The Lowland

Jhumpa Lahiri

When I saw this book was coming out last year, I assumed I’d missed a book from Lahiri since her short story collection Unaccustomed Earth that came out in 2008. But this is the first book of hers to be published since then; the meticulousness of it suggests that time was spent finely honing.

The word that repeatedly comes to mind when I think of how to describe this story is quiet. So much of it is comprised of the silence and distance between characters, shaded by the loneliness they cling to out of pride and regret. The Lowland starts as a story about two brothers who are very close but are also a bit competitive. Or at least the older brother Subhash feels that Udayan is always edging him out by being stronger or braver, despite Subhash’s modest advantage in age. So Subhash leaves to pursue a PhD in Rhode Island while Udayan gets more involved in radical politics, and Subhash feels that he has for once taken the lead by leaving India and pursuing a higher degree. Yet then Udayan surprises him by sending a letter with a picture of a girl named Gauri who he plans to marry. Though Udayan had been critical for his brother’s lack of political conviction, he ceases writing about his activities, and Subhash hopes that marriage has settled his anger and refocused his attention. But unfortunately Udayan was only omitting some parts of the truth out of a concern for security, and he is killed by the police due to his involvement in the Naxalite movement, a Communist party growing out of a 1967 peasant uprising. Lahiri weaves these historical details in a way that becomes inextricable from Udayan and Guari’s relationship.

When Subhash returns to India for his brother’s funeral, he meets Gauri for the first time and finds out that she is pregnant. Seeing the way his parents treat her, he offers to marry her, to provide a way out of their house and the lack of freedom it promises. He hopes that one day they could love each other and become a true family, but true to his mother’s prediction, this proves impossible. Gauri struggles even to care for the daughter Bela they raise together. She returns to school to continue studies in philosophy, and her scholarly work consumes her to a point of neglect to everything else. Eventually she leaves, and the crux of the book becomes this abrupt separation.

The relationship between Subhash and Bela is the warm heart of the book. Even though they have their moments of distance as well, they find a solidity together. In comparison the struggle between Bela and Gauri is the most heart-breaking. Though the book manages to somewhat explain Gauri’s coldness, it stops short of establishing a finality that could be described as forgiveness, though there is hope that this could happen beyond the end of the novel.

It’s such an elegant novel that might pick up too much of Gauri’s aloofness at times, but Lahiri’s sense of location and pacing are elegantly precise. I found myself going to this book at nearly every available moment until I finished it, and the atmosphere hovered for several days.