Jhumpa Lahiri's 'The Lowland': the aftershocks of violence on Bengali Indians in America

Interpreter of families

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It's been a few weeks since I finished reading Jhumpa Lahiri's novel "The Lowland," and my head and heart are still with the book. Ms. Lahiri is known for her careful, measured prose, and insights into the hidden emotions of family life.

Her novel "The Namesake" and short-story collections "Unaccustomed Earth" and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Interpreter of Maladies" all concern first-generation Bengali Indian families trying to preserve old-country traditions while chasing after the middle-class American dream. Ms. Lahiri's fourth book, "The Lowland," was short-listed for Britain's Man Booker Prize.

"The Lowland" focuses on Subhash and Udayan, brothers who are born 15 months apart. Subhash is placid and obedient, while Udayan is impulsive and daring.


By Jhumpa Lahiri.
Knopf ($27.95).

Udayan identifies with the Naxalite movement, a Maoist-inspired peasant insurgency that seeks to return land to the poor by engaging in guerrilla warfare against government forces.

The history and development of the Naxalites dominate the first half of the novel. The second half traces the aftershocks of its violence on the family. Subhash leaves India to pursue a doctorate in Rhode Island, while Udayan marries and devotes himself to the Naxalite revolution. Subhash's placid life changes forever when he learns that Udayan was murdered by police forces.

Udayan's wife, Gauri, and his parents are traumatized because they witnessed the killing. When Subhash proposes marriage to Gauri, she agrees. It's a practical decision. Gauri is pregnant with Udayan's child, and needs to get away from her in-laws. In America, Gauri is a neglectful mother and an emotionally distant wife.

The novel moves back and forth in time and takes on different points of view, which allow readers to see how anger and betrayal redound through the generations.

Gauri increasingly isolates herself, pouring her energy into a doctorate in philosophy. She specializes in the neo-Marxist social theory of the Frankfurt School. She doesn't take up arms against landholders; instead, she gives papers at academic conferences. The contrast is sharp:

"Long ago she'd wanted her work to be in deference to Udayan, but by now it was a betrayal of everything he had believed in. All the ways he had influenced and inspired her, shrewdly cultivated for her own intellectual gain."

Ironically, loss and anger pave the way for a rejection of radical politics. For Gauri: "[a]nger was always mounted to [her love for Udayan] like some helplessly mating pair of insects. Anger at him for dying when he might have lived. For bringing her happiness, and then taking it away. For trusting her, only to betray her. For believing in sacrifice, only to be so selfish in the end."

Subhash also critiques Udayan's politics: "Udayan had given his life to a movement that had been misguided. ... The only thing he'd altered was what their family had been."

In truth, deliberate, personal abandonment is worse than political risk. Gauri abandons Subhash and her daughter, Bela, who never gets over it. There's a sense of justice when Gauri realizes the damage she caused her daughter. "She understood now what it meant to walk away from her child. It had been her own act of killing. ... It was a crime worse than anything Udayan had committed."

"The Lowland" dwells in complex territory. Gauri realizes the Naxals are oblivious to an oppression much closer to home: that of women. "Udayan had wanted a revolution, but at home he'd expected to be served; his only contribution to meals was to sit and wait for [her] or her mother-in-law to put a plate before him."

These insights point toward an unspoken question: Is it irresponsible -- or even criminal -- to risk your life for a political cause that may not be realized in your lifetime? "The Lowland" stutters in response: Yes -- no -- maybe.

"The Lowland" is a stylistic achievement and marks a shift in Ms. Lahiri's writing. Long sentences precede shorter, clipped ones. As always, the novel's full of sharp insights about marriage and parenthood, politics and commitment. It is the kind of book that stays with you long after you finish it.


Julie Hakim Azzam teaches literature at the University of Pittsburgh. She writes about books and parenting at www.instantlyinterruptible.com. First Published October 19, 2013 8:00 PM


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