- Random House
The thing about reading something by Jhumpa Lahiri is that, unlike something by, say, James Joyce, you don’t feel like you’re reading a story that passed through somebody’s consciousness to be enhanced and embellished before it landed on the page. Lahiri’s writing is so pure and unadorned, you barely notice it. It’s as though her characters—Gogol Ganguli in The Namesake, the doomed lovers Hema and Kaushik who feature in three stories in Unaccustomed Earth, and all the rest, even those who occupy just a few pages in a short story—have always existed and didn’t need a writer to make them up.
The Lowland, Lahiri’s latest book, her second novel, revisits familiar territory: Bengali-speaking immigrants from Calcutta who find themselves transplanted, through the vagaries of grad school admissions, to New England, where they live out their lives, raising American children who have little connection to India, except for their annual hot and boring summer visits.
Unlike most of Lahiri’s previous work, though, The Lowland mostly concentrates on the immigrants themselves, rather than their children, in this case, Subhash and Gauri, who arrive in Rhode Island in the early 1970s. Though in the end, they will live longer in America than they ever did in India, the most crucial incident in their lives is already behind them, in the lowland of the title, an empty lot behind the house where Subhash and his brother Udayan grew up.
“Once, within this enclave,” Lahiri writes on the first page, “there were two ponds, oblong, side by side. . . . After the monsoon the ponds would rise so that the embankment built between them could not be seen.”
After a few more pages you realize: these two ponds represent Subhash and Udayan! Separate, born 15 months apart, but so close, they’re almost like one person! Udayan, the younger, is the instigator, the one who comes up with the idea of sneaking into the neighborhood golf club to steal golf balls to resell for extra money, while Subhash, the older, is the one who should know better and is beaten by a policeman when they get caught.
Such are their lives, until they reach their late teens and decide to attend separate colleges. Subhash devotes himself to his studies. Udayan gets caught up in radical politics. The youth revolutions of the late 60s arrive in Calcutta, in the form of the Naxalite movement, inspired by a revolt among the peasants in a village in northern India called Naxalbari. (Naxalbari is so far from Calcutta in both space and time that the weapon of choice among the peasants is the bow and arrow.) “Naxalbari is an inspiration,” Udayan tells their father. “It’s an impetus for change.” Udayan and his friends idealize Mao and Che. It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows anything about idealistic young revolutionaries of the 1960s that their idealism fades and things start getting violent.
Subhash, meanwhile, doesn’t understand or approve of Udayan’s new interests and decide to opt out by going to America to get his Ph.D.
After he leaves, Udayan falls in love with Gauri, a young philosopher who is the sister of his best friend. They marry in secret and move in with Udayan’s disapproving parents. The political shit hits the fan. Udayan is killed—in the lowland. (Justly, or unjustly? Lahiri withholds all the facts until the very end, and even then, it’s still unclear.) Just a few weeks into mourning, Gauri discovers she’s pregnant. Subhash offers to marry her and bring her to America and be a father to the child.
Years later, on a visit to Calcutta, Subhash takes his daughter to the golf club (legally this time). “They stopped under an enormous banyan. Her father explained that it was a tree that began life attached to another, sprouting from its crown. The mass of twisted strands, hanging down like ropes, were aerial roots surrounding the host. Over time, the coalesced, forming additional trunks, encircling a hollow core if the host happened to die.”
There you have it, the final two-thirds of the novel in a nutshell. Is this necessary? Couldn’t you tell just by reading about Subhash and Gauri’s marriage, or the descriptions of Subhash’s mother’s sorrow and anger? Passages like this, and the one about the lowland, have a way of pulling you out of the novel, instead of fulfilling their intended purpose of reinforcing the novel’s themes. They remind you that you’re reading a story, something that has been crafted to make you want to keep reading and feel sympathy for the characters, something that actually has themes that need to be reinforced, instead of simply observing other people’s lives.
This doesn’t necessarily ruin The Lowland. It’s still a very good book. Udayan, Subhash, Gauri, and their daughter Bela are characters who are worth caring about, and their choices raise questions about responsibilities and obligations that family members have toward one another. Weighed against this—and the many books whose characters you forget after you finish the last page, or even before—complaining about an occasional moment of artifice seems petty and unfair. But this is Jhumpa Lahiri. I don’t want Udayan and Subhash to be characters with their close bond underlined by descriptions of ponds and trees. I still want to believe they’re real.