Jhumpa Lahiri’s skill lies in immersing her readers within the environments which she crafts. Shortlisted also for the Man Booker Prize 2013, her latest novel, The Lowland, showcases this ability. The book, set in Calcutta, now Kolkata, is about a family who are profoundly affected by the Naxalite movement in India shortly after political independence in 1947.
The story begins with two brothers, Shubash, the elder, quiet rule-abiding sibling, and Udayan, younger by 18 months, a more outspoken and rebellious figure. Udayan, despite being younger, is the more dominant one, and Shubash lives largely under the shadow of his brother. The bond between the two is the focus of the earlier section of the book, which describes the brothers growing up against the backdrop of the political landscape of modern India under Jawaharlal Nehru. While the two are college, they hear of the uprising in Naxalbari, a city where the mistreated local farming community chose to stand up to the aristocratic ruling party. Udayan is instantly taken in by the Naxalite movement and becomes intimately involved with them. Shubash, while sympathetic to the movement, never truly falls in with Udayan’s passionate support of the cause. Instead, Shubash decides to travel to Rhode Island to continue his studies which he knows are his parents wishes. Udayan refuses to leave Kolkata, deciding to stay to help the movement which he believes would bring real change in India. The Lowland offers a story of survival after the family’s plans are shattered by a tragic event.
Lahiri creates environments with extraordinary attention to detail. The varying seasons, the cityscape locations in both Kolkatta and later in the US, and the use of Bengali words, all drive the reader to explore a world that seems at once intimate yet also an enigma. Lahiri creates a familiarity with the area or neighbouring areas that some might find nostalgic even if they have not been there themselves. The characters are what keeps the reader reading; they are not archetypes but have a complexity that rings true. The author never overly dramatises or lingers too long on an event, imparting to the reader, as with the characters in her book, the need to survive, move on and to live.
In the first half, The Lowland displays substantial narrative speed; a lot happens and decades pass in a few pages. Then, a little over halfway through, the book feels slow and seems to reach a stagnant phase. Perhaps this is intentional, mimicking the growth of the characters whom Lahiri writes about; yet, to my mind, the novel never really recovers the same excitement and fervour characteristic of its initial stages. The breakdown of the chapters and their sub-sections, the use of multiple perspectives, scenarios and their effect on each character give the book greater depth. Lahiri’s distinctive gift is to encourage the reader to dwell on decisions made and moved away from, thus forcing us to think much in the same way as her characters do.
The Lowland is a book which explores a time in India which has been lost in recent years. It brings to light the struggles of a newly independent nation both at decolonisation and long afterwards. The novel’s focus on the Naxalite movement argues for its importance to the creation of modern India. In the middle of this changing political landscape lives a family whose planned futures with their two sons and their respective families are completely shattered.
The Lowland showcases Lahiri’s talents in the best light: her immersive environments and her complex characters. Although the novel’s middle might lack narrative drive, Lahiri’s solemn, calm writing style manages to shine throughout. The Lowland is definitely worth a read, not only for those with an interest in India but those who simply want to inhabit the lives of a completely different family for a while.