It All Starts and Ends and Starts Again
Review by Erik Gamlem
Everyone has an origin; we all come from somewhere. The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel in 10 years, continually plays with the question of origin. The Lowland is the story of two brothers: Udayan and his older, more subdued brother Subhash. Udayan is a fighter who stands up for others in a world he sees as unjust. Subhash is quiet and sensitive to his family’s feelings, following the safe path. One night, hopping the fence of an exclusive golf course to steal golf balls to sell back to the patrons, the boys are caught by a guard. When questioned, Udayan defies the guard and is punished with a hit to the leg with a bent golf club the brothers share. Subhash looks on, silent, defeated and obedient. A parallel narrative slowly unfolds as the brothers are each affected by this moment.
Lahiri isn’t known for cliff hangers and twists in her plots. Her dramatic moments are built up subtly and without much fanfare. Because she knows most of us live there, it’s in the ordinary that Lahiri is most elegant. The impact of her writing doesn’t lie in the impossibility of the lives it describes, but in the possibility that we will live through them.
India’s Naxalite movement provides a backdrop for the brothers’ stories. Udayan becomes a member of this Communist uprising influenced by Mao’s China and Guevara’s Cuba, fighting on behalf of the poor farmers in India’s western regions and defying his parents’ wishes. Subhash does what is expected, going to college and working to help support his parents. The brothers live two separate lives, but remain close. After Subhash moves to America and Udayan marries a comrade’s sister, Lahiri makes sure we still see the brothers are connected. In alternating chapters, Subhash often wonders what his brother would think of his experiences, while Udayan sends letters.
For Udayan, love and romance are not enough. Though Lahiri hides his actions in the narrative of a new wife, we find out that Udayan has been keeping in contact with the movement—and he pays the price with his life. The action and details build long after Udayan’s death is announced in the narrative.
Here, a new narrative begins to unfold. Lahiri moves slowly to unleash the unrest within, the unraveling of which tells a much more tragic tale. Subhash marries Udayan’s widow, Gauri, wanting to honor his brother and raise the child Udayan was not aware of. However, their relationship does not quite coalesce; Gauri struggles with being a mother, widow and wife, longing for the freedom she found in her previous marriage. Their daughter grows up unaware of where she comes from, molded and shaped by two very different parents.
Rather than giving us a book of historical fiction, Lahiri dances in the tension of these relationships where the definitions are unclear, the boundaries limitless and the outcomes never as we want them. The decisions and actions made in these moments are what matter and what shape these lives in the present. Soon, Udayan becomes nothing more than a memory, rather than the catalyst he was first made out to be. The Lowland is a book that sets up where these individuals come from, but it’s a story about where they get to from defining moments.
The Lowland leaves us not where we think we ought to be left, but where a new story is set to begin. What's gratifying is that so far in her literary career, Lahiri hasn't resorted to a formula to tell her tales. Her own voice is low in the narrative, focused softly around characters that aren’t being forced to go into predictable territory. They're allowed to take themselves in whatever direction compels them. While this novel hits on the things Lahiri’s received recognition for, it is still somehow satisfying to see that life, as it is and as it unfolds, isn’t always satisfying.
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