The Lowland: A Novel by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri is much beloved for her books and short stories detailing the immigrant experience. But in The Lowland, her reach is more expansive. In many ways, it reminds one of Great House, by Nicole Krauss. Both books deal with themes of isolation as well as the guilt felt by survivors of horrible tragedy.  In Great House, the Holocaust provides the historical backdrop. Loved ones find everything taken from them, or worse, believe they have unwittingly participated in a horrible deed. What is the psychological impact?

Jhumpa Lahiri explores similar concerns in The Lowland. The historical context is India in the 1960s--a time when the Naxalite movement was active on college campuses. The Naxalites were part of a Maoist political party that rejected Ghandi's nonviolent principles. They believed that the huge disparities between rich and poor in India could only be resolved by overthrow of the government. Bombs were set off; innocent people were killed. Two brothers - Udayan and Subhash - once inseparable, become ideologically divided. Subhash leaves Calcutta to attend college in Boston; Udayan, attending college in Calcutta, becomes increasingly involved with the Naxalites. At age 23, he marries a bookish girl named Gauri. Gauri's love for Udayan is passionate and absolute. But like all zealots, Udayan's first allegiance is to the revolution. He sets off bombs. He participates in the murder of a policeman, knowing that the young man is a father. He involves Gauri in this act. And then, when he is caught, his family is forced to watch his execution.

In an interview with Lynn Neary of NPR, both Neary and Jhumpa Lahiri explain:

Lahiri says the character of Gauri was key to her exploration of how these events haunt and shape her characters for the rest of their lives. "I wanted to understand what it might have been like to witness something like that, and what the consequences would be of witnessing something like that," Lahiri says. "I mean, she's a 23-year-old woman. She's in love with her revolutionary husband. She watches him shot in cold blood. She discovers after the fact that she is carrying his child. How does one move on from that?"  
(NPR Interview, September 23, 2013: Political Violence, Uneasy Silence Echo In Lahiri's 
'Lowland,' by Lynn Neary)

And what is the impact on Udayan's parents? On his child? On his estranged brother? How is that impact felt and dealt with 40 years after the event? And what is it like to live in a country where that piece of Indian history occupies no more than a footnote?

Lahiri delves into the psyche of each of her characters with such empathy and depth that one is left to marvel at her talent as a writer. She deals with the loneliness of being an outsider from a foreign land.  But she also explores self-created isolation - that which results from our fear of loving or the distrust of our ability to do so. Finally, because the book spans a lifetime of experiences, the characters are able to look back on their youthful selves and come to a greater understanding of their actions.

The Lowland differs not only in scope but also in writing style from Lahiri's earlier books.  It is far more character driven and the writing is more terse.  Place is likewise important.  Rhode Island, where Subhash makes his home, as well as Calcutta, are secondary characters essential to the story. The theme of forgiveness is explored, especially forgiveness of oneself.  Yet Lahiri knows that this concept, psychologically and philosophically, is too complex for easy answers. Ultimately, an acceptance of what was and what can never be changed is the best one can achieve.

Like Great House, The Lowland is an exploration of what it means to be human in all its contradictions and complexities.

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