Book: The Lowland
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
“I think I’ll be gutted and emotionally drained by the time I’m finished with this book,” I messaged my friend who had insisted that I read The Lowland immediately. I gather that she’d recently read it herself and wished to discuss it with someone while the memories of the book were still fresh in her mind. “Yeah. You’ll take a few days to get over it,” she replied.
It’s been a few days since I finished reading the book. I’m still not over it.
The Lowland begins with the tale of two little boys, Subhash and Udayan. They live with their parents in a humble house in the Tollygunge area of Calcutta. Close to their house is a low lying patch of land where water accumulates during the monsoon.
Subhash is the ‘boring’ of the two brothers. Although both of them are equally gifted at academics, Subhash looks to take the safer and more conventional route in life; he pursues his studies to get himself to Rhode Island in America. Udayan, however, has a different path ahead of him.
This is the late 1960s. The word ‘revolution’ is casually bandied about the streets of Calcutta. Naxalbari is a flashpoint to gather all the students who are disillusioned with the way India is governing herself. Udayan gets caught up in the heady swirl of the Naxalite movement and becomes actively involved in it and soon, tragedy and violence catches up with him.
But by now, another life is inolved. Nay, two lives. Gauri, the girl whom Udayan secretly marries, and Bela, the daughter who grows up in a distant land, unaware of who her biological father is and painfully aware of her mother’s absence.
The story spans the lives of these main characters and their attempts to make best of the circumstances that the incident on the lowland throws them all into. Subhash tries to unravel what happened to his brother and then attempts to cobble together what he thinks will be as good a life as that of an Indian expat in America could be. Udayan, the risk-taker and doer by nature, mind filled and committed with the ideologies of Mao does what he thinks is right. Gauri, a keen student of philosophy, eloping to marry a charismatic, rogue-like figure, and then left to deal with a life full of remorse and a nagging sense of guilt. And finally Bela, a child without a mother and later a strong, independent woman.
Jhumpa Lahiri makes this book so damn personal! As a resident of this city and one who grew up in the Calcutta of the 80s and 90s, I could really identify with a lot of this book. Both, College Street and Tollygunge come alive. Not that you need to have lived here for this book to resonate within you (the friend who recommended this book to me is from Delhi and has herself never lived here). The very idea that life has various shades of grey rather than the distinct black and white is this book’s universal appeal.
A must read. Especially for the beautiful, if imperfect, end.