It is seldom that contemporary writers echo the influence of the political over the personal and much less rarely talk about how political decisions affect generations across geographies. The Lowland is a story about two brothers caught between idealism and responsibility. Subhash and Udayan grow up together in the marshy lowland of Tollygunge, inseparable and often mistaken for each other by relatives and friends. For all their adventures in the suburbs of Calcutta together Udayan and Subhash grow up to be radically different from each other with different futures lying ahead of them. Udayan, the more daring of them finds himself ideologically drawn towards the Naxalbari movement, small town just hours away from Calcutta where the peasants had started revolting against the landlords, which in essence replicated the Maoist revolution in China. Subhash on the other hand has a more subdued outlook on the political front, skeptical about how a foreign concept could work in the Indian context. He moves to Rhode Island, away from home and political activism, to pursue his graduate studies. The physical distance further threatens to create a chasm between them as each has to move on without the other. But Lahiri complicates the traditional stories of sibling rivalry but replacing it with real affection and deep respect. What touches the heart is the innate camaraderie that the brothers share between them that refuses to fade away even when they have different goals in life.
Mean while the political landscape is fraught with tension as the ‘radicals’ carry out disruptive activities as a subversive attack on repressive authority. It is here that we are first introduced to Gauri; a self assured woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind regarding the political condition and who soon becomes Udayan’s object of affection. The two get married unceremoniously as would fit their socio-political commitments. The whole revolution makes news nationally and internationally with the rise of communism in India. What we soon discover is the fact that the Naxalbari movement is just a backdrop to this epic story, the real focus of study is rather in the realm of the personal and how the family dynamics are influenced by larger politics. Udayan’s involvement with the rebels, engaging in activities of terror leads to his execution by the police that the family is witnessed to unfortunately. Naturally the emotional and psychological wounds are too much to bear for the parents and they turn into “zombies”. Subhash comes to the rescue it would seem as he emancipates Gauri from the dogmatic confinements of a widowed life and marries her. Partially perhaps because he feels responsible somehow and partially because he wants to be closer to the heir of Udayan’s legacy, the unborn child that Gauri is carrying. But even far away from home, the incident that took place in the lowland outside their house still haunts over their relationship and theirs is anything but a stable family. Udayan’s death changes the life of all in the novel, Subhash, Gauri, his parents and eventually Bela, his daughter. Their miseries are real and also private. Lahiri makes sure each of their private thoughts evoke the pathos of the reader.
The Lowland marks the emergence of much more nuanced understanding of human relationships by Lahiri. She makes sure we understand the fundamental bond that threads lives to each other and how delicate they are. This is what makes this book an instant classic and Lahiri a post modernist writer of the diaspora. No wonder The Lowland has been already long listed for the Man Booker Prize and the National book award in the US.
Till the next time 🙂