Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel, “The Lowland,” is nothing short of hypnotizing. Not perfect, mind you – but hypnotizing.
Like Lahiri’s heralded first novel, “The Namesake,” and her beautiful short-story collections, “Interpreter of Maladies” and “Unaccustomed Earth,” this is a book both exquisite and compelling, the kind that calls to you when you must put it down, if only for a moment.
Its draw, again like its predecessors, is partly a focus on what is known as “the immigrant experience” – but it is Lahiri’s readers, rather than her carefully rendered characters, who are the true immigrants here, strangers drawn to Lahiri’s spare but exotic prose, her knowledge of India and what it can be like to leave this ancient Asian subcontinent for America’s uncertain shores, always to remember.
Lahiri also repeats her fascination with the irrefutable ties between a parent and child, ties sometimes weakened or lost, even severed, but irrefutable all the same. However, this time, Lahiri dares to do even more, giving us family but also going beyond family, to a revolutionary underground of the late 1960s in an India that she calls “an ancient place that was also young, still struggling to know itself.”
Subhash and Udayan are two young brothers in this post-colonial era, living in Tollygunge outside Calcutta at a time when there is still a lowland on the outskirts of their neighborhood, the acreage flooded after a monsoon, traversable but damp the remainder of the year.
We meet the brothers in the early 1950s. (Nehru is prime minister; Queen Elizabeth II is newly crowned.)
The boys, always together, are so close in age and appearance that the townspeople of Tollygunge often cannot tell them apart. Yet, they are of different temperaments – Subhash, the older of the two, obedient and cautious, of a “placid nature;” Udayan quite the opposite:
As Subhash, knowing he was not favored by his parents, describes the contradiction: “It wasn’t possible to surprise or impress them. That was what Udayan did.”
And so it is not surprising that Udayan, as a passionate and idealistic young man, joins the militant Naxalites, a fledgling communist group intent on redistributing India’s resources, to accommodate the homeless, the poor. Udayan will also fall in love with Gauri, the very young – and intelligent – sister of his friend Manash.
“She prefers books to jewels and saris. She believes as I do,” Udayan writes to Subhash, now following his own interests (in the environment) in the United States, as a Ph.D. candidate at a university in Rhode Island.
“Like Chairman Mao, I reject the idea of an arranged marriage … And so I’ve married her … I told Ma and Baba after the fact … They are still upset with me and also for no reason with Gauri, but we’re with them now, learning to live with one another. They can’t bear to tell you what I’ve done. So I’m telling you myself.”
Subhash is astonished – not only that “Udayan, so dedicated to his politics, so scornful of convention, would take a wife,” but also that “Udayan had married before Subhash … married a woman of his own choosing … Here was another example of Udayan forging ahead of Subhash, of denying that he’d come second. Another example of getting his way.”
All of this will seem small when, in seemingly no time, Udayan is murdered, by Indian authorities, while Gauri and her in-laws watch, helpless, horrified, their hearts broken forever.
Even telling this much of Lahiri’s powerful lowland story feels a violation – but suffice it to say the death of Udayan will affect the lives of countless others, casting shadows right and left and even over the coming generation. For Gauri is with child and, although Subhash offers to take her back to America with him, she knows this is a stopgap, not a resolution. Yet she goes, again with the disapproval of her in-laws, in particular the imperious Bijoli who tells her son: “She’s Udayan’s wife, she’ll never love you.”
In this sense, Bijoli underlines how much “The Lowland” is about the complex choices made by nearly everyone in the book – choices that reverberate uneasily throughout the novel, bringing with them angst and doubt and sometimes overwhelming guilt, shame, regret.
But there are also choices that bring joy here, and pockets of genuine contentment – each portion of the book told from the point of view of a different character, with gentle Subhash the main narrator, the complicated Gauri next – and her daughter Bela as well as Bijoli and even Udayan helping to pull the tale together.
Bijoli, bound by custom and devoted to the memory of Udayan, is a marvelous character here – unyielding, peremptory, memorable. In the end, she will be unable to find solace in her remaining son Subhash, “unable to love one without the other.”
Bela – the child of Udayan and Gauri – is a child of two worlds, even bearing a name that represents both a flower and “a span of time,” each of these meanings to play a part in her unusual life.
But it is Gauri who fascinates beyond the others, Gauri whose own “span of time” with us reflects the enormity of the choices made here – not only hers (and hers is both shocking and not shocking) but the choices of all the others as well.
It is Gauri, too, who brings us the minutiae impossible to forget here – how, in her early days in America, she buys “something dense, cold, slightly sour” called cream cheese, then eats it straight from the wrapper in a parking lot “not knowing it was intended to be spread;” how she describes the way the newborn Bela “demanded little and yet she demanded everything;” how she as Subhash’s unhappy wife now understands love-making as “her heart and her body (being) different things.”
It is Gauri who will reveal more and more to us as “The Lowland” progresses, baring her own secret to us, with Udayan’s to follow in his own remembered time.
All in all, it is not surprising that “The Lowland” is a contender for the 2013 National Book Award – as well as being on the short list for Britain’s 2013 Man Booker Prize. But that does not mean the book is flawless.
Lahiri’s concentration on the particulars of the Naxalite uprising is at times distracting – and certainly unnecessary, given the universality of her lowland tale. It is enough to know that Udayan is involved in something he passionately believes in and is willing to engage in violence for without our needing to join the revolution.
At times, too, Lahiri seems to hurry her story, as if to make it fit an invisible outline. But then, one could also argue for more time for the brothers to compete in life; more moments with the withering Bijoli – or for “The Lowland” simply never to end, it is that strong, that satisfying.
In fact, what we really have here is a slice of life with the full gamut of human travail and emotion, an uncommonly fetching novel one suspects will be passed from hand to hand, or shared via cyberspace, for decades to come.
Karen Brady is a former News columnist and frequent News book reviewer.
By Jhumpa Lahiri
340 pages, $27.95