Lahiri’s second novel The Lowland is a beautifully written book about love, rebellion, and relationships. It hopes to accomplish a lot with its narrative but fails to deliver in more ways than one. The novel’s only saving grace is Lahiri’s immaculate prose.
The Lowland is American author Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel. It begins with two brothers, Udayan and Subhash, as they navigate life in Tollygunge, Calcutta, though Udayan dies fairly early on in the novel. The novel spans for four generations of the same family and two continents. Subhash is a sensible and pragmatic son with little political sensibility, who decides to move to America for his studies, while Udayan is radical and the more daring son, who joins the Naxalite Movement in Bengal. In fact, a good 100 pages are spent describing these differences in character of the brothers. Despite their differences, the brothers are fairly close with their relationship described as Subhash having “no sense of himself without Udayan. From his earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there.” After Udayan’s death, Subhash returns back to India and decides to marry his brother’s pregnant widow, Gauri, and take her back to America. Gauri gives birth to Bela in America. She and Subhash raise Bela as their daughter.
The novel is character-driven instead of plot-driven, exploring each character’s personalities and relationships, punctuated with omniscient insight into the characters. The author’s prose is crisp and simple, but it is what she leaves unsaid that makes an impact on the reader. While her previous works dealt with the rootlessness that comes from migrating to a foreign country, The Lowland explores an alternate theme where the immigrants are more at home in their adopted land, more refugees than immigrants. When Subhash is in Calcutta for his brother’s funeral, he finds himself surrounded by tourists and “though he looked like any other Bengali he felt an allegiance with the foreigners now. He shared with them the knowledge of elsewhere. Another life to go back to. The ability to leave.” Through Gauri, the author is also able to explore the seldom written about things like the practice of levirate and a mother with no maternal instincts.
For all its focus on the characters, however, the characters in the novel feel hollow and one-dimensional. The plot covers generations and decades, yet none of the characters ever change or evolve and meaningful interpersonal relationships are painfully absent. The crisp prose sometimes turns cold and unsympathetic while describing people’s emotions risen from tragic moments. At the periphery of the novel is the Naxalite Movement, never taking centre stage. The narrative is unable to lean into its political themes. The author reveals a rather narrow understanding of the Naxalite Movement, describing events as they appear in history books or Wikipedia pages.
The novel itself is centred around the various relationships that we encounter and barely any of those relationships seem cohesive, tender or rooted in reality. From the beginning Subhash carries a sort of bitterness in his heart for Udayan and as he leaves India, their relationship essentially falls apart. After Udayan’s death, their parents more or less abandon Subhash in their grief over their dead son. There is barely any relationship between Subhash and Gauri, apart from being silent roommates. While the character of Gauri is a dispassionate mother in novel, it does not have depth. Her rationale for abandoning her daughter and her general aloofness are never quite explained or reasoned. The happy relationships of the novel, like that of Udayan and Gauri, Subhash and Elise, and Bela and Drew, are left mostly unexplored. While Udayan and Gauri’s marriage is used as a plot point, Subhash and Bela’s romantic relationships are solely happy endings.
The father-daughter relationship between Subhash and Bela is perhaps the only relationship that seems intriguing and beautiful. Its complicated and tender. Subhash’s love and devotion for Bela, the rift that appears between them after Gauri leaves, the healing that occurs when they’re both older, are all expertly portrayed and this is where Lahiri’s talents as a writer really shine. The reader is offered an insight not only into how their relationship festered, but also how it healed over time.
Many critics have described Lahiri’s second novel as “ambitious”, and while it does promise a lot, it delivers a lot less. Maybe it would have been better enjoyed as a short story rather than a nearly 400-page long novel.
Nidhi Rana is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Nuzhat Khan
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.