Whether it was her Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection Interpreter of Maladies (1999); her first novel, The Namesake (2003), which lent itself to a film adaptation; or her second short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth (2008), she describes with aplomb the joys and hurdles of Bengalis relocating, adapting and living in a different continent (USA)In her latest literary oeuvre, The Lowland (longlisted for Man Booker Prize 2013), Lahiri extends her scope and delves deeper into West Bengal’s history. The Naxalbari uprising (1960s - 70s) is her focus; a movement that was aimed at redistributing land to the landless and formed a significant part of the state’s history. Every Bengali family has anecdotes of that time, which was marked by civil unrest, shutting down of schools, attacks on police with crude weapons and of activists going underground; many of them were students from elite schools across Calcutta.
In The Lowland, Lahiri uses the movement as a central force catapulting the protagonists (brothers Subhash and Udayan Mitra, and Gauri, the enigmatic woman, whom they marry at different points of time, and the child Bela, who finds herself with two fathers) into each other’s paths. In the book, Lahiri manages to recreate the turbulent Naxal uprising as the reader crisscrosses time zones (past and present) and continents (from Bengal to Rhode Island).
The plot kicks off from the bylanes of Calcutta where two brothers are inseparable until life leads them on different paths. While Udayan becomes part of the Naxalite movement (real-life Naxal leaders such as Kanu Sanyal and Charu Majumdar also feature in the book), his brother Subhash heads to Rhode Island to study. When the police execute Udayan for his Naxal activities, Subhash marries Udayan’s pregnant widow Gauri and takes her along with him to the US. However, the past exerts a strong pull on the future and for those left behind, things are never quite the same. Generations later, divergent threads come together, and the secrets, pent-up anger and turbulence among the protagonists reach tipping point, and leads to the eventual denouement.
The book is a page-turner, mostly, but also disappoints at times. Lahiri’s prose, even while delving on the slow passage of time and trivial mundane activities, keeps you hooked. But while the plot moves seamlessly in the US (where Lahiri is in her element), the Naxal scenes snatch away some of the pace. Also, some characters display similar shades of characters from her earlier works. Still, make space for The Lowland in your bookshelf.