By Bina Shrestha
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland is an extraordinary story of an ordinary Bengali household chronicled over four decades, with the blazing Naxalite movement in the backdrop. The story unravels in Tollygunge, on the southern fringes of Calcutta, with a lowland nearby – “the two ponds that became one during the monsoons,” holding a consistent significance throughout the novel. The novel is a Jhumpa Lahiri classic, which ends in domestic tragedy, beginning with immense love; love between the siblings, love between lovers, love between parent and child, but all fruitless and unmet.
Each character in the story is wholesome and complete in their complexities like Gauri, or in their simplicities like Subhash. Udayan, the protagonist (though short-lived) is an idealist, a revolutionary involved in the Naxalite movement, making the revolution his way of life, his belief in social change, and his dream of a fair society.
Opposed to the fiery character of Udayan, stands Subhash, his elder brother – plain, predictable, always accepting the ways of the world. He is an example of a middle class man with simple dreams of making a career, having a family, raising children. Even when his dream is as simple as earning his degree and living an average life with a bride chosen by his parents, Subhash’s life is far from simple. With the unexpected turn of events, a man like him decides to marry his dead brother’s wife, Gauri, against the wishes of his parents. In return of his goodness and best intentions, Subhash receives disappointment, rejection, resentment, and indifference from his wife Gauri and, his foster daughter, Bela.
Gauri is a complex, unconventional, bookish girl, who is meant to be alone. She is a tailor-made character, not ready to settle for anything less than her own wants, even if that means hurting others or ruining her reputation. She is oblivious to the rules of the society and cannot allow duty and obligations constrain her. She makes her own choices and pays for the choices she had made. She doesn’t falter or succumb to circumstances, whether it is death of her husband or leaving behind her daughter she loved, or abandoning the husband she didn’t love. She is a loner, a misfit, self-centered, having strength close to insensitivity.
But, this strong personality is not devoid of internal struggles because, though she succeeds in making her own decisions, yet she is not complete, nor content with life. There is always a void, a vacuum in her life that begins with losing her husband, not being able to connect with her daughter, and not being able to accept anyone else in her life besides Udayan, her first husband. She might be perceived as a selfish woman, but I feel she is simply emotionally inadequate.
Together with the theme of domestic tragedy, the story beautifully expresses the futility of political movements. All movements begin with an agenda, but goes astray when power, money, greed come to play a role, leaving the basic cause for the movement far behind. In the last chapter, the final thoughts in Udayan’s mind sums it all: “But in this case it had fixed nothing, helped no one. In this case there was to be no revolution. He knew this now.”
The story is steeped in pathos. For instance, the mother doesn’t shed a drop of tear, but you can feel the pain when she goes to the lowland everyday, where Udayan is killed and cleans up the garbage and picks up the litter just to keep the death-spot of her son sacred and unpolluted. You find another heart-touching moment, when Gauri tells Udayan, the policeman’s routine, innocently, without knowing that her information would be the reason for his murder; that someone you love with your heart is capable of such betrayal.
At times, the book cannot maintain the pace that it begins with, especially, those few chapters in between where the mundane life of Subhash and Gauri is described feels a bit dragged. However, when the story takes another turn with Gauri leaving Subhash and Bela to pursue her career, it picks up momentum and ends with a full-blow of Udayan’s thoughts, before he meets his sad fate.
Jhumpa Lahiri does it again what she does best: vivid description of emotions, relationships, lifestyle in the simplest of language. She brilliantly describes the daily lives of a Bengali family, from the nitty-gritties like eating fish-stew made in mustard and chilly-paste ground on a stone slab, to the purposelessness of the Naxalite movement that claimed many innocent lives. Her characters are close to reality and convincing; characters that breathe and live among us, or could be even one of us.
The Lowland is an easy read that seamlessly flows from one unexpected event to another, yet keeps you connected, transporting to the alleys of Tollygunge even before you realize it.
Bina Shrestha is a management professional and a social entrepreneur running companies in Nepal since 2007. She obtained her Bachelors in English Literature from North Bengal University, West Bengal, India, and an Executive MBA (Finance Major) from the School of Management, Kathmandu University, Nepal.
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