The Lowland is a flat area of marshland next to the settlement of Tollygunge in Calcutta. Tollygunge houses a golf course and, even after independence, is well patrolled to keep the locals out. This symbol of colonial power is the catalyst to inspire brothers Udayan and Subhash to join the dangerous world of Indian-Maoist Marxism.
But, as time passes, the brothers mature. Subhash takes up a study scholarship at a university in Rhode Island whilst Udayan stays loyal to the cause. This parting of the ways is deeply symbolic of the crossroads at which India found istelf in the 1960s and 1970s - whether to look to the east or the west for its politics and its economy. For a long while, it was not clear which would prevail, even as India seemed to choose the west there were regrets and hints of reconsidering. There were turbulent times in which leaders were assassinated whilst the economy stagnated. The Lowland offers this drama in an exquisite and extended metaphor. Just as in Midnight's Children, we see wrong choices being made and opportunities lost. We see the grind and monotony of following the respectable path in Rhode Island whilst the history of India is out of sight and out of mind.
What maked The Lowland special, though, is the perfect writing that allows characters to feel real and complex; situations to feel three dimensional. Subhash and, particularly, Gauri have nuanced shades of light and dark. And there is no temptation to match morality to outcomes; both characters are well intentioned, thoughtful people but they end up hurting one another and hurting others without effort. They are caught in a web of their own making and the more they struggle to free themselves, the more ensnared they become. As the novel progresses, we start to see more of the backstory and understand more about how Subhash and Gauri came to make the choices they did, how they came to be the people they are. In particular, we start to learn more about how they each relate to Udayan. We see different points of view; we spend time with the older generation, and also with the new. This passing of the generations is done with sadness and poignancy. But as each generation loses the fire in its belly, so the next generation represents a fresh hope, as will the generation after that...
The depiction of places is also genuine; Calcutta is a city of bustle, airports, railway stations and history. The clothes are bright and the food is rich. It is refreshing to visit India and not be immediately sent to the slums. Rhode Island, by contrast, is cold and sterile, safe but bland. But for all that, it never feels less real.
There is not a word out of place in The Lowland, not a line that causes the reader to stumble. It is an engrossing and complex story that works on many levels. It is moving, it is frustrating, but it is always meaningful. Shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize, it will be interesting to see whether it can take the crown.
Subhash and Udayan are brothers, growing up together in post-independence Calcutta. Subhash is conventional and studious, fully intending to follow the path expected for him by his parents. Udayan is more adventurous and becomes politicised after the brutal suppression of a communist uprising in the small village of Naxalbari. Udayan soon becomes a member of the Naxalites, an offshoot of the Communist Party, which believes in direct action - i.e. terrorism - to achieve its ends. Subhash meantime takes up an opportunity to go to the States to continue his studies in oceanography.
This is where Lahiri makes her first strange choice. Instead of remaining in Calcutta with the charismatic and interesting Udayan, learning more about the Naxalites and the political situation, we are whisked off with the frankly dull-to-the-point-of-catatonia Subhash, and given detailed accounts of the considerably less exciting environment of the campus of a University in Rhode Island, where the most thrilling thing that happens is that Subhash decides not to get involved in Vietnam protests. From there on, we only learn what is happening in India through the occasional letter that Udayan sends, until an incident occurs that makes Subhash return briefly - but only long enough to marry, when he and his new wife return to Rhode Island. The bulk of the remainder of the book is taken up with detailed minutiae about the extremely dull and miserable lives led by Subhash, Gauri and their daughter, Bela. Subhash and Gauri both spend their lives studying and then teaching in Universities so we rarely get off campus and, after an entertaining start, Bela turns into as dull and misery-laden a character as her parents.
I suspect the aim of the book is three-fold: to show the sense of displacement felt by immigrants, to examine the effect of a violent incident on the futures of those affected by it and to look at the moral questions surrounding the use of terrorism as a political tool. The blurb describes it as 'epic', 'achingly poignant' and 'exquisitely empathetic'. It is epic in the sense that it covers a period of 50 years, but geographically and emotionally it remains static for most of that time. The other claims, I'm afraid, would depend on the reader caring about the characters and sadly these characters are not written in a way that induces empathy. Lahiri's second strange choice is to make the book entirely humourless and passionless, with Subhash and Gauri perpetually wallowing in their self-created misery. Each has a successful career, but neither seems able to form real relationships - not even with each other.
The writing is completely flat, and so is the story; no passion, no light and no real dark - just greyness, like living under permanent cloud-cover. On the rare occasions that Lahiri discusses the politics of the Naxalites, she does so in a way that reads like a textbook or a Wikipedia article, which means that there is no depth or humanity to it. The old saw of 'show, don't tell' was constantly running thorough my mind at these points. The moral questions around terrorism are only discussed at the end of the book, in a very superficial and throwaway manner. The implication is that these characters were damaged by Udayan's actions, but we are given nothing to make us believe they were significantly different people before. In fact, it is very clear that Subhash in particular lacks passion and humour before the life-changing incident just as much as after.
For a plot that promises so much, the book fails to deliver. Competently written rather than beautifully, I find it hard to understand why this book was shortlisted for the Booker. If this is really one of the best books being produced in the Commonwealth, it goes some way to explaining why the Booker is being opened up to the rest of the world. But I suspect it was shortlisted for the author's reputation and the 'worthiness' of the message rather than for any real qualities of writing or story-telling. A disappointingly average read that I didn't feel gave me an adequate return on the time I invested in it.
on 25 August 2014
Two brothers, born in Calcutta, live just behind the lowland – two ponds which fill and become one when the rains come. Subhash is studious and obedient, Udayan is a rule-breaker. Their complicit stealing into the private members’ Tolly Club (Udayan’s idea) results in Subhash being beaten. The brothers’ lives take different directions. Subhash takes up a scholarship in Rhode Island. Udayan, politicised and passionate, becomes involved with the Naxalite movement.
Without giving away spoilers, this is a book about absences. Brothers separated, a husband replaced, a mother abandoning a child. Ghosts loom large and the presence of some of the living is ethereal. Lahiri weaves a tale of loss and identity, secrets and guilt. The whole truth and the weight it bears on the characters is only fully uncovered towards the end.
I found the depiction of place powerful – a house, a wasteland, a terrace, a path – each holds far greater meaning when loaded with emotional identification. Small wonder our youngest character rejects roots and becomes transient, working the land, shifting with the seasons, forming and losing groups, but always moving.
However, for me, this book felt distanced and removed. I actually wished for a little dialogue, allowing me to interpret the behaviour and motivations of the key players, rather than reported actions and emotions. The ice creep of disintegrating marriages, withdrawal of affection and a gradual loss of sanity are not easy subjects to address as they lack drama. Yet as truths of life, they do require engagement.
on 3 April 2016
The key character linking Jhumpa Lahiri’s story together is Gauri. As a young student in Calcutta, she allows her romance with Udayan to draw her into complicity with Naxalite terrorist action. She leans on his brother Subhash to extricate her to the US and raise her daughter. Her only conviction in life is academic philosophy, which she follows indiscriminately, seemingly unaware of any moral philosophy, carelessly causing huge pain for others.
Yet Lahiri never takes us sufficiently deeply to understand Gauri. She is just a whirlwind of the acts she commits. Much of the book is taken up with Subhash and Bela’s mundane banal life in Rhode Island. The sections covering life in Calcutta are more moving. Lahiri’s descriptive prose is rich, verging on the poetic. She eventually rescues the story by re-introducing Gauri. We hope to find out what drives and motivates her, and this does create suspense, but we end up only getting more capricious actions. The only hint is that her life is curtailed by an overwhelming guilt, and therefore not fully lived.
Neel Mukherjee (The Lives of Others) offers deeper insight into the Naxalite movement, its appeal to middle class Bengali young men, and its strain on family ties. Lahiri continues to focus on the US Bengali diaspora, which inevitably becomes mundane.
on 15 June 2015
I am a fan of Lahiri's books, but for some reason this book did not "wow" me, the storyline was promising, but I found the characters to be flat. I understand that Lahiri was trying to show the impact of what happened to Udayan on all the characters, including the next generation, but the development of the characters of Gauri and Bela were too far fetched, I cannot imagine anyone being as cold as Gauri, and the way her studies/career developed at the expense of her family was unrealistic, considering her background. Also, Bela, the daughter of two educated first generation Indian immigrants ending up being a fruit picking, pregnant hippie was even more unrealistic. A real shame as I was really looking forward to reading this book!
on 5 July 2015
This is by far one of my all favourite novels of all time. I loved it so much that actually after finishing, I have re-read some passages many, many times, so all in all I must have read the whole book at least 5 times.
Jhumpa Lahiri has got a beautiful, personal style of writing. I enjoyed all her other works as well.
Lowland is above all a novel dealing with relationships, with characters who lack the skill (or will, or both) of communicating somehow end up drifting apart and hurting each other. Udayan and Subhash are brothers growing up during turbulent times in India. Brave, idealistic Udayan calls for revolution and gets involved in politics, quiet Subhash wants to leave his younger brother's shadow and go to America to study for a PhD programme. Upon returning to India, Subhash finds his family changed and faced a difficult choice which will bind him even more with his brother.
I do not want to write too much about the plot not to spoil it for everyone. The story evolves around various themes (one's cultural identity, the silent rebellion and breaking up with tradition, personal happiness versus obligation towards family). There is something utterly tragic about some of the choices the characters make, and sometimes they realise too late what they have done.
As I said, there are bits that I go back to particularly often, for example the conversation between Gauri (Subhash's wife) and her daughter Bela towards the end of the novel, it is so powerful and made a huge impression on me. There are earls like this throughout Lowland, and I am sure I will keep on coming back to it. many times more.
on 22 January 2016
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland begins with an intriguing storyline, revolving around the Marxist-inspired Naxalite rebellion in 1960s Bengal, where students chose to join by violent means the cause of desperately poor peasants in that region of India. Subhash and Udayan, the sons of a Calcutta civil servant, are very close to one another. Udayan, though, is attracted to the Naxalite movement while Subhash chooses to go complete his studies in the USA. This is where the plot gets somewhat sidetracked. I don’t want to reveal too much, but Subhash ends up marrying Udayan’s girl and raising his child. The Naxalite plotline gets more or less dropped, and the story ends up dealing with the difficulties of integration and the estrangement of diaspora Indians. This is familiar territory for Lahiri, and I guess this is what she likes to write about. But the novel, which then moves down another generation again, ends up losing a common thread. Lahiri writes well, of course, but this is not up to, say, The Namesake, and the feeling is that she has written this story before. Nor does the tone vary very much. It is constantly wistful and lightly sad, with the result that the book often fails to engage the reader. Pursing the Naxalite storyline, one can’t help thinking, would have been more fruitful, more filled with potential tension and with strong, emotional choices for the characters. The Lowland is readable throughout, but it ends up feeling as something of a letdown.
on 18 October 2013
At the beginning, I felt that the story was too superficial. It aims I think to give a global view of changes and spans the whole lifetimes of its protatgonist, and I felt that I was too distanced from them, not drawn in enough to their lives. There is the backdrop of violence in India and insurgencies, but again, these felt more like a décor, than anything really substantial. It is also a book about the personal, about Gauri's decisions and how they affect her family. I felt this was a true description, and it awakened real, not always positive, emotions in me.
In the end, this novel was successful for me, but I think most of that was thanks to the affections I felt for Subhash, the hero. I cared for him and wanting to know what happened to him carried me through to the end.
on 14 February 2015
I am a great fan of Jhumpa Lahiri. I simple love reading her prose, the words she uses and the sentences she constructs.The emotions she evokes when she describes places - whether in USA or India - or how her characters react, behave and feel in such environment. She has such an immense understanding and empathy for the soul of the migrant soul. I read every single book she publishes with great pleasure. The Lowland is not her best in my opinion but I still couldn't put it down.
Set in India and the United States this is an interesting novel and reflection on life. It is the tale of two brothers who lives take very different paths following a very close childhood. There is a melancholy throughout the tale which has much to do with the choices we make in life - sometimes from seizing the moment, sometimes from failing to do so.
It is a very readable story, beautifully written, though rather sad