The Lowland is another fantastic book by Jhumpa Lahiri. It begins in the 40s in Calcutta, India, telling the story of two young brothers born soon after World War II. Subhash is the elder, but he’s often overshadowed by his daring younger brother Udayan.
Lahiri begins the book by contrasting the inequity of the gated and walled Tolly Club with the nearby huts of Hindu refugees (I wished she had explained more about Partition, since I had to look it up – but it’s not necessary to appreciate this book).
Subhas and Udayan remembered them. A grim procession, a human herd. A few bundles on their heads, infants strapped to parents’ chests. They made shelters of canvas or thatch, walls of woven bamboo. They lived without sanitation, without electricity. In shanties next to garbage heaps, in any available space. They were the reason the Adi Ganga, on the banks of which the Tolly Club stood, was now a sewer canal for Southwest Calcutta. They were the reason for the club’s additional walls.
The brothers have a close, but complex relationship. Then in 1967, while in college, they begin to hear about the unrest in Naxalbari. Lahiri describes Naxalbari as a “feudal system” where peasants are “manipulated by wealthy landowners” until the sharecroppers begin to revolt by burning deeds and forcibly occupying land that had been taken from them. Two communists rise up and start a movement.
Udayan becomes caught up in this movement, while Subhash remains focused on his studies.
Though Subhash was also present, though he sat beside Udayan, he felt invisible. He wasn’t convinced that an imported ideology could solve India’s problems. Though a spark had been lit a year ago, he didn’t think a revolution would necessarily follow. He wondered if it was a lack of courage, or of imagination, that prevented him from believing in it. If the deficits he’d always been conscious of were what prevented him from sharing his brother’s political faith.
The two find themselves growing apart, and Subhash cements this by applying to a graduate program in the United States. Similarly, Udayan starts to reject some of the conventions of his culture, like the idea of arranged marriage, while Subhash wants to remain traditional. Even though he now lives in Rhode Island, he means to marry as his parents wish and move back to India to support them and raise a family. He doesn’t realize that life won’t work out quite like he’s planned.
There’s a lot more to the story, and like Lahiri’s other works, this novel works on a number of different levels. It’s a historical narrative about India in the 60’s and 70’s, and an immigration story about someone from India who builds a life in the U.S. It’s a story about two brothers and how much our siblings impact our lives. And it’s a story about three generations in a family, and how each generation impacts the next, but also how each generation changes.
Subhash is not a passionate man, like his brother, but he’s one you come to respect and admire. His cautious, passive nature is frustrating at times; even his first relationship is one he sort of falls into and then falls out of. And yet he’s exactly the sort of person you would want in your life.
I’m always fascinated by stories about siblings, since I know from experience how complicated those relationships can be, and how much they affect how you live your own life.
I did find the story a little slow at first, since much of the first quarter of the book focuses on the political situation in India and Udayan’s activities. This is a slow-paced, thoughtful read that covers a lot of years. But at the same time, the story becomes so compelling, and the characters so real, I didn’t want to put it down. This is a book you savor, not one you rush through.