Book: The Lowland
Publisher: Random House India
Pages: 340 Pages
Price: Rs 499
I must confess I am a newbie to Jhumpa Lahiri prose. I have read her interviews, the reels of print written about her, her short stories and her mastery of the English language. The Lowland, heavy with the expectations and praise heaped on it from people across the world, seemed a good introduction to the world of Lahiri’s language skills.
In The Lowland, Lahiri doesn’t make a political point but treats the Maoist movement and the havoc it wreaked with dispassionate interest. The drama and the action happen in the beginning, setting up The Lowland for something big, the weight of which causes the middle pages — the stories of the survivors — to falter.
Udayan dies and it is after that, in the stories of those who survive his death, that Lahiri’s writing moves from flourishing and delicate to cold and clinical. It’s present in her characters too, each of whom make terrible choices, some with no explanation, and none which bring them happiness.
Their misery is very private and silence surrounds the characters, who caught up as they are in a past, seem to beg for some emotional release. It doesn’t come.
Gauri’s character starts out as interesting but turns into a blank, passive woman after her second marriage and the birth of her daughter Bela. Udayan’s most vivid memory, Bela, is affected by the passivity of her parent’s marriage, her mother’s lack of interest in her and her unknown father’s radical streak causing her to drift towards travelling and working on farms.
The diaspora bit, Lahiri’s strong point is well captured, but not in a way that hasn’t been written about. Udayan’s character, in the brief glimpses Lahiri affords of him, is quite fascinating. I would read a separate novel just on him and what goes on in his mind in the long silences he shares with his brother, with his wife and with his parents.
What elevates The Lowland to a pedestal that is higher than normal is Lahiri’s prose. There’s no denying she has a gift with language — her sentences are intelligently structured, simple and precise. Her descriptions of Calcutta conjure up vivid images of the city. The rest, and there are many paragraphs just dedicated to describing places, can sometimes be skipped over. They lend nothing, symbolic or otherwise to the story.
The Lowland ultimately is not a story about brotherly love or Naxalism but about choices and the weight they carry. For a first read, the book and Lahiri disappoint