So Much Water Too Close to Home
In Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, brothers Subhash and Udayan are inseparable, living in Tollygunge, a tiny village outside Calcutta. Subhash is the elder by 15 months, the dutiful, obedient son. Rebellion does not occur to him naturally, as it does Udayan.
Udayan is ever prowling, exploring, leaving his mark. When a new walkway is laid, Udayan runs through it, the imprints of his bare feet permanently set in the wet concrete. Subhash steps around carefully, using the wooden boards set down by workers. These childish choices encompass everything the boys will become.
Both excel academically, attending separate universities.Their parents, a civil servant and a seamstress, are pleased. They attend carefully to their home, hoping it will soon fill will chosen brides and grandchildren.
But the unrest spreading through India captures Udayan’s restless intellect He becomes absorbed in the Naxalite movement, a Communist party growing out of the 1967 peasant uprising in Naxalbari, a distant village. The Naxalites disdain Russian Communism, adopting China as their model, Mao as their hero. Udayan’s life becomes increasingly unstable. He drifts from his parents, from Subhash, who is steadily working his way toward graduate school in the United States.
A bewildered Subhash wishes Udayan would join him in America, an idea Udayan abhors. He accuses Subhash of selfishness, only to have Subhash volley the charge back at him, adding he is placing their parents in danger. But Udayan’s beliefs are unshakable; he is naïvely idealistic as Subhash leaves to study Marine Biology in Rhode Island.
Settled in the United States, Subhash receives infrequent letters from his brother, which he is instructed to destroy. One letter informs Subhash that Udayan has married a philosophy student named Gauri. Theirs was a marriage of love, hastily performed in a comrade’s apartment. Subhash and Udayan’s parents are appalled. They barely tolerate Gauri, who has moved with Udayan into the family home.
This is the during the early ‘70s: news from India is scant. Subhash has no way of knowing the Naxalites are outlawed, becoming a guerilla organization. Subhash has no way of understanding the full extent of Udayan’s activities until he is abruptly summoned home: the police have shot his brother.
The Lowland of the title refers to the space between two ponds, just outside the home Subhash’s parents take such pride in. During monsoon season, the lowland floods. This place gave Udayan a momentary hiding spot, moments before his death. It will serve as a touchpoint throughout the book, a place of both physical and emotional return.
Subhash, who stays in Rhode Island, makes his home near the water. In adulthood Gauri will never be far from a coastline. As for Subhash and Udayan’s parents, they will live their lives in the house facing the lowland, a house devoid of sons, daughters-in-law or grandchildren.
The Lowland is constructed around the impact of absence: the hole in the world where Udayan once fit. Now his loved ones must conduct their lives around this space: his brother, parents, wife, and unborn daughter.
That Jhumpa Lahiri is an enormously gifted writer is news to nobody; her first book Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize; The Lowland is nominated for the Man Booker Prize. Lahiri’s gifts are numerous, and give hope to those of us agonizingly watching as our greatest writers age, retire, and die.
She is wonderful is the classical sense: in setting, place, detail, in limning human relationships, in perfect sentences. The urgency of her message—the bonds of love, of family, of devotion—do not permit the intrusion of mechanical devices, juvenile wordplay (i.e., her novels contain no characters named Jhumpa Lahiri). There are no apps. No websites impinge on the narrative. There is simply the writing, stripped to its necessary action, showing us how we love one another, how we do harm. How we forgive, but do not forget.
The Lowland is written in third person, shifting the narrative. Subhash is the fixed point, the novel returning to him, his nature stolid and responsible throughout. Around him we hear the voices of Gauri, of her daughter, Bela, of Subhash and Udayan’s mother, Bijoli. From the childish Bela to the aging Bijoli Subhash and Udayan are illumined, and between them, Gauri.
Subhash meets his pregnant sister-in-law when Udayan is killed. Gauri is only 23 years old, already a widow, denied fish or meat, wearing the widow’s white sari, ignored by his parents. Appalled, Subhash proposes marriage, offering her the only escape he can imagine. He will take her to America, where Naxalites are unheard of. Gauri will be his wife, the unborn child his. Nobody will ask questions.
Gauri, trapped, accepts. Readers will want to dislike her, for she is an indifferent mother, incapable of loving daughter Bela. Her gratitude toward Subhash turns to resentment, even as it is threaded with guilt. The love she hoped would arrive for Bela and Subhash fails to appear. Instead, Gauri retreats into philosophy, rapidly distinguishing herself. She withdraws almost wholly into classes and her study. When Subhash takes Bela to India, the pair return to an empty house.
Like his relationship with Udayan, Subhash makes no claim on Gauri. He is enraged by her behavior, for he loves Bela as he loves no other. The truth of her parentage is a weight he carries, knowing he must somehow tell her, even as she grows into adulthood and a lifestyle he doesn’t understand. Yet he will always accept her unquestioningly: in the most important ways, Bela is his daughter.
Bela unwittingly becomes much like Udayan, an activist motivated by a deep need to educate and help others. Unlike her father, she is not a blind optimist in sway to ideology or speeches. Formal education does not interest her. Witnessing Gauri and Subhash’s hollow marriage has taught her to avoid commitment. Her abiding relationship is to the earth itself.
Gauri is perhaps The Lowland’s most complex character, a flatly unemotional woman whose secretive nature leaves her loneliest of all. Of all the lives Udayan touched, it was Gauri’s he damaged most. Love for Udayan led Gauri to break from conventional expectations; then he died young and she suffered for it.
Lahiri has always written about Indians negotiating America. The contrasts are less jarring here than in previous works. Unaccustomed Earth in particular comes to mind, with its chill winters and discussions of preparing proper Indian food for an American spouse who won’t know the difference.
Yet none of The Lowland’s characters assimilate fully. Even if Gauri cuts her long hair and discards her saris, she still drinks tea at night, not wine, and travels with an Indian shawl for warmth. Through the long years alone, Subhash has learned to cook for himself, but even after decades Stateside, he makes Indian food, dhaals and rice. American-born Bela knows some Bengali. She wears her hair long and braided.
Yet The Lowland is different in that the isolation comes not from American culture, but from within. Subhash, Gauri, and Bela are equally displaced in Calcutta and Tollygunge, where everyone knows of Udayan and his fate. In America there is spaciousness and a blank anonymity allowing a certain mental clarity. Americans know nothing of Naxalites, guerilla actions, police roundups, shootings. In the vast space of America, Gauri and Subhash can inhabit separate edges of the continent and allow the past to quietly go dark.
The Lowland is more than an examination of misguided youthful idealism: it is an examination of what happens once youth has passed, when pitiless hindsight sets in. When one is alone, ageing, with nothing but time to revisit a brief moment in youth when one was certain in acting on the worst wrongs. When the present moment, with its Technicolor hindsight and delayed wisdom, offers nothing.
Yet all is not completely hopeless; there is still room for love, for hope, even in the smallest fraction. Without it, The Lowland would be nearly unbearable, as Unaccustomed Earth is: a book you cannot stop reading, even as you know the end will leave you reeling. The Lowland’s conclusion is almost as difficult, the hope a small bubble of fresh air as the water closes inexorably over the reader’s head.