by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Lowland is the first full-length novel by Jhumpa Lahiri that I’ve read; I have a copy of The Namesake for years now but for some reason I haven’t felt inspired to pick it up. I have, however, read her short story collections – Interpreter of Maladies is my favorite short story collection of all time and Unaccustomed Earth is just as wonderful. Because The Lowland was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker prize, I decided to read it first as I delve into Lahiri’s full-length works, not knowing that nearly the first half of it was actually a novella that I’ve read last year, Brotherly Love. In The Lowland, the story of the brothers picks up where Brotherly Love left off.
From Brotherly Love, we already know that this is the story of Subhash and Udayan, brothers who started out their lives as close as two people can be, but as the years went by, they began to slowly drift apart. While Subhash was pensive and compliant, Udayan was mischievous and daring, even defiant to a certain extent. Still, the siblings loved and cherished each other. They spent their childhood in Calcutta but would eventually be separated, as dictated by their life choices: Subhash continued his studies in the United States while Udayan was left in India and became involved in the Naxalite movement, putting his and his parents' lives in danger. While Subhash was abroad, Udayan secretly married a girl, Gauri, defying custom and depriving their parents of their right to choose a wife for their son. Unfortunately, Udayan’s Naxalite activities go too far, prompting Subhash’s unplanned return to Calcutta and the beginning of his attempts to put to right what has been lost, especially where Udayan and Gauri were concerned.
I was wary of reading the first portion of The Lowland because I dislike rereading for pleasure. Except for the most compelling reasons, I hardly ever read a book twice. So it was a challenge for me to trudge through the portions of The Lowland that make up Brotherly Love, beautiful prose or no. Eventually, I managed to read through it and finish the book, and that was when I concluded that one, it would not be totally baseless to say that Lahiri’s strength is in the short story, and two, Brotherly Love is already a lovely piece so much that following through its plot, developing the Gauri angle and the decades that succeed Subhash’s first return to Calcutta, seemed an unnecessary extension, hence, it felt a bit forced.
The takeaway from the novel, though, is invaluable. The dynamics of the Mitra household, from the traditional Indian parents to their intelligent and diametrically opposite children, to their upbringing in accordance with custom and their defiance or acquiescence to it, and the effects of an entirely different culture to one’s views of the world, are extensively explored. The novel touched upon important lessons about family, life choices, and the willingness to accept the consequences of those choices. Couched in Lahiri’s beautiful writing, the effect is both haunting and sad.
The Lowland is an evocative family saga that many will surely appreciate; I know I did. But between this and a short story from Lahiri, I would not hesitate to pick the latter.
Book Details: Trade paperback, brand new from Powerbooks ATC
Read in April-May 2015