Ms. Lahiri has a bias towards “The Migrated Bengali”… So Much that she refuses to write about anything else. I have a bias towards Ms Lahiri so much that I keep reading whatever she offers, with the devotion of a Priest on Mahallya. She is Like an aunt- who offers Kheer when you visit her. Only kheer and always kheer. But it is kheer- none gets bored of it. This leaves you wishing, you visited her more often… and when you grow up a little, you also wonder, if her kheer is this good, how might other dishes be?
“The Lowland”, is split in two unequal parts- the first half is fast paced- set In Tollygunge, Kolkata and is voilent with the backdrop of Naxalbari Uprising whereas the second half is slow and typically Lahirisque. The second half is where we get to see Ms. Lahiri’s forte- capturing the minute details of the character’s daily lives and their emotional implications on their personalities. The two halves are completely disjunct from each other and remain so sparing a few instances.
It is a story of two brothers starting in infancy of Indian Freedom- when the elite clubs are still being visited by the British for their parties and goes on till the 2000s when the elite clubs are being visited by the NRI, coming home on vacations, taking their children to the club.
Two brothers- Subhash and Udayan grow up in a middle class family in Tollygunge, Kolkata. However, having only one and a half years of difference in age both the brothers have a huge contrast in personalities.
Udayan is Rebellious. Questions the norms, works for greater good and attempts to correct a system which he believes is at a serious flaw. Subhash has a steady life- he follows the path and doesn’t question it… he escapes the system. Both are bright students and get admissions to the best of institutes at Kolkata. Subhash gets admitted to the Jadavpur University to study chemical engineering and Udayan to Presidency College to study the physics. This is the time of late 1960s When the Naxalbari uprising took place, starting the entire naxalite movement of India. The author has done some deep research in the naxalbari movement of India and as someone who was not even born when the Naxalbari uprising took place, a reader finds the descriptive fascinating. The reasons behind the uprising, the mood of Kolkata during the uprising, the structured nature of the Naxalite movement that followed- the bloody oppression of the Naxalites and voilence during the movement. Ms. Lahiri’s painting of the entire scene makes it vividly alive, telling you how an entire generation got affected by it. Our protagonists- Subhash and Udayan are also affected by the uprising in different manners. Subhash decides to go to the US for higher studies and this is from where the story soars ahead.
The rest of the story is set in US- the Rhode Island. Jhumpa Lahiri doing what she does best- describing the characters lives to such microscopic levels that at some point of the description, the reader is bound to relate to the character! You find yourself thinking along the lines of Characters. Her descriptions of the various relationships between the characters are the strongest points of the book. The best one being the relationship of Subhash and Bela- the immense Joy that subhash finds in little belas company… the efforts he takes to keep Bela happy to bring her up without her mother. Despite of all this love and affection the amount of freedom he gives to Bela to choose her own way of life- all this captures the reader and forms the meridian of the book.
This strong suite of the book however turns out to be the weaker one too. The high standards that Ms Lahiri sets in describing the intricate details involved in the dynamics of relationships between her characters, she fails to match up to them in describing the relationship between Bela and her Mother Gouri. The painful past of which Bela is a reminder is understandable but the coldness with motherhood of Gauri has never been fully explained. One can for once reconcile with the coldness but the fact that she leaves the family- never to look back on them, for pursuing a career is never fully explained. Why did she have to leave Bela and Subhash to pursue a career and if career was not the reason behind her abandonment of them, then what was? It is never explained. In Making Gouri Leave her 10 year old daughter and treating Subhash’s attempts of making a family with such coldness and never being able to explain the reasons, Ms. Lahiri creates a daemon our of Gouri. A cold, heartless creature which she obviously is not for she once loved.
For a Lahiri Romantic- the book is a treat, as every other book of hers is. For just another fiction reader, the second half may be tedious but if it isn’t, you’ll be hooked to it. For not so regular reader- you’ll love the plot, the pace of book in second half might bore you.