brilliant and mesmerizing
The Lowland is ponds and paddy fields and what remains of the mangrove swamp that once covered the land before the area of Tollygunge was built on reclaimed land. Reclamation is the fundamental thread that binds the novel together. The reclaiming of one’s life when one has lost control be it through a death, dictatorial cultural conventions, marriage or being a parent.
The novel begins a few years after India’s independence from Great Britain. Tollygunge is located in the southern area of Calcutta, (now referred to as Kolkata), and is home to two brothers, Subhash and the younger by 13 months, Udayan Mitra. The brothers are very close during their childhood and both are high achievers at school and college. However, their personalities are as markedly divergent as the colours of saffron and green on their country’s flag;
“Udayan...was blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving colours. But Subhash strove to minimize his existence, as other animals merged with bark or blades of grass.”
However, their closeness is fractured due to Udayan’s politicization in the aftermath of the Naxalbari uprising in the mid-1960s. His politics are Marxist in colour and through this he makes new friends who are of a similar political hue.
Subhash continues to study and in time leaves India for the state of Rhode Island in America on a fellowship studying Oceanography. Back home in Tollygunge Udayan becomes more deeply involved in his life as a revolutionary and meets a kindred spirit in the shape of Gauri. But Udayan’s revolutionary beliefs belie the reality of his situation;
“Udayan had wanted a revolution, but at home he’d expected to be served; his only contribution to the meals was to sit and wait for Guari or her mother-in-law to put a plate before him.”
Subhash returns to India on the death of his brother and finds a pregnant Gauri living in his parent’s home but being shunned by them. Subhash makes the dramatic and drastic decision to marry his dead brother’s wife, bring the child, Bela, up as his own and return to America with his new family.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel is as large in scale and as brilliant, weighty and mesmerizing as the Koh-i-Noor diamond. Each of the novel’s 406 pages shimmer with delightful prose;
“Once more these colours seemed to have been transported across the world, appearing in the treetops that lined his path. The colours intensified over a period of weeks until the leaves began to dwindle, foliage clustered here and there among the branches, like butterflies feeding at the same source, before falling to the ground.”
It is to the author’s credit that while there is the historical story of India being played out in the novel it is kept in the background and is never forced into the foreground to interrupt the story of Udayan, Gauri and Subhash. Many novels have already used India’s independence (Salman Rushdie’s excellent, Midnight’s Children) and its partition into two states: India and Pakistan (The wonderful Partitions by Amit Majmudar) as hooks as to hang their plots on. Jhumpa Lahiri has intelligently decided to veer away from the obvious and the often ploughed field of allowing a country’s history to drive the plot to the detriment of the novel’s characters.
The characters of Udayan, Gauri and Subhash are beautifully rendered creatures. All three make choices in their lives that are at once selfless and destructive; benign and malignant. These relatable characters will have you the reader going through a gamut of emotions and in particular when Gauri makes a decision that defies all reason, logic and decency. But, we know, though for many chapters we will never admit it, her decision was not only brave but necessary. Importantly the decision was character driven and with hindsight I realised the decision Gauri made was inevitable and I had unconsciously known all along she was going to make that particular decision.
The novel takes us from the late 1940s to the first decade of the 21st century, through the history of India and America. So, using adjectives like sweeping and majestic are inevitable but I make no apology for doing so. The novel’s sweeping nature not only describes its chronological nature but also describes the flow and boundless energy that emanates from each page.
As Sabhash and Gauri grow older they predictable wonder if decisions they made were the correct ones and more importantly if those decisions were possibly less selfless but more selfish. For Subhash, who loves Bela as much as her biological father would have, the strain of wondering if his secret will become known is palpable and heartbreaking.
The Lowland is a novel that deserves the accolade of being on the 2014 shortlist of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and for this reader it would not be a surprise if it won the prize.