The Lowland begins in Calcutta, against the backdrop of India’s 1960s Naxalite movement. The book is about two young brothers, Subhash and Udayan, inseparable, grow up in Tollygunge, a south Calcutta neighhorhood, who are destined to go separate ways. Jhumpa Lahiri’s udayan’s ideology has nothing common with his brother Subash’s, but when I read The Lowland, I could relate Udayan with P Rajan, martyr of the Naxalite Movement - a rebellion, as per the rebels, waged to eradicate inequality and poverty. Being a police officer’s daughter I was part of all the discussion that took place at home, on the nationwide Emergency and the out break of Naxalite movement which created a wave of police activism in Kerala. I was too young to comprehend the long talks and for and against, that took place at that time but later I started reading related literature, which attracted me to this book too. The LowLand is more than a story steeped in history, it is tour de force and an emotional family saga of love, loss, betrayal, freedom and independence.
P. Rajan, was a Engineering student who was arrested by the Kerala Police, for alleged Naxal association. He died due to the police torture of extreme kind and like Jhumpa Lahiri’s Udayan, his body was then disposed of by the police, and was never recovered.
Udayan is literally rebellious, a victim of the time, of the Naxalite movement, “ Naxalbari is an inspiration. It’s an impetus for change.”
Subhash is careful, concern and studious and wants to please his parents, “What if the police come to the house? What if you get arrested? What would Ma and Baba think? What’s happened to you, Udayan? They’re the people who raised you. Who continue to feed and clothe you. You’d amount to nothing, if it weren’t for them”.
Subhash leaves India to pursue a PhD in Oceanography at Rhode Island, Udayan remains in Calcutta, surrendering himself fully, to what he believes, thereby, risks his own life. He is captured and executed in front of his parents and his pregnant wife, Gauri in the nearby LowLand.
He’d known from the beginning the risk of what he was doing. .... For a fraction of a second he heard the explosion tearing through his lungs. A sound like gushing water or a torrent of wind. A sound that belonged to the fixed forces of the world, that then took him out of the world. The silence was pure now. Nothing interfered.
It’s the death of Udayan that cast a shadow on Subhash’s life, Jhumpa Lahiri prepares Subash without a lover, other than Holly, with whom he spends Friday nights, “If you like”, to accept Udayan’s widow Gauri, promising her a new beginning in Rhodes Island, against his mother Bijoli’ wish. “She’s Udayan’s wife, she’ll never love you.”
Jhumpa Lahari’s descriptions of place are so vivid and clear that I felt that I'd been to Calcutta and Rhodes Island.
Lower rooftops of tin or tile, with squash vines trailing over them. The tops of walls, dotted white, splattered with excrement from crows. Two oblong ponds on the otherside of the lane. The lowland, looking to him like a mudflat after the tide.
The ripe heat of August. The door to the study left open, the desktop nearly bare. The grass sprouting to her shoulders, spreading before her like a sea. Describing the landscape Jhumpa Lahiri could capture and translate the suppressed intense emotion of her characters to her readers.
The story takes an unexpected twist when Gauri builds a tentative, melancholy life together yet separately in an apartment with her new husband Subhash, feeling her unborn baby nestled inside her, providing company but also letting her be.
She is an unhappy mother right from the beginning, she felt as if she contained a ghost - stubborn and adamant , she grasped her tightly by the hand, causing her to trip, dragging her across. Bela her daughter grows up believing that Subhash is her father — Gauri, instead of feeling obliged to Subash, the man who gave her a second life, “ I want to tell her about Udayan.” She saw the fear in his eyes. But she knew well she was a student, without an income. Like Bela, Gauri wouldn’t survive without him. Gauri yields before Subash unwillingly, with him she learned that an act to express love could have nothing to do with it. That her heart and body were different things.
In Gauri we find the other side of the modern woman, who strives for freedom and independence, indulging in her own body and venting out her bodily needs in her girl friend at the cost of her own family. An alternate motherhood, giving birth to an unwanted child. Gauri abandons her child - the child, her responsibility becomes her spouse, for whom “felt his presence on earth being denied, even as he stood there. He was forbidden access; the past refused to admit him. It only reminded him that this arbitrary place, where he’d landed and made his life, was not his... Among its people, its trees, its particular geography he had studied and grown to love, he was still a visitor. The worst form of visitor: one who had refused to leave”. Gauri leaves her spouse and daughter to become a professor of philosophy in California. Gauri’s betrayal, binds Bela and Subhash into a tender, loving family bonds, even though Bela realise later that Udayan was her biological father.
Gauri, the successful professor is finally thrown out by her daughter Bela, “ The way you took advantage of him from the beginning”. At the end, even the readers may want to shout with Bela, the way she felt the urge to strike her. To be rid of her, to kill her all over again.
“You’ve already taught me not to need you”. – the echo lingers on...