I saved this book for a weekend. I knew this was not something I wanted to read in bits and pieces of time snatched, sneaked, and cobbled together during the commute to and from work or the hour before bed. My previous experiences with Jhumpa Lahiri’s sumptuous prose meant I would need a certain type of stillness in order to appreciate this book. I needed the luxury to linger over each page and absorb the words, rather than skim and skip as I might do with a different type of novel. So, the weekend before last, I sat down to enjoy this, not entirely sure what to expect in terms of story. Lahiri does not disappoint, though. The Lowland is magnificent in its breadth and depth.
The book spans most of the twentieth century and stretches tentatively into the twenty-first. It doesn’t concern itself with charting or documenting India’s tumultuous decades following Independence so much as it uses those events as a cultural backdrop. Only the Naxalite movement itself figures prominently in the story, whereas other significant events, such as the Emergency, are only mentioned. Much of the book takes place in the United States; again, however, major historical events are mere signposts, ways of keeping track of time, than elements of plot. The Lowland is relentlessly character driven in its story, much more so than almost any book I’ve read.
As such, the story defies easy summary. The term plot becomes quite basic—that which happens. And that which happens is, for the most part, the ordinary give-and-take of daily life, punctuated by those momentous events that shape and define our existence. Subhash returns to India following his brother’s death at the hands of overzealous, anti-communist police. He finds his parents mistreating Udayan’s widow, Gauri, who is pregnant with Udayan’s child. So he marries Gauri and takes her back with him to the United States, where they intend to raise the child as his own. It is a marriage of convenience, not of love, never of love so long as the spectre of Udayan hangs between them.
Through Subhash’s experiences in the United States, first as a bachelor and then as a husband, Lahiri creates an effective and poignant juxtaposition of two cultures. She presents much of Subhash’s experiences as decisions, moments where he must choose between the American way and the Indian way. For example, when his friendship with an American woman becomes something more, he feels that he has turned his back on his parents’ plans for a traditional, arranged marriage. Even after this romance flickers and fades away, there is a sense that Subhash has irrevocably changed. His decision to marry Gauri, certainly against the wishes of his parents, only confirms this transformation. No longer the calm and deferential son he was in youth, Subhash has become a more independent individual. Yet for all his adoption of certain American habits and perspectives, he still has deep roots in India. In this way, Lahiri subtly emphasizes the complexity of life as an immigrant, immersed and steeped in more than one culture.
She builds on this picture through Gauri’s own adaptation to living in the United States. At stake for Gauri is more than cultural confusion: hers is a crisis of identity. In India, she had been Udayan’s wife and then his widow. Until recently, her role had been clear: she would be a mother and a companion, and she wanted both of these things. Udayan’s death changed that, and she certainly wasn’t happy any more, but she still had a clarity of purpose. Moving to the United States dispels that clarity, and Gauri has the difficult task of reforming her identity as the wife of the brother of the father of her child. When this doesn’t work for her, she starts branching out and becoming her own person again, rediscovering her interest in study, in philosophy.
Gauri struggles to reconcile her desire for independence with motherhood. She finds living with Subhash uncomfortable, awkward, and the baby’s birth only intensifies this feeling. Ultimately, she is unable to truly embrace being Bela’s mother, and the consequences are heartbreaking. There is one significant series of events when Bela is a child, playing on the living room floor. Gauri finds they are out of milk. Telling Bela she is popping out to check the mail, Gauri goes out to the convenience store, returning as quickly as possible. She is nervous the entire time she does this and relieved when she finds Bela safe and unaltered—yet the thrill, the sense of satisfaction, soon motivates her to leave Bela alone again and again, often much longer than that. I can still remember feeling so shocked that she would do this. And then when Subhash discovers that Gauri is doing this….
In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy says, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Put simply, The Lowland is about an unhappy family. Gauri is a mother who resents the burdens of motherhood. Subhash loves Bela but is always reminded that he is not really her father—for though he raises her, she develops an independent and mercurial restlessness that is more like Udayan than anyone else. The tensions and disagreements eventually drive all three apart, Gauri leaving and Bela striking out on her own, with Subhash the one, true to his character, remaining at rest.
The Lowland eschews quotation marks or any other delimiter of dialogue, even an em-dash. Instead, dialogue must be inferred. Ordinarily this is a dealbreaker for me; I like the explicit, conventional signals and punctuation marks that have arisen to help the reader of the novel understand what’s going on. There is an exception to every rule, though, and in this case, the lack of delimited dialogue works. It helps that there is very little dialogue—more and maybe I would have had a harder time. This book is mostly description and narration; characters and people speak infrequently, adding to the dreamlike atmosphere of the story.
There’s a certain element of voyeurism to fiction, and particularly fiction like The Lowland. Readers are observing the lives of characters, people who are unaware of our presence or interest. But with this observation comes the ability to sympathize with and understand situations that we would never otherwise experience. I’ll never know what it feels like to nurse a child from my body or the complex interplay of emotions and hormones that accompany it. If I’m lucky, I’ll never experience the type of unrest and repression that Udayan fights unsuccessfully. Yet thanks to Lahiri’s skilful portrayal, I can see how these things change people and why they are driven to do things that they later regret—or celebrate.
Subhash and Gauri’s drama is not larger than life, not fantastical or incredible. Yet Lahiri unfolds it with a complexity and richness of detail that allows us to examine it from multiple angles, to sympathize with all those involved and lament that, sometimes, being human means not everything can have a happy ending. But we can’t stop reading, can’t tear ourselves away. We have to find out how it ends—though, true to real life, there is no proper, neat ending to The Lowland. Loose ends dangle. Here, as in reality, the story is never finished; only chapters come to close. No matter how bad it gets, how incredible it seems that a series of innocent choices has led to a state of abject unhappiness, there is always a reason to hope.