I just finished reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland and the writing is fine and the story flows well. Unfortunately as a novel, it was disappointing because it just was not very interesting and deep. It’s gotten a lot of acclaim and is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, which was a factor for me in deciding to buy it. However this also made me expect more from the book and my expectations were off the mark.
Perhaps the main thing is I mistook the focus of the story, believing it would be based on India and the Naxalite struggle, a Marxist rebellion in 1960s Bengal that one of the protagonists was heavily involved in. Yet the Lowland is not a novel about India or the failed uprising, but a tale about immigration, love and duty.
The Naxalite rebellion, which I wasn’t familiar with, has a decisive role in the unfolding of the characters’ lives for the entire book, but it fades from the scene quickly. It’s not that I have a special attraction for Marxist movements, but I do like books that have significant or notable historical events as backdrops. The characters may have been heavily impacted, in different ways, by the movement but there is no deep narrative that explores it in-depth, so we fail to understand why one of the protagonists become so involved or the mood of society that enabled such a movement to spread. Also disappointing is the lack of emphasis on India and Calcutta/Kolkata, though the neighborhood where the protagonist brothers grew up is described in rich detail.
Two brothers grow up in Calcutta, close and inseparable, but during university, a fledgling Marxist movement takes hold of the younger brother Udayan. Things start to get tense as the movement becomes violent and Udayan becomes more active. Subhash moves to the US on a scholarship to study and eventually chooses to stay. However, he returns briefly to Kolkata after his brother is killed by the police and finds out Udayan’s widow Gauri is pregnant but ignored by their parents. Subhash decides to do the honorable thing and marry her and hence raise his brother’s child.
The story drifts as its moves to America as Subhash builds his life there with Gauri and her daughter. It then becomes a little like an immigrant story, except the problems and issues are not with the issue of being immigrants in a foreign country. It almost becomes banal but the story raises some valid questions about the choices you make in life and the sacrifices between personal desires and family responsibility. The biggest question is whether if one feels incapable of doing her duty, should one still persevere or abandon it. This takes up the core of the story, with the beginning and end touching on the events of the Naxalite uprising, almost like two separate stories. And of course, it means the tragedy that sparked the events in the story is neglected for the bulk of it.
The characters are not easy to sympathize with or care about, other than Subhash, the responsible husband and father who bears most of the burdens, and even he is not really interesting. One of the most striking scenes is at the end when we get to see an earlier tragic event unfold from the perspective of Udayan, but by that time, it is too late to have any major impact on the book. It’s a decent read but at the end, the hollowness of most of the characters reflects how I feel about the novel.