‘Plato says the purpose of philosophy is to teach us how to die. There’s nothing to learn unless we’re living. In death we’re equal. It has that advantage over life,’ so says philosophy student Gauri who falls for idealistic, rebel Udayan. Udayan is the brother of Subhash, and as children in 1960s Calcutta, they are inseparable. But as the children grow, Udayan is drawn into a Maoist political movement, the Naxalite that tries (and ultimately fails) to take on India’s post-independence government.
Like so many of those who are drawn to political causes, all Udayan can do is be in the moment and fight for his beliefs. He is too young and self-righteous to see how his actions will impact on those around him and puts his politics before his family – as so many radicalised young men do. The Lowland examines the long term impact on one ordinary family, left behind to pick up the pieces when the freedom fight is stopped in its tracks.
Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer for her short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies and The Lowland is only her second novel. The Lowland was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and once again revisits a familiar theme, of the sense of disconnection and alienation felt by those, in this case Bengalis, who make a new life in the West.
The story is set in Tollygunge Calcutta and Rhode Island (described in loving detail that it comes as no surprise that Lahiri grew up there). It is told from three different points of view – Subhash, Udayan’s brother who chooses to leave his homeland behind and travels to America to further his career; from Gauri, the quiet, bookish girl who married Udayan, and finally from the point of view of Udayan himself.
The hardest character to fathom is Gauri as although she has moved to the West, like many migrants, she cherry picks the best of the new country, but her heart and soul remains firmly stuck in her old culture. She seems incapable of addressing her emotional problems, preferring to transfer all her passive energy into an education and an academic career while at the same time being unable to parent her daughter Bela and to take care of her emotional needs. Then there is Subhash, who chose to take Gauri with him to America to offer her a new life abroad, but whom Gauri also rejects because he is no substitute for Udayan.
At times, the story is as grey as the pebbles on those Rhode Island beaches Lahiri describes so well. And Lahiri does at least give us some hope for these characters, allowing Subhash happiness in later life and for Gauri there is a glimmer of hope that there may be some sort of redemption. It’s just a shame that Gauri’s philosophical beliefs were, for too long skewed towards the dying and not the living. But despite my slight irritation with Gauri, The Lowland is so beautifully written and ultimately gripping that it was hard to put down.