Here are six key aspects of the novel for the uninitiated.
Not a diaspora novel
Yes, it’s set in the US and India, but it isn’t yet another narrative of the ritual experiences or the confused identities of first- and second-generation Indians abroad. For, the landscape of this novel is internal, with the external setting serving to artistically amplify the loneliness of the people in it.
In many senses, this is Lahiri transforming the territory she uses to convey her stories about individuals and their relationships with one another. For, despite the familiarity with the geographical backdrops to The Lowland that her regular readers possess, the story ‒ or, rather, the multiple stories ‒ in here are not like any that Lahiri has written earlier.
Not a Naxal novel
The Naxalite movement that almost shook Calcutta in the late 1960s and early 1970s does provide the political backdrop to the key events in the novel. But by no means does The Lowland purport to be either a potted history of the movement or a document on the ideologies and conflicts involved.
The younger of two brothers, Udayan ‒ Subhash being the elder one ‒ joins the movement which is to change the course of the personal history of the family as well as of Gauri, whom he marries. But once it has played this role, the Naxal uprising recedes to the background, allowing the real story of Udayan, Subhash and Gauri to take over.
A novel about abandonment
As the storyline reveals, different characters in the novel turn their backs on certain integral aspects of their existence ‒ sometimes almost inexplicably (isn’t that exactly what happens in real life?). One person abandons a political movement; another, a country; a third, a childhood.
With the abandonment comes the kind of loneliness and solitary life that is almost too painful to read about, but which is nevertheless recognisable as a heartbreakingly genuine situation that human being place themselves in through the choices they are compelled to make.
The wife, not the brothers
The novel, is of course, about two brothers. You could be led to believe this from the opening chapters. But actually, it is about their wife, Gauri.
Yes, their wife. To find out how this is possible, you’ll have to read The Lowland. But if the central note of melancholic loneliness that runs through the novel is embodied in any one person, it is Gauri.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘first’ novel
Well, it could have been. The Lowland is the first novel that Lahiri began writing. She stopped to write ‒ and publish‒- two collections of short stories and a novel before returning to her first work. Would it have been different had it been her first published work? Almost certainly.
What would the differences have been? Now that’s a question for delicious speculation. The differences between this work and the others, which follow the lives of the Indian diaspora in the US, are obvious. Had this one been Lahiri’s first book, perhaps she wouldn’t even have acquired the descriptor of being the fictional chronicler of Indians abroad. Indeed, her entire oeuvre might have taken a different direction.
The beginning and the ending
Here are the first lines.
East of the Tolly Club, after Deshapran Sashmal Road splits in two, there is a small mosque. A turn leads to a quiet enclave. A warren of narrow lanes and modest middle-class homes.
And here are the last.
He adjusted his body in relation to hers. His head angled down, his hand forming a canopy between them to shield her face from the sun. It was a useless gesture. Only silence. The sunlight on her hair.
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