The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

By Ekta R. Garg

November 27, 21013

Rated: Bookmark it!

The political unrest of a city comes squarely inside the home of a young man when his younger brother (who is also his best friend) gets involved.  Life takes the brothers, once inseparable, on two radically different paths but the older brother comes home after tragedy strikes, and he makes a choice that will alter his path once again—this time irrevocably.  Jhumpa Lahiri’s mastery of prose and expression come through in her latest novel, The Lowland.

Growing up in Calcutta in the 1960s, Subhash and Udayan, brothers and best friends, spend their childhoods almost as the same person.  Born just 15 months apart, they look enough alike for people to mistake one for the other, often in passing, sometimes by name.  They support one another through all their boyhood exploits and educational attempts, even studying at the same table night after night and coaching one another in their respective courses.  But when the boys get accepted to different colleges, Udayan, the more daring and carefree of the brothers, begins mingling with a far different set of friends.

Subhash proceeds with his studies and tries to understand his brother’s new ideologies, but it becomes difficult to keep pace with Udayan.  Udayan sets his sights on revolution, on change.  In the mid-1960s in a small town called Naxalbari in the Indian state of West Bengal, farmers raise their voices and their fists against the injustice of giving up the very crops they till to the landowners and anyone else wielding power.  The uprising sparks a revolution and renewed vigor in the Communist sects of the state, and the sentiments reach Calcutta and the suburb of Tollygunge where Subhash and Udayan’s family lives.

Udayan falls head over heels into the revolution; Subhash, uncomfortable with it all and also focused on a different goal, travels to the United States for higher studies.  Despite the thousands of miles separating them, Subhash’s thoughts stay with his brother.  When Udayan writes that he has gotten married, Subhash thinks his little brother has shifted priorities.  But a telegram declares otherwise, bringing Subhash back to Calcutta.  He meets Udayan’s young attractive wife, Gauri, and does what he thinks is right, but Gauri’s own ambiguity regarding the revolution ultimately undoes the relationships that once commanded Subhash and Udayan’s lives.

Whether in short story or novel form, author Jhumpa Lahiri’s way with words dominates every single page.  Her most consistent quality exudes her greatest strength in writing: every single story she has written projects quietude.  Lahiri uses mostly narration to deliver her stories, keeping the dialogue to a minimum.  In the hands of a less accomplished writer, this device would certainly doom any plot and its characters.  When Lahiri proceeds to tell a story with this method, the effect leaves the reader astounded.  The story stays with a person long after s/he closes the back cover or turns off the e-reader.

The only complaint I would have of Lahiri is the long gap between each of her books, but the wait most certainly is worth it.  One can almost feel the measured pace with which she writes, the unhurried speed that allows the story to move forward as it needs to.  As I’ve done in the past with her other books, I highly recommend The Lowland for anyone who loves literary fiction.  Not only does it offer a bit of history less well-known outside of India, but also it gives book lovers another reason to believe in the power of the written word.

***

What the ratings mean:

Bookmark it!–Read this book and then buy it and add it to to your own collection.  It’s definitely worth it!

Borrow it–Check this one out from the library; it’s a worthy read, but think twice before spending your hard-earned money on it.

Bypass it–Free time is precious.  Don’t spend it on this book!

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