‘As if in a documentary about fish’ – The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel, The Lowland, tells the story of two brothers from Tollygunge, in Calcutta. Subhash is calm, sensible and conventional. Udayan is rebellious, political in his views. As he becomes more and more involved in the Naxalite movement that is emerging in India, his views get more radical, until one day he is arrested for acts of terrorism.
Subhash is by then a PhD student in America and has no idea of what’s happening at home. His own life is far from exciting, his only act of rebellion his orderly affair with an American woman. But when Udayan is killed by the police, Subhash returns home to find that Udayan’s wife, Gauri, is pregnant, and badly treated by her in-laws who had never approved of her in the first place. Unexpectedly, Subhash offers to marry Gauri in order to give her a chance to start over and, to his parents’ dismay, she accepts.
The novel spans across half a century, taking us through Subhash and Gauri’s life together and then apart, Subhash’s voice sometimes replaced by Gauri’s as she leaves her husband and daughter and moves away to pursue her work in Philosophy. Towards the end more voices appear – that of Subhash’s elderly mother Bijoli, of Gauri’s daughter Bela, even the voice of Udayan. They fill in the gaps that did not really need to be filled, drawing the novel out to the point of no mystery remaining, nothing left unanswered.
Lahiri’s prose is sparse, at times poetic but always reserved just like the characters she chooses to focus on, resembling philosophical research where one sees both sides of the story, dispassionately accepting the reality of human condition. It does not cause the reader to worry or even care too much about the characters, but instead simply demonstrates their struggles as if in a documentary about fish.
Any Cop?: Despite all that, it somehow reads easily – except for the pages at the start of the novel that focus on the political picture of the time and seem to be more suited to an unexciting essay in history – and eventually arrives at a fully-researched – if a little too much – ending.
Any Cop? The poetic premise of an immigrant plagued by nostalgic yet painful memories is somewhat ruined by the detached prose that goes on for a little too long.
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- October 1, 2013 / 5:37 am