Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Most people trusted in the future, assuming that their preferred version of it would unfold. Blindly planning for it, envisioning things that weren't the case. This was the working of the will. This was what gave the world purpose and direction. Not what was there but what was not.

My first book for 2015 (and this blog!) is The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. The story begins in 1960’s Calcutta and follows the lives of the two Mitra brothers who are quite different in ways that siblings often are. Subhash Mitra is the older brother by 15-months – academically gifted, cautious, yet ambitious in his own right. Udayan Mitra, the younger brother, is intelligent and extremely passionate – fiery and driven by his political and social ideology to change India. Though different in personality, each brother understands himself better in the company of the other, and as a result, they are inseparable.

As the brothers mature, their futures diverge – Subhash pursues a PhD program in Rhode Island leading him into a career of scientific research in the U.S. Udayan becomes increasingly involved with the Naxalite movement, a radical leftist Communist uprising in support of Maoist politics and thinking in India. During their time apart, Subhash would receive an occasional letter from Udayan with updates on their parents, neighborhood, and the woman he has chosen to marry in a private ceremony without the approval of their parents. Subhash continues to remain in the U.S. pursuing his education until he’s forced to return to India upon the news of Udayan’s death.

Shot by the police in front of his family, Udayan’s death leaves the Mitra family overwhelmed with grief and the depth of his involvement in the controversial guerilla movements of the day is in question. Also in question is the future of Gauri, Udayan’s relatively new wife, now widow, who is ignored by the in-laws who continue to disapprove of their deceased son’s decision to marry her. Things become complicated as Gauri discovers she is pregnant, Udayan unaware of this at the time of his death.

During Subhash’s homecoming, it is his ongoing dutiful nature to his brother and his commitment to his career and life in the U.S. that leads him to marry Gauri. In doing so, he believes he is providing Gauri with an escape from her oppressive living arrangement and the memories affiliated with Calcutta while also taking care of her and the child on the way.

I found that up until this point, the novel’s pace was a bit slow (though I thoroughly enjoyed taking a Wiki Walk starting with the Naxalite movement). The first quarter of the novel was begging for more details and emotions in order to move beyond historical fiction and really bring the story to life. It is not until Gauri is living with Subhash in the U.S. that the characters and story truly take off, urging the reader to empathize with varying levels of frustration, hope and disappointment from several different perspectives.

Though it takes some getting used to, Lahiri’s decision to forgo quotes and conventional dialogue enhances the story. The more we get to know the characters, the more freely the uninterrupted narrative flows. This tactic also lends itself well to the reemergence of the past throughout the novel, illustrating familiar personality traits, decisions, and youthful impulsiveness from the story’s beginnings.

I enjoyed the book for this unique storytelling, but in a strange way it is the incredible connected sadness from one generation of the Mitra family to the next that I found so compelling.  My one critique is that I wish Gauri had been fleshed out more - she is such a seemingly complex character, yet so much about her is still unclear, as if the omnipresent narrator is unable to get through to her any better than Subhash can.  This is not the feel good novel of the year (and it is also not the most depressing), but I found it well-worth the read.  


Brent Waggoner said...

Welcome to the blog!

Lahiri's short stories are really good. I need to read one of her full-lengths.

Christopher said...


Christopher said...

Have you read The Namesake? Is this better or worse?

Brittany said...

Welcome to the blog!

Nahiri is one of those authors that I pick off my bookshelf and always put back. Maybe this year I'll be ready.