Note: This contains some spoilers
Jhumpa Lahiri is perhaps best known for her powerful and intimate short stories of Indian immigrants trying to find their place in a land missing the family closeness and strict tradition found in their home country. While these stories are what brought Lahiri to the forefront of the literary world, and the Times bestseller list, Lahiri has recently displayed a new interest in writing full-length novels. Among these is her newest book “The Lowland”.
“The Lowland” is set in Calcutta, now Kolkata, in the poor but developing district of Tollygunge and features a timid and responsible protagonist named Subhash and his older brother, Udayan, with whom he spends his childhood joined at the hip, but from whom he steadily grows apart. Udayan is swept up in the tidal wave of social reform and communism that inspired India’s youth in the 1960’s and joins the Marxist political group Naxalism, named after the village of Naxalbari. Subhash is much mellower in nature and does not join the group but rather moves to America in order to continue his religious studies. But then Udayan gets executed and Subhash is forced to return to India to console his parents. What follows is a multi-generational tale in which Subhash marries Guari, the widowed wife of Udayan, and moves back to America where he has a daughter with her.
The story is written in Lahiri’s usual style, with intimate narratives interwoven with a broad sweeping picture of time passing and perspectives changing. It accurately portrays Indian history and the attitudes displayed by people at the time and yet manages to develop characters full of emotion and a rich plot full of twists and turns. However, there is an apparent lack in character development throughout the story. One such hole is Guari. After Udayan gets killed Guari first comes into the narrative as a shattered and emotionally wrecked woman who must learn to love again. This would seem like an opportune moment to inject the story with emotional depth, but no such thing is done. When Guari agrees to marry Subhash there is no emotional growth in the story; rather, Guari fades into the subplot of the story and eventually disappears altogether.
However, there is one character that has ample room for development, and uses all of it. Bela, the daughter of Guari and Subhash, begins to narrate halfway through the book, and develops her thoughts in a progressive direction every chapter. Overall “The Lowland” is a book that should be read not for its plot but for its life-affirming perspectives and Lahiriri’s mastery in creating her trademark sense of melancholy that permeates the dialogue. This is not to say that the melancholy that makes itself apparent is depressing; in fact perhaps Jhumpa Lahiri’s unique ability to offer the reader a sense of sadness tinged with everlasting hope is what makes all her work the perfect platform to deal with serious issues in a sensitive way.
Categories: Arts & Culture