Books | The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

‘”Naxalite”… is more commonly a noun, describing an adherent of a movement; a noun that, until six or seven years ago, defined a type that had been consigned to Indian political history just as princely states and the British Raj were: a romantic, probably bookish, university student from the late sixties, ideologically seduced … by Maoist rhetoric… into a movement that believed in nothing else than an apocalyptic reordering of the system.’

 – Amit Chaudhari, Calcutta

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Lowland
by Jhumpa Lahiri

After a series of revolutionary protests and what Auden once described as ‘necessary murders’ of landlords, policeman, lecturers and corrupt officials, the Naxalite movement seemingly ceased in the seventies, rounded up and broken by the Congress Government. Led by Charu Majumdar and his student Kanu Sayal, the Naxalite revolution was short-lived and essentially a failure.  Nevertheless what started as a peasant revolt in the small village of Naxalbari, is often considered responsible for the vanishing of some of the best Calcuttan minds of the seventies and is arguably one of the factors for why accelerated modernity has never quite taken hold in Calcutta in quite the same way that it has in other Indian cities.  

Jhumpa Lahiri’s offering, The Lowland, incidentally published three years after the suicide of Kanu Sayal, takes this relatively under-known but defining part of recent Indian history as the crux of her story.

The novel opens depicting the childhood of two brothers. Inseparable in all they do as young boys, Subhash and Udayan grow up playing together, fixing up radios and studying around the hyacinth pond and lowland of Tollygunge, on the outskirts of Calcutta. The cautious, thoughtful Subhash has ‘no sense of himself without Udayan. From his earliest memory, at every point, his brother was there.’

Looming over the backdrop of their boyhood is the Tolly Club, an elaborate and exclusive remnant of a post-colonial, post-Partition ‘them and us’. Its impressive wooden gates and brick walls enclose a swimming pool, well-maintained grounds and a mysterious glamour not open to the local residents. It is curious Udayan’s idea to sneak into the Tolly Club – he is fearless, reckless, ‘blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving certain colours’. It is Subhash who, protecting his younger brother, takes the blow of the policeman’s steel shaft.  

As time passes, the brothers go to different universities and ideology compounds differences in nature that have always been present, causing the brothers’ paths to irrevocably diverge. Udayan is already lost to the Naxalite cause by this point – ‘What good are bows and arrows against a modern state? … If you were born into that life, what would you do?’ Subhash goes to further his studies in America. Udayan’s last spoken words remain the only explicit admission by him that he needs his older brother – ‘You’re the other side of me, Subhash. It’s without you that I’m nothing. Don’t go.’

Lahiri covers many distances in her writing: namely those of geography, time and place. It is through these distances that she gives a sense of deracination with her trademark Pulitzer Prize-worthy brilliance. Her descriptions of initial displacement, gradual cultural navigation and lives built ‘far from the point…of origin’, are immediate and true. Details such as the blue Aerogrammes, which bring Udayan’s censored news from Tollygunge, and, later, the cream cheese Gauri devours straight from its triangular silver foil are singular representations for entire lives caught in the process pattern of diasporic shift and adjustment.

When Subhash marries Udayan’s pregnant widow, Gauri, he does so with honourable intentions. In this, he again reminds in us the inseparability of the two brothers, and the policeman outside the Tolly Club: Subhash, once again, is the one left to wear the consequences of his brother’s choices. For Gauri, her move to a new world is met only with an irreparable brokenness and detachment, echoed by Lahiri’s prose, which breaks away from some of its usual, indulgent lyrical excess and takes on a more disengaged and succinct quality when focused on Gauri’s experience.It is startling to Gauri when following the news in her new country to find no trace of Naxalite events: ‘What had consumed the city, what had altered the course of her life and shattered it, was not reported here.’ Between the before and after of her life with Udayan is a delineated psychological departure point from which Gauri never quite returns. This is played out in the incompleteness of all her relationships, and only German philosophy offers refuge.

Gauri and Udayan’s daughter, Bela, is in the mould of both Udayan and Subhash. At one point in the novel there is present in her the possibility of a new revolution – she withdraws affection from Subhash, shows signs of embodying the same mercurial, caution to the wind as her birth father and echoes her mother’s emotional inaccessibility. History threatens to pan out its cyclical inevitability and Subhash is left hanging in the balance yet again. However, with time and experience the Bela that finds her way and develops into her motherhood emerges gentle, thoughtful and wise, like Subhash.

This is the fourth book by Jhumpa Lahiri, and it manages to successfully suffuse her usual thematic concerns – immigration, Indian traditions reconciled with the American way of life, parental debt and identity – with a new foray into motherhood versus personal identity, fatherhood, and the political-personal. At the same time that the Naxalite movement is sucking up Udayan, Subhash’s roommate Richard is preoccupied with the Vietnam War, an issue Subhash feels he has no right to comment upon as a guest in a new country. Certainly Udayan would have felt no such cautious compunction, but Subhash’s worldview is measured.

The story is sustained, compelling and unfolds gently. In the same instance, Lahiri’s pace and span of time is reminiscent of the best of her short stories. This is the best aspect of The Lowland. What doesn’t work as well is the structure, which mixes too many narrative perspectives within the final 100 pages. It adds nothing to the reader’s subtly formed understanding of the characters and serves only to overcompensate for the rights and wrongs, whatever they might be, of characters who have behaved out of a complex combination of reasons. 

The final chapter leaves the reader open in a way that is simultaneously haunting and immediate: how do we judge Udayan? The dichotomy of right and wrong, good and bad is not easy to moralise here where the context has been created so personally. How can we judge at all? All that is left is a lingering sense of loss.