In Bengali, there’s a word for two siblings who are born in quick succession. It’s ‘pithopithi’, which literally translates to ‘back-to-back’ and gives the sense of the duo being like a single unit but also like two sides of one coin. The Lowland is about two such back-to-back brothers, Udayan and Subhash. Using their lives as a prism, Jhumpa Lahiri gazes, Janus-like, at a nightmarish period of modern Indian history and its traces in the present.
When Udayan and Subhash are boys in their modest, middle-class Tollygunge home in Calcutta, they’re considered indistinguishable. Even as adults, the photo of one is easily mistaken for the other and their voices are unnervingly similar. This apparent interchangeability is, however, belying. Udayan is the restless, passionate one; the one who crackles and bursts into flames. Subhash is the opposite. He’s quiet, measured, cautious and pragmatic. And yet, it turns out that these differences are as superficial as their physical sameness because there is an essential quality that unites these brothers: Their ability to love deeply, passionately and selflessly. For Udayan, it’s the Communist Naxalite ideology that defines him; for Subhash, it’s love for the daughter who embodies the contrasting emotional and political currents that pushed Subhash and Udayan along.
Lahiri dips her toe into India’s turbulent politics with The Lowland, giving the reader an account of the Naxalite movement that ravaged Calcutta and West Bengal in the 1960s. The Naxal era has been a rich source of inspiration for Bengali fiction, but for English readers, it’s only vaguely familiar. The movement was violent and confused. It’s leaders were charismatic and wooed some of the best young minds of that generation, only to destroy them in the political violence that followed. An entire generation was lost in this political struggle.
The Lowland shows the kind of choices the youth were forced to make at that time as ideology, sacrifice and pragmatism clashed painfully. Udayan and Subhash follow starkly separate paths—Udayan sides with the Naxals while Subhash, unsettled by the unrest, goes to America to study. The distance Subhash creates between himself and Calcutta and his family isn’t meant to be permanent, but despite events bringing Subhash back to the family fold, the Calcutta he was born and grew up in feels like an awkward, uncomfortable space that is too haunted by the past to accommodate the present.
Lahiri’s novel is ambitious in its scope, plotting its way through four decades and following characters who are plagued by restlessness and memory. Her strength, as always, is in the pristine simplicity of her language and her ability to imbue poetic gravitas to phrases that aren’t weighed down by lyricism. She makes her way across time, leaping over certain stretches and lingering to note the details in others. The problem is that despite the precise and intelligent structuring of the novel, the characterisation of the two brothers verges on stereotypical. One is passive, the other is dynamic; one is a firebrand, the other is a pragmatic. It’s a classic setup that feels hackneyed.
Lahiri lets the reader know very early on in the novel that she’s unconvinced by the Naxalite ideology, which robs the novel of any tension. There are some poignant and insightful political moments in the novel, like Lahiri’s description of Naxalite leader Kanu Sanyal’s 2010 suicide, but they are too few and the great reveal at the end is something an alert reader would have guessed many chapters ago.
Despite a fair amount of action in the narrative and some superb writing, The Lowland ultimately feels stagnant. Its characters shift continents and cities, but their stories feel slack. Regardless of the character she’s writing—man, woman, child or adult—Lahiri’s tone remains the same. There’s no distinguishing Lahiri’s narrative voice from that of Subhash or Gauri, Udayan’s widow whom Subhash marries, or Bela, the daughter who is the light of Subhash’s life, or even Bela’s daughter. The world in Lahiri’s novels is made up of perfectly-crafted sentences and unrelenting melancholia, with dauntingly few instances of enjoyment and laughter. The one heartwarming relationship is between Subhash and Bela, but it takes a long time to blossom.
The most fascinating character in The Lowland is also the one that needed more attention from the novelist: Gauri, a failed activist, a non-descript wife, a terrible mother and a brilliant academic. It seems Gauri exists mostly to throw light upon different aspects of the two brothers, but it’s in the episodes in which Gauri is solitary that Lahiri’s writing gleams with poignancy. Unfortunately, Gauri’s story is wound down abruptly and in the end, she is used to hastily return the focus upon Calcutta and Udayan, both of which recede as The Lowland settles its gaze upon Subhash’s life in America.
The unwavering similarity in the tone of Lahiri’s storytelling across her fiction is fast verging on monotony. It’s easy to predict that Lahiri’s novels are bound to have one solitary, unhappy Bengali housewife in chilly America and a young man who will come to America as a student and after some fumbles, find his place in the new country, with a curious mix of awkwardness and comfort. Still, in her fiction, Lahiri is recording histories that are in danger of slipping out of memory.
As far as the Bengali immigrant experience in America is concerned, Lahiri is undoubtedly the bard and patron saint all rolled into one.