Of loss and longing

Sep 29, 2013, 10:05 IST | Kareena N Gianani

In her second novel, The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri's unadorned prose is masterly in its detail about immigrant angst and ennui. It is her most ambitious work yet, but, unlike her short stories, falls short in some respects, writes Kareena N Gianani

It would not be hyperbolic to deem The Lowland (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and nominated for the National Book Award) as Jhumpa Lahiri’s most ambitious book yet, spanning two continents and four generations wherein lives are branded by one man’s political ambitions. While the Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth established Lahiri as quite the unsurpassable storyteller of immigrant angst and The Namesake proved that the writer isn’t just excellent at the short story form, it is in The Lowland where she dares to venture beyond.

Jhumpa Lahiri. AFP Photo

The book begins with brothers Subhash and Udayan Mitra sneaking into the tony Tolly Club in Calcutta. The eponymous lowland nearby watches as the two, born 15 months apart, jump over its walls to play golf. Subhash and Udayan have dissimilar personalities, but are joined in more ways than they know. Udayan is restless and rebellious; Subhash, the elder one, is more conventional. Udayan is “blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving certain colours. But Subhash strove to minimise his existence, as other animals merged with bark or blades of grass”.

The Lowland Jhumpa Lahiri Published by Random House India Price: Rs 499

The siblings share a palpable intimacy. Subhash, in spite of the being the elder one, has “no sense of himself without Udayan”. But there are other emotions at play, too, at least on Subhash’s part -- a fleeting but steady gnaw of frustration at his brother’s daring when he jumps over the wall and later marries an equally unconventional, cerebral girl against their parents’ wishes.

The brothers grow up in the bustling Calcutta, and eventually pursue different vocations in the day, but at night, in the small room they share, Subhash and Udayan are inseparable. It is Udayan who is hungry for more -- more news of the world and more views. Subhash is not; all he wants is to blend into his surroundings.

Meanwhile, news of manipulated peasants in Naxalbari begins to surface and life is not the same for the Mitra family. Subhash keeps his distance from the radical movement, but Udayan is deeply affected and resolves to no longer remain passive to government apathy. Subhash moves to Rhode Island to complete his PhD, a move unimaginable and almost despicable to Udayan, who stays back. He soon marries Gauri, a Philosophy student who “prefers books to jewels and saris” and thinks like he does. Almost.

Subhash returns to India after hearing of Udayan’s death. In a characteristically altruistic move, he decides to marry Gauri, who is pregnant. He realises that his parents will never fully accept her as Udayan’s partner. For Gauri, the escape from Udayan’s secret and an unforeseeable future seems worth flouting convention.

Here, the novel moves away from the Indian political movement to what Lahiri is best at -- immigrant narratives of all things lost and found. Subhash, a dutiful, caring husband, patiently to tries to build new ties with Gauri, who initially gives in just because she is tired of the air of anticipation. She takes Philosophy classes at Subhash’s university. Normalcy and domesticity seems to be around the corner when Bela, her daughter, is born.

Only this time, it is not just Udayan’s memories which make Gauri unreachable -- it is a sense of alienation from everything and everyone around her. Gauri begins to envision a life which doesn’t involve Subhash or even Bela, and eventually acts on her impulses. Ties are broken and others forged, and life doesn’t grant Subhash the normalcy he seeks.

The Lowland has merits you’d expect from the writer who deftly writes about feelings of displacement, restlessness and temporary succour in foreign lands. It is not without reason that Lahiri is hailed as a significant writer of immigrant narratives -- her stories on what binds and breaks families are taut, cognitive, and never sentimental. When it comes to meticulous detail, Lahiri has been as successful as ever -- one is present even in the small room in Calcutta when Udayan and Subhash grow up, assemble a shortwave radio and strengthen bonds which will be broken but never forgotten. Their lives, much like the book’s motif, the lowland, are placid before they are ravaged by time -- something Lahiri juxtaposes poignantly in this book.

But The Lowland has its wobbly moments, too. The interplay between a searing political movement and its impact on innocent lives is historically and chronologically sound, but, in some parts, lacks the delicate play between the political and personal which Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things, managed to portray
more wrenchingly, for instance.

Gauri, unarguably the book’s most interesting, complex character, is beautifully introduced and woven in, but only to remain somewhat inexplicably detached later. The reader understands her past demons and present ennui, but not all her decisions. The part of the book where Bela grows up and Subhash struggles to reach out, seem rushed and laboured.

It is zealous, but is The Lowland Lahiri’s best work so far? That is debatable, given the bar she has set for herself with Unaccustomed Earth and The Namesake. This book maintains status quo. Lahiri’s minimalist prose is as vivid as ever, her attention to detail just as unwavering. The Lowland does offers its highs, and the reader will get exactly what s/he expects.

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