The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

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Rating – 4 stars

Jhumpa Lahiri’ The Lowland can be described in a sentence a book about guilt, the search for redemption and the impact of lies but mostly how one event can be the trigger that can change the course of so many lives – and not always for the better.

Lahiri’ tale revolves around two brothers Subhash and Udayan, born fifteen months apart, in the early 1940’s Calcutta. The older one Subhash, is the conventional good boy but Udayan has always been the rebel. The brothers remain inseparable all through their childhood, they even look and almost sound alike; with one often being mistaken for the other. 

The fork in the road for their relation develops when the Naxalite movement rears it’ head and Udayan, influenced with the ideology of Mao and the two Bengali leaders at the forefront of the movement – Charu Majumdar & Kanu Sanyal.  Subhash cannot agree with these people and their agenda’ nor is he convinced by his brother to join them. He instead decides to pursue his education and leaves for the US to do the same.

Life goes on for Subhash, who begins settling in the American way of life, but not before he comes over his culture shock. He even gets involved for a brief period with an older woman, estranged from her husband at the time but knows their relationship isn’t meant to be. While back home in India, Udayan elopes and gets married with Gauri. The couple meet through Gauri’ brother who is Udayan’ friend. 

One day things take a turn when Subhash receives the message Udayan is killed and the course of the lives of the Mitra family is altered.

On returning to India, Subhash learns the police shot down his brother in front of his parents and Gauri and that Gauri is expecting Udayan’ child. The family is in mourning, but Subhash cannot tolerate the way Gauri is treated by his parents especially his mother. Not only do they not like her, since the marriage wasn’t approved by them, but also believe somehow that their son’ ruin is her fault. The final straw that ultimately makes him rebel against their behavior is when Subhash learns that after the birth of the child, his parents plan to abandon Gauri, take away the child and cut off all ties with her.

Being attracted to Gauri and perhaps in finally getting a chance to overshadow his brother, Subhash in his only act of rebellion marries the widowed Gauri and takes her to the US.  Though he is not without his doubts about the outcome of this marriage. Knowing that it will take Gauri time to accept him as a husband, Subhash is patient with her and tries to give her space to not make her feel cornered or pressurized to become an active participant in the relationship. 

Gauri soon gives birth to a daughter, Bela but cannot bring herself to care for the child as much as a mother would. Not out of postpartum depression or because she still mourns for Udayan, as a few months into the birth she tries to move on in her life with Subhash, consummating their marriage. Their relation however never borders on anything emotional. Gauri is not in love with Udayan anymore, but she cannot love Subhash either.  Soon even the sexual aspect of their relationship dies when a couple of years into the marriage, it dawns on Subhash, Gauri won’t have any child with him or even love Bela the way a mother should.  He finally acknowledges to himself, the marriage is a mistake and was doomed from the beginning as predicted by his mother. The farce of the marriage finally ends 12 years later, when Subhash has to return to India owing to the death of his father. He is accompanied by Bela and never sees the blow coming.

Six weeks later when Bela & Subhash return to Rhode Island, they find the house empty and a note written by Gauri, explaining that she has left for good and is shifting to California, where she has been offered a job in one of the universities.

The estranged couple, never meet again.  Bela is naturally left shell-shocked by these developments and in the wake of the separation of her parents ends up in depression. Tackling which she decides to pursue a nomadic life and never marry. It is years later, that a now 34-year-old Bela finally learns the truth of her parentage and though infuriated at the revelation, forgives Subhash – since he has been the only parent she has ever truly had and been loved by. 

Years after his death, the ghost of Udayan and his actions still haunt Gauri, who cannot forgive herself and Udayan. Herself for being manipulated into becoming an unwitting accomplice of a crime and Udayan for using and manipulating her. 

Udayan’ death is the result of him being involved in the assassination of a police officer called Nirmal Dey, though Udayan was not the one to use the knife, he was the one, among those who plotted the murder. Gauri, becomes a part of the scheme when she spies on Dey and keeps a track of his daily schedule. In her blind belief and love, Gauri either never realizes the consequences of her actions or neglects the doubt that makes her question Udayan’ intentions, in asking her to spy. 

The repercussions of the actions long ago still haunt the Mitra family. Oscar Wilde, once said  “No man is rich enough to buy back his past.” No words ring truer to me when I think of this book, where each character wishes if only they had any means to alter the course of their life, change their past and in doing so have expectations and dreams for the future while living a present that is free of burden, guilt and most of all a sense of loneliness and emptiness.

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