The Naxalite movement in Bengal is an almost forgotten piece of history that sometimes creeps into movies like Iti Mrinalini and Bhooter Bhabishyat. That spontaneous outpouring of idealistic revolution has been swept away by the Maoist incursions, and Maoists and Naxalites these days have become interchangeable. Jhumpa Lahiri chooses to revisit the original Spring Thunder of the ’60s through meticulous research in her tale of two brilliant brothers—Udayan, the engineer, who becomes a Naxalite, and Subhash, who goes to America to study and ends up in Providence, contemplating the severe lines of narrow churches.
According to Lahiri, her favourite writers are Chekhov and Tolstoy, thus spanning narrow and broad canvases in one fell swoop. And this is an accurate description of what she does in The Lowland, travelling to and fro between the sprawl of Calcutta’s political turmoil and the quiet world of Rhode Island, California, and American academia. However, she restricts the book’s Calcutta to the fringes of the Tollygunge Club—across its compound wall to be precise—and to a marshland covered with water hyacinths and delves into garbage heaps, a house with a courtyard and the lives of two brothers who were close but are then divided by places and choices.
One chief driver of the plot comes when Udayan dies, leaving behind a pregnant wife, Gauri, and resentful parents. Subhash is summoned home and tries to pick up the pieces by marrying Gauri, though no one tells him how Udayan died. And then Lahiri’s canvas narrows to Chekhovian dimensions as we study the changing seasons of Rhode Island and the dynamics between Gauri, a student of philosophy, and Subhash, who is trying his best to make his brother’s wife feel at home.
Lahiri has down pat the gift of minimalist description—she can capture the US vividly in a few words. Calcutta and political violence, however, force her to be wordier than usual, and this has the effect of detaching the reader, as if the events were seen through an eggshell-fine filter. The world of the Alipore Jail break, disappearances in the night, Mahasweta Devi and Hazaar Chaurasir Ma is, for the most part, absent.
The world of the Alipore Jail break, disappearances in the night, and Hazaar Chaurasir Ma is, for the most part, absent.
From risky activism, the novel then becomes a balancing act of sorts, where one generation cannot escape from the effects of the past and another is affected unknowingly and forced to take flight with the usual ‘backpack no home anywhere’ kind of expectedness. “The presence of another generation within her was forcing a new beginning, and also demanding an end.”
Despite the novel being about Udayan and Subhash, it’s ultimately about Gauri, a woman who finds herself unable to come to terms with her first husband’s death, or to forgive her second for his kindness, estranged from the world around her. All the philosophy that she studies, the saris she throws away in an echo of many of Lahiri’s other migrant women, cannot help her forget the guilty secret she hides.
Lahiri is not judgemental—she sketches out her characters with no comments on their behaviour, though one senses that she probably prefers Gauri to the dutiful Subhash. Both are seen through Lahiri’s glass in terms of their daily lives, their activities, the books they read. In a telling moment, Subhash listens to Gauri in the bathroom while he eats breakfast. Ants are scuttling away with the crumbs on the table, but Subhash is distracted, listening to the sounds from the bathroom: “He held his body still as the stream of her urine fell.” Their lives flow on with seemingly no hope of redemption.
Secrets make strangers of them all and haunt them throughout their lives, adding another level to the strangeness of migration. It is not until Subhash and Gauri are well into their fifties—the traditional age of wisdom—that they are able to look at their past and try to come to terms with it. And even then, that sense of disconnect from Lahiri’s pared language minimises the dramatic revelation at the end of the book.
There are also parts of The Lowlands which seem unfair to Lahiri’s measured craft—Subhash’s mother for example, who contributes very little to the scales, or certain details of Gauri’s separated life. In the end, minimalism and balance are not enough; the book demands greater tautness and greater immediacy.