The Lowland – title refers to a marshy stretch of land between two ponds in a Calcutta neighborhood where two very close brothers grow up. In monsoon season, the marsh floods and the ponds combine; in summer, the floodwater evaporates. You don’t need your decoder ring to figure out that the two ponds symbolize the two brothers — at times separate; at other times inseparable.
As a college student in the late ’60s, Subhash’s younger, more daredevil brother, Udayan, becomes involved in the Maoist “Naxalite” political movement, set on bettering the living conditions of India’s poor through violent uprising. Subhash, in contrast, dutifully dedicates himself to personal, rather than collective, improvement: He earns a scholarship to study science in America and moves to Rhode Island. For a couple of lonely years in a student boarding house, he learns to live without the voices of his family. But when Udayan is executed by the police in that very same marsh between the ponds, Subhash races back to Calcutta. He goes to comfort his parents; but, as it turns out, he also rescues his murdered brother’s pregnant wife, Gauri, from her own diminished future as a widowed (and unwelcome) daughter-in-law.
The Lowland is a novel about the recklessness of youth, as well as the uncertainty and lament that can make a long life not worth living. Toward the end of The Lowland, a figurative monsoon finally hits, rousing Subhash out of his lifelong nervousness, that mud hiding place Lahiri describes in her lyrical opening. Part of the beauty of this novel is that it’s far from an inevitable end whether this hard rain will give Subhash new life, or drown him.
There is an alike nonexistence even when it comes to depicting America or contemporary India. There are passing references to the civil rights movement and the antiwar demonstrations, to organic farming and an Obama sticker, to India’s vaunted new economic policies and to the re-emergence of the Naxalites. It makes all four generations of the family appear strangely bereft, not so much upwardly mobile immigrants making it into the promised land as much as characters flailing at the boundaries of life, wanting to be let across the borders into the unexplained disquiet that distress so much of the rest of humanity.
I am taking part in The Write Tribe Festival of Words #5 from 10th – 16th July 2016
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