Jhumpa Lahiri's 1999 debut short-story collection Interpreter of Maladies was almost flawless, each tale a gem of just the right size, understated, with pungent insights into the experience of being a South Asian immigrant to North America from a wide range of vantage points. It deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000. Her next book and first novel, The Namesake, although not as strong, extended her exploration of immigrant culture shock and her ability to portray complex characters.
Such an accomplished literary history makes Lahiri’s newest novel, The Lowland, all the more disappointing.
While The Lowland displays many of the author’s established talents – her beautiful and sharp descriptive power, and her understanding of Indian-American acculturation – it’s just not as captivating as the earlier works were. One problem is that the plot and the main characters’ motivations pivot around the 46-year-old Maoist rebellion in India, the Naxalite insurgency, which Lahiri apparently expects the reader to know and care about as much as her characters do. Moreover, for long stretches the protagonists’ unremitting loneliness becomes simply boring.
The story begins with Subhash and Udayan Mitra, two brothers born in the mid-1940s in Kolkata, just 15 months apart in age. They grow up in a “modest middle-class” family, the sons of an Indian Railways clerk, living in a narrow lane near a British country club and a lowland swamp. The brothers are extraordinarily close, with Udayan always the leader. “One was perpetually confused for the other,” Lahiri writes, “so that when either name was called both were conditioned to answer. And sometimes it was difficult to know who had answered, given that their voices were nearly indistinguishable.”
Their paths veer sharply in college, however, as Udayan becomes caught up in the new Naxalite movement. Avidly, he goes to meetings, joins marches, paints slogans on walls and hands out flyers calling for a peasants’ uprising and guerrilla warfare. He also falls in love with a fellow – though apolitical – student named Gauri. On the one hand, this defies his parents’ plans for a traditional arranged marriage. Yet, like an obedient son, he brings Gauri back to live in the family home.
Meanwhile, Subhash heads to the US to earn a PhD in oceanography. He lives an almost monastic existence, sticking to his studies and making just one friend.
These lives are abruptly yanked off track two years later, when Udayan is arrested and killed for his revolutionary activities. Returning to Kolkata for the mourning period, Subhash realises that his parents have ostracised Gauri, who is pregnant. So he offers to rescue her by marrying her and bringing her to the US with him.
The “newly-weds” clearly understand that this is a marriage of convenience – a strange twist, perhaps, on the traditional Indian arranged marriage. Still, as with many arranged marriages, there is the hope that love could flower eventually.
When the daughter, Bela, is born, she is told that Subhash is her father. Indeed, Subhash adores the little girl, and a strong bond grows between the two. “Every night, at Bela’s insistence, he lay with her until she fell asleep. It was a reminder of their connection to each other, a connection at once false and true.”
However, Gauri draws farther and farther away from the others and into herself. The only thing that sparks her passion is the chance to resume studying philosophy, which she had abandoned when she married Udayan.
Symbolically shadowing these human plot developments are changes to the lowland near Subhash and Udayan’s family home. First, it is the spot where Udayan tries to hide from the police but is killed.
Over the years, garbage is dumped there, plugging up the swamp and forming “a thickening bank around the water’s edge”. Finally, houses are built over the dried-out site.
All of this could have made a compelling narrative. There is a painful, three-generation mosaic in which almost everyone hurts or betrays someone else yet is himself or herself a sympathetic victim. The novel also offers a new angle on the immigrant experience, featuring two educated professionals, Subhash and Gauri, who adapt relatively easily to the US because they don’t really miss the culture or any family members back in India. Gauri is delighted to discover, for instance, that in America, “locks on the apartment doors were flimsy, little buttons on knobs instead of padlocks and bolts … there were no curfews or crackdowns. Students came and went and did as they pleased.”
Subhash’s and Gauri’s main connections to their birthplace seem to be merely the cuisine and their obsession over the Naxalites. (The Maoist rebellion has sporadically captured international attention in the past decade, especially after multiple kidnappings and killings, and it wields significant power in swaths of eastern and southern India.)
The book starts strong and the plot gains a bit of sparkle in the last 75 or so pages, circling and recircling back to the crucial days leading up to Udayan’s death, to fill in details with some gut-wrenching punches. But somewhere in the middle, Lahiri loses her magic touch.
It wouldn't be fair to gripe that the people in The Lowland are, in essence, too gloomy to care about. Novels obviously don't need noble or cheerful heroes in order to be engrossing.
Ironically, the problem may be that after three books, Lahiri’s characters have become too Americanised. Gauri and Subhash don’t suffer the pangs of being torn between two cultures. And without that immigrants’ drama, they are just another unhappily married couple, another set of American academics experiencing existential angst.
Of course, that may have been the author’s point, to show that Indian-Americans are just like any other Americans. But in that case, the novel is bogged down with far too many details of every argument, arrest, march, boycott and speech of the Naxalites – topics that would be of concern mainly to émigrés still engrossed in the doings of their native land. Alternatively, perhaps Lahiri wanted to focus on the rebellion and in particular, the reasons a middle-class student like Udayan would get caught up in it and the price he and his family finally pay for it. That could, in fact, make a great story. If so, then the problem is that there’s not enough about the Naxalites and Udayan’s role.
Still, even a weak Lahiri novel is better than most fiction. Her descriptions are vivid and precise, and she can say volumes with just a few subtle sentences. In one scene, the young Udayan and Gauri find themselves together without a chaperone, in daring violation of traditional mores, standing on the balcony of Gauri’s grandparents’ flat in Kolkata. They lean against the railing and gaze out at the street “so that she did not have to look at him … Her face was supported by the discreet barrier of her hand.” When she does sneak a glance, Gauri focuses on the veins in Udayan’s bare forearms. “They were prominent, the blood in them greenish-gray, like a pointed archway below the skin.”
Blood and veins have rarely been imbued with so much romantic tension.
Some fiction writers are specialists, annexing particular themes or settings as their own private territory; others revel in constant experimentation. So far, Lahiri has developed a reputation as one of the best writers about the South Asian expatriate experience. But she's still young and immensely talented. As her career grows, she can continue to hone that speciality, or move elsewhere. Whatever way she goes, The Lowland is merely a detour.
Fran Hawthorne is an award-winning US-based author and journalist who specialises in covering the intersection of business, finance and social policy.