I first met two of the main characters in this novel, Subhash and Udayan Mitra, almost three years ago, when the first chapter of The Lowland was featured in the 2013 Summer Reading issue of The New Yorker. As teenagers just fifteen months apart, the two brothers got caught trespassing at the Tolly Golf Club near Calcutta. Virtually inseparable, the two were as radically different as my twin granddaughters. I had already read all the other books Lahiri has written. Why hadn’t I just gone ahead and read this book then? A recent prompt was watching the classic movie, Ghandi, and learning more about the Indian independence movement. That three-hour movie set the stage for deep engagement in this wide-ranging and deeply probing book.
Jhumpa Lahiri imbeds big themes–Time, Place, Emigration, Isolation–in her flowing prose.
At four, Bela was developing a memory. The word “yesterday” entered her vocabulary, though its meaning was elastic, synonymous with whatever was no longer the case. The past collapsed, in no particular order, contained by a single word.
I remember my granddaughter Violet using “yesterday” that way when she was four, just as I remember Lilli and Courtney at age four, trying to refer to a past event. That sense of time made me wonder about my history-major habit of constantly arranging world and family events in chronological order. Why not just sing the Beatles’ song and call everything that happened “yesterday”?
This novel sails back and forth over seventy years, from the 1940s with Bela’s grandparents through the present, when Bela is living with her own daughter Meghna. It covers thousands of miles, too, from densely-populated Tollygunge, India, to a small college town in Rhode Island. Lahiri, who knows both places well, reveals unexpected contrasts between them. Neither dwelling place had a view of the sea, but both are at sea level and marshy. Lahiri paints Tollygunge in brilliant florals; Rhode Island, in muted pastels. The crux of the story is what happened in the lowland behind the Mitras’ house in India, an event which strongly affects each character: a lowland has high impact.
Lahiri was born in London to a Bengali family and immigrated to the US at age two. Her depiction of Subhash as a graduate student far from home seems right–lonely, but studious; perplexed, but grateful for the opportunity to achieve. Though he mourns the loss of his brother, he perseveres to complete his doctorate. He is the steady one, compared with the impetuous Udayan. In the last chapter of the book we find Subhash serene and content in Ireland, of all places, another boggy lowland.
Gauri is an astonishing character. A loner gifted with intellectual prowess, she first marries Udayan, then Subhash, who raises his brother’s child as his own. Isolation is her main mode. After she and Subhash attend a party with other Indian couples in Rhode Island, she disdains further contact.
Should we invite a few of them to our place, sometime? They might be helpful, after the baby comes.
I don’t need their advice. I don’t want to spend my time with them. I have nothing in common with them.
I can’t imagine myself or either of my daughters having such a negative reaction to a prospective mothers’ group. Rather than devoting herself to her daughter Bela, Gauri concentrates her energy on the study of philosophy and earns a PhD. Her abrupt departure to become a professor in California leaves a wake of suffering in Rhode Island. Only much later does she return there to face Bela’s bitter resentment.
As the novel cycles back in time and place, Gauri at last returns to the lowland where she and Udayan lived. We find that she, too, had a role in the Naxalite party’s activities that resulted in Udayan’s death and the scarring of the entire family. She has suppressed her own guilt for forty years and sought no redemption. This book has made me ponder how we use time, how place affects outlook, and how blessed I am to be connected my own dear family and circles of friends.