Story by Taylor Weik.
It’s in the very first chapter that the title is mentioned. Near a country club built for the wealthy British in the locality of Tollygunge, India, there dwell two ponds side by side, separated by a lowland. Sometimes, when monsoons strike, the ponds rise in level so that they appear as one body.
In just a few short paragraphs, Jhumpa Lahiri uses her sharp observations of the plains of India to lay out her plot and describe the relationship between two of her characters, even before she’s introduced them.
In her long-awaited second novel, Lahiri — winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories — decides to take a more political route without straying from her signature lyrical style. Like her other works, The Lowland is a family saga that starts with the perspective of one and then jumps from family member to family member as they live out their lives.
The story focuses on two brothers, Subhash and Udayan Mitra, who grow up in 1960s Calcutta during the Communist Movement that has found its way to West Bengal. Though the brothers are exceptionally close and are often seen by their own parents as one person, the impulsive Udayan gets swept up in the Naxalite cause, a militant Maoist group, while the more reserved Subhash buries himself in his studies and leaves India for the quiet countryside of Rhode Island. However, it is Subhash who must later return to India to pick up the fragments of devastation that Udayan has left in his wake, actions that have altered his family in inexplicable ways.
The eight-part, 340-page novel is not as light as Lahiri’s other works. Not only does it dive straight into the complexities of each character — of how Subhash, Udayan’s wife Gauri and their mother each react to Udayan’s death, all while documenting the life of Udayan and Gauri’s daughter from the moment of her birth — but it also attempts to squeeze in decades worth of historical information regarding the Maoist movement in India. It’s a lot to take in when reading, especially when the point of view can change in an instant from Subhash’s ignorance of the violence in India to Gauri’s ultimate knowledge as Udayan’s confidant.
Though Lahiri sets the book in a little-known time in history, she still manages to make her characters relatable. Gauri, who is arguably the most controversial character in the book, fails to be a strong, inspirational widow after her husband’s death and thus illustrates that not everyone comes out of a tragedy in good health.
“That’s the enormous power of literature, that you can write out of such a specific place, and yet it’s really about entering into other peoples’ consciousness,” Lahiri explained in an interview with The New Yorker. “We’re less divided than we think we are. In the end, the stories become universal.”
Though the first half is packed with political commentary, the second half of The Lowland is where Lahiri’s incredible attention to the details of her characters’ lives comes in, and it’s where the reader can fully immerse herself in the fluid storytelling Lahiri is known for. The novel is a departure from Lahiri’s other works, to be sure, but it’s still one that continues to explore not just Indian American life but the human experience itself. Details Hardcover, $27.95, randomhouse.com.
This story was originally published in out Winter 2013-14 issue. Get your copy here.