The Lowland

The Lowland

It’s often easiest and most enjoyable to read novels with some kind of anchor. Whether this is in genre, authorial style, time and place, or anything else, a writer can easily indulge a reader’s desire to be guided and comforted by something familiar. This certainly cannot be said of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. It is a novel of sparse prose that resists the metronome of a predictable chronology, with the narrative jumping forward in leaps and starts, sometimes by weeks, sometimes by decades – and, at the close, jumping heartbreakingly back in time.

One is repeatedly tantalised by the prospect of a certain familiar genre – a campus novel, a novel of political ideas, an Indian family epic – only to have these refused again and again by the author. Perhaps most significantly, Lahiri resists the storytelling style of magical realism that defines Indian literature for many western readers – no overwhelming coincidences or figures of great symbolism can be found to offer signposts. It offers uncomfortable truths about emotions, motherhood, trauma, and familial obligations, and doesn’t give any easy resolutions. Instead, Lahiri takes us into an unsentimental yet emotional narrative of a handful of characters and how they deal with loss.

This is not to say this novel is a depressing one. Quite the opposite – it has moments of great joy (though admittedly these are most heavily concentrated in the opening fifty pages), as well as intellectually challenging passages, as characters contemplate various philosophical problems and concepts. But it does face up to reality in a way that is at once sad and exhilarating.

The Lowland tells the story of two brothers, Udayan and Subhash. They grow up together in a suburb of Calcutta, just as India becomes independent, and are inseparable. Gradually, however, they drift slightly apart – attending different colleges, developing differing political viewpoints, and eventually moving apart completely. Udayan becomes a committed Marxist and Maoist, outraged by police brutality and the gross inequality he sees in India. Subhash is far more inward looking, and travels to America to study in Rhode Island, to his brother’s dismay. It is not giving too much away to say that events turn traumatic, and the family is divided. Though Subhash returns to India for a time, he eventually moves back to Rhode Island once more, this time with his new, pregnant wife, Gauri.

Theirs isn’t a terribly contented marriage, and we witness their growing emotional distance at painfully close quarters. There are no volcanic arguments, plate-smashing or domestic violence. Instead, we are shown the far more delicate – and possibly more devastating – violence of domesticity without love. Affection cannot be forced or willed into being, a lesson Subhash and Gauri learn over the course of the novel.

Again, this isn’t a terribly comforting lesson that is revealed to the reader. It’d be more pleasurable, possibly, to read some celebration, via magical realism, of the overwhelming power love can hold, that it can break boundaries and conquer all. But Lahiri sees through this literary charade. This isn’t Love in the Time of Maoism, there are no star-crossed lovers, and there are absolutely no events that are weighted with inherent significance. Instead, the only significance any events hold are in the minds of the characters perceiving them – there is no charismatic narrator offering neat interpretations or poetic conclusions.

This was, for this reader, somewhat unexpected. After all, the novel initially toys with ideas of brotherhood and nationhood, coincidence and destiny. With the brothers’ trajectories rooted in India’s independence, there are (presumably deliberate) echoes of Midnight’s Children: as Nehru is giving his speech marking India’s liberation from colonialism, Udayan and Subhash both come down with a fever. If this was Rushdie, one feels sure this would offer some portentous sign of things to come, or tie in symbolically with the nation’s experience. But Lahiri has no interest in such literary neatness. There’s no mysterious connection between the brothers in the way that there is between Rushdie’s children of midnight. Reality, in all its bleakness, soon overwhelms the narrative. Events happen without clear cause or consequence, and trauma cannot be escaped through time or geography.

It is this legacy of trauma that really concerns Lahiri, and where her apparently sparse prose is so deceptive. It may seem simple, but devastation and loss leave their footprints across large swathes of the novel. As a young child, Udayan steps in wet concrete outside the family home, a cheeky, brief action that leaves an apparently permanent mark in his family’s life. Lahiri is incredibly perceptive of these marks that we carry with us, and knows in particular that lives cut short echo far louder. Reflecting on this, Lahiri provides us with a rare moment of overt literary symbolism (though necessarily filtered through the perceptions of Bela, Udayan’s daughter):

The following day she’d walked with her father to campus to see torn branches scattered on the quadrangle, streets green with leaves. They found a thick tree that had fallen, the tangled roots exposed. They saw the drenched ground that had given way. The tree seemed more overwhelming when it lay on the ground. Its proportions frightening, once it no longer lived.

Without quite realising it, Bela thus gives a beautiful explanation of her own mother’s trauma. Gauri suffers a great loss in the novel, and it marks her for the rest of her life, most significantly in her inability to fully love or connect with her daughter. It is here that Lahiri is most devastatingly perceptive. We expect mothers to have an ingrained ability to look after their children, and to love them unconditionally, but this isn’t always the case. Gauri gradually realises she lacks this impulsive motherly connection, and the more she thinks about it, the worse it gets. To the reader, it seems akin to her lying awake, willing herself to go to sleep – the more she thinks about it, the more difficult it becomes.

To escape this, Gauri thinks instead of philosophy. She makes a literal and figurative retreat, into her private study (with its almost permanently closed door), and into her own mind. As she recognises her emotional numbness, she becomes more able to give herself over to intellectual activities. To this extent, perhaps, she and Subhash represent two possible archetypes: Gauri embodies the inward abstractions of the mind, while her husband represents more tactile, scientific pursuits. At one point, she develops a habit of leaving her daughter alone in the apartment for short periods of time, and treats it as a game in her head – how long can I stay away without Bela noticing? Eventually, though, Subhash discovers her regular absences, and it takes him – with his tactile, outward-looking nature – to make her see that she has done wrong.

This event, central to the novel, also embodies a key debate that runs as an undercurrent throughout: whether one should engage with the wider world – as Udayan does, travelling around India and embracing the lessons of Mao – or engage primarily with yourself – what might be termed the American way. Here we have something of a struggle between forms of collectivism and individualism: Gauri cannot engage with the wider world, because she has seen such engagement already end in trauma. Her neglect of others thus becomes entirely understandable, with a footprint of loss leaving its mark throughout her adult life. Indeed, Gauri recognises this distinction herself:

Her ideology was isolated from practice, neutered by its long tenure in the academy. Long ago she’d wanted her work to be in deference to Udayan, but by now it was a betrayal of everything he had believed in. All the ways he had influenced and inspired her, shrewdly cultivated for her own intellectual gain.

However, none of these interpretations of characters and moments are key to the novel. Instead, Lahiri is concerned with her characters above all else. If they see symbolism or achieve some level of insight into events, then this is represented, but we can take no refuge in the author’s interpretation. To find meaning here, one must drill very deep indeed. Above this, on the surface, lies Lahiri’s deceptively simple writing. It is prose that eschews intellectual stylings in favour of emotional truths, which are perceived – or rather, felt – and then set down on the page with unwavering loyalty.

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