Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland is many things, but the one thing it is not is a pleasant story. It is not one of those stories which provide for a warm and comforting read rather it is a story which hits hard and shatters perceptions.
Subhash and Udayan Mitra are only fifteen months apart and as thick as thieves when they are small. While being extremely close as young kids, they grow apart as they grow up, with Subhash going to the US for his further studies and Udayan, in a misguided attempt to change the world, joining the Naxalite movement. What follows is a tragic tale of love, loss, life and death in which three lives are intertwined forever.
Surprisingly enough, the novel starts off as an innocent story about the relationship and adventures of two brothers. But that illusion of innocence shatters not long into the story with Udayan’s death. Udayan’s death brings the change in the tone and direction of the story.
The repercussions of Udayan’s views, his choices, and his actions, affect not only him but his entire family: his mother, his father, his brother, his wife and even his unborn daughter. We see how the actions of one person can change the course of the lives of several people. Udayan is killed and it is left on his brother Subhas to pick the shattered pieces of their family- their parents and Udhyan’s young and pregnant wife Gauri.
Like most of Lahiri’s works, The Lowland is set against the backdrop of two contrastingly beautiful places: Kolkata and Rhode Island, the chaotic and turbulent state of west Bengal is highlighted by the silence and calm of Boston. Deep rooted in the tradition of Bengal, it shows us the transformation of Kolkata from Calcutta by giving us a history lesson about the emergence of the Naxalite movement and political scenario of West Bengal right after India attained independence. This novel gives us a glimpse of the past, a past which shaped the present Bengal.
The Lowland is not an easy read, sometimes it gets so disturbing that it becomes necessary to take a break and forget about the story for a little while, just to not feel depressed.
The thing which makes this novel so profound is the different perspective that we get to see, the different shades of all the characters, the different point of views about the same instances. It is not often that we get to see so many different viewpoints in one story but here we come across almost all major characters’ point of views and realize that things are never one or two dimensional. One thing which seems wrong and completely unjustifiable at first becomes justified, what seems incomprehensible becomes comprehensible by that time we get done with the whole thing.
Preconceived notions get shattered, the line between black and white gets blurred and we realize that sometimes in a misguided attempt to do the right thing, good people end up committing heinous crimes.
Whereas a linear narration would not have been so impactful, the nonlinear narration of the novel works as Lahiri’s masterstroke. A touch of suspense, a sense of anticipation, and a hint of mystery is implicitly present in the novel.
In spite of the fact that the story is full of tragic incidences, this cathartic tale has a bittersweet ending. As is the case with most of Jhumpa Lahiri’s works, we get to see a ray of hope and light in the end. But even then Lahiri diminishes that hope– dominating the end by the echoes of Udayan’s last breath, the most painful and agonizing part of the story.