A Haunting Tale of Love, Loss and Desires (Book Review: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri)

Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel The Lowland necessitates no introduction.

A sweeping saga of love and loss, tragedy and disillusionment, exile and return intertwined with the political milieu of 1960s Calcutta, The Lowland chronicles the trajectory of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, so similar and yet so different.

Spanning four generations and geographies, deeply personal and political, the book is suffused with a deep sense of sorrow and betrayal that continues to haunt its readers for a long time.

Udayan and Subhash – Mirror Images or Polarized versions

Inseparable as brothers in their childhood, often mistaken as mirror images of one another, the brothers are also opposites. Placid, cautious, always staying out of trouble, Subhash never surprises or impresses his parents much less anyone else. Contrasted against him is Udayan, audacious, impulsive, known for his transgressions, he is “disappearing: even in their two-room house”. Bound to travel opposite roads, coming to age in the 1960s Calcutta, witnessing the birth of the Naxalite movement, Subhash moves to Rhode Island, America to pursue a life of scientific research while Udayan, drawn by the politics of Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal, chooses the path of Naxalbari, envisioning the formation of a just society. Unfolding against their lives is a story of Gauri, married to Udayan, widowed within two years of marriage, pregnant with the child of Udayan, she remarries and travels to America with Subhash to escape from her own past.

Symbolizing loss of innocence, Udayan’s death is a turning point that compels the readers to reexamine the transmogrification of the Naxalite movement from Mao-inspired revolution to hollow slogan chanting and mindless violence. Switching between past and present, the book unfolds the narrative where future is foreshadowed by the past, where almost every character is circumscribed in time by tragedy of Udayan’s death. Unable to replace Udayan with Subhash, Subhash’s parents pushes him away. “The moment he returned to them after Udayan’s death, the moment he stood before them, she’d felt only rage. Rage at Subhash for reminding her so strongly of Udayan, for sounding like him, for remaining a spare version of him.” Forsaken by his parents, he is condemned to a permanent exile where “…there seemed to be nowhere for the old to reside. There was nothing to link them; he was the sole link. Here life ceased to obstruct or assault him.”

Gauri – the tormentor or tormented

Exiled with Subhash to this foreign land is Gauri who, conjoined to her homeland by no ties other than her brother and memories of her dead husband, Udayan. Tormented by guilt, haunted by past, betrayed by none other than Udayan, she is adamant in her refusal to come back till the very end. “She’d wanted to leave Tollygunge. To forget everything her life had been. And he had handed her the possibility.” Trying to hold on to Udayan by marrying Subhash “…she knew that it was useless, just as it was useless to save a single earring when the other half of the pair was lost.’ Frozen in time, ‘the future haunted but kept her alive; it remained her sustenance and also her predator…Even now, part of Gauri continued to expect some news from Udayan. For him to acknowledge Bela, and the family they might have been. At the very least to acknowledge that their lives, aware of him, unaware of him, had gone on.”

Unfolding around this family saga of love and loss is the relationship of Subhash and Bela that forms the center of the book. Not able to love Subhash despite her gratitude for him, Gauri tries to love Bela but “…it was not turning up; after five years, in spite of all the time, all the hours she and Bela spent together, the love she’d once felt for Udayan refused to reconstitute itself…She was failing at something every other woman on earth did without trying. That should not have proved a struggle.” Embittered by her growing anger, taking refuge in her dissertation; overwhelmed by her failure to be a mother, she abandons Subhash and Bela. In the backdrop of being an unaffectionate, non-caring mother, everything else about Gauri fades away.

Why Gauri is debunked?

Begun as a promising character, Gauri is reduced to the stereotype of an egocentric and self-centered woman, who unlike other mothers’ considers spending time with Bela as a waste.

Dedicated to her intellectual pursuits, she is debunked as a bad woman who is remembered only for lack of her motherly instincts throughout the book. Hated by her daughter, Bela’s spite towards Gauri is almost like a vindication of readers’ abhorrence of her, “Nothing will ever excuse it…You’re not my mother. You are nothing…You’re as dead to me as he is.’ Coming full circle, Gauri returns to Calcutta (Kolkata now) to face the demons of her past, ‘She was the sole accuser, the sole guardian of her guilt. Protected by Udayan, overlooked by the investigator, taken away by Subhash. Sentenced in the very act of being forgotten, punished by means of her release…Standing there, unable to find him, she felt a new solidarity with him. The bond of not existing.”

Bela – a ghost like her father

Forged in Udayan’s image, Bela is like her father. As idealistic as her father, passionate about creating a better world, “she could be self-righteous, as Udayan had been.” Living a life of nomad, “Like Udayan, Bela is nowhere. Her name in the search engine leads to nothing. No university, no company, no social media site yields any information. Gauri finds no image, no trace of her.” Pervading Subhash’s thoughts, Udayan’s remains a constant presence throughout, “…Udayan would come back, claiming his place, claiming Bela from the grave as his own.”

Ending with Udayan’s voice, the author examines the waning of the Naxalite movement, the hollow ideals, the growing disillusionment. Udayan, a foot soldier of the movement, marked by blood on his hands is no hero, ‘He knew he was no hero to her. He had lied to her and used her….For she looked at him as she’d never looked before. It was a look of disillusion. A revision of everything they’d once shared.’

Introspective, vast in its scope of personal and political, yet the ending falls short of the novel’s initial promise. Despite the masterful narrative and powerful evocation of geography and character’s emotions, there are gaps, unanswered questions which leave something to be desired of.

Title: The Lowland

Author: Jhumpa Lahiri

Publisher: Random House India

Pages: 352

Genre: Indian Fiction/ Expatriate

Rating: 4/5

Buy it from: Amazon Flipkart

About the Author

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London and brought up in South Kingstown, Rhode Island. Brought up in America by a mother who wanted to raise her children to be Indian, she learned about her Bengali heritage from an early age.

Lahiri graduated from South Kingstown High School and later received her B.A. in English literature from Barnard College in 1989. She then received multiple degrees from Boston University: an M.A. in English, an M.A. in Creative Writing, an M.A. in Comparative Literature and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies. She took up a fellowship at Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center, which lasted for the next two years (1997-1998).

In 2001, she married Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, a journalist who was then Deputy Editor of TIME Latin America. Lahiri currently lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. She has been a Vice President of the PEN American Center since 2005. Lahiri taught creative writing at Boston University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Much of her short fiction concerns the lives of Indian-Americans, particularly Bengalis. (Courtesy: Goodreads)

To quote Jhumpa Lahiri

“That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.”

“You are still young, free.. Do yourself a favor. Before it’s too late, without thinking too much about it first, pack a pillow and a blanket and see as much of the world as you can. You will not regret it. One day it will be too late.”

“Isolation offered its own form of companionship: the reliable silence of her rooms, the steadfast tranquility of the evenings. The promise that she would find things where she put them, that there would be no interruption, no surprise. It greeted her at the end of each day and lay still with her at night.”

“Somehow, bad news, however ridden with static, however filled with echoes, always manages to be conveyed.”

“You remind me of everything that followed.”

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5 thoughts on “A Haunting Tale of Love, Loss and Desires (Book Review: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri)

  1. This is a solemn book. And I agree with your conclusion. Gauri’s action, though extreme, are never properly addressed. True to many reviews stating that Gauri is an unrelatable character, I couldnt fathom her leaving her daughter. However, I loved the development of the story of the two brothers. The trajectory of their relationship was well addressed. (Johanna)

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    • The author never developed Gauri completely. Starting as a promising character, she ends up being demonized without any reason. I think, Lahiri sacrificed Gauri to build Subhash and Bela’s relationship

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  2. Pingback: Book Reviews Archive | My Writing Den

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