The Lowlands

Jhumpa Lahiri has created a sweeping, devastating novel, beautiful and resonant and quietly tragic.  Subhash and Udayan are brothers, not twins, but born so close together that the elder has no memory of life before the younger.  Growing, playing, schooling, studying together, their lives begin in the suburban streets of Calcutta in the 1940s.  The lowland, the seasonal hyacinth-strewn ponds they wander through is at the centre of this space, a place they keep returning to.  But life, and this novel, becomes bigger than this world.  Udayan’s growing attachment to India’s Naxalite movement, his inability to ignore the searing injustice in his country, changes the fate of those closest to him.  

When working through the Man Booker 2013 longlist, the review of The Lowland I read was very positive, but noted that Lahiri’s collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, was even better: a stronger, fuller work.  Instead of buying The Lowland, I bought her earlier collection instead and was totally captured by it.  It was a sensational assemblage of moments, perfectly articulated, achingly short.  After lendingThe Interpreter of Maladies to a friend, she went and bought The Lowland, loved it, and leant it to me.  I like how these informal friendship lending libraries work, because despite how much I loved The Interpreter of Maladies, I wasn’t sure if Lahiri could pull of that same distillation of feeling in a novel form.  But she can.  There are shattering moments, heartbreakingly clear and sharp; a story told through an almost brutally honest approach to extracting and capturing emotion.  

This book is a haunting nod to the cruel inevitable relentlessness of time and change.  A small, quiet, everyday tragedy.  The eponymous lowlands of the boys’ world is returned to again and again as the novel crosses continents and decades.  There is no declared theme or push to the story, but the quiet repetition of the lowlands’ presence marks its significance to the characters’ lives and the story.  It becomes an accidental centrepiece to their lives.  

I was already familiar with the Indian Naxilite movement in the mid-Twentieth Century after reading Neel Mukherjee’s 2014 Man Booker Shortlisted The Lives of Others.  While that book completely disappointed me in terms of storytelling, I did learn about a part of history previously unknown to me.  The riots; the multiple, conflicting Communist parties; the unrest in the country’s leadership; the generational disputes: parents having achieved independence from the British, their children now fighting for more; the international inspiration and influence, particularly from China; the avoidable, tragic peasant deaths from starvation, and later from fighting back; the blindingly infuriating corruption within the powerful elite.  This is not what The Lowlands is about, but it helped me to have an understanding about how important and significant this political struggle is, because it is in the background, a guiding influence on our characters’ lives ever since Udayan’s political awakening in college.  

But even if I didn’t have this knowledge, there are basics in storytelling that Lahiri has mastered that make this such a quietly desolate, compelling novel.  It’s hard to articulate: the narrative push is not immediately apparent, the bald plot summary simply that of one family’s life: birth, death, change.  But the lives they live, and the soft, unavoidable insight Lahiri shares into their psyche makes this a beautiful, lingering story.  She selectively gives us third person omnipotent perspectives, switching between just a few characters chapter to chapter.  This is oddly effective; not distancing at all, and in fact ends up disarming you: some actions  are reprehensible, but having spent such intimate time with a character I found myself conflicted, unable to judge either way.  Their lives are vividly drawn, lucidly realised.  She is a clear, empathetic writer, patient in unspooling the complexity of life, drawn on a backdrop of huge political change.    

Lahiri has effortlessly created a beautiful story from seemingly unremarkable lives living in historic times.  Subhash and Udayan are the relationship that drives the book, a bond that will never be lost, their lives expanding but always returning back to the lowlands.  It is how Lahiri tells this story – disarmingly, beautifully – that makes their tale indelible to me, still full of the colour they experienced.  The Lowlands is a wonderful book, Lahiri is an incredible writer.  

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