disappoint, when in the end, she transmits to her reader the voice that you have most waited and wanted to hear. The Lowland, like most of Lahiri’s works, is worth many reads, mostly for the strong-hearted and the politically-charged.