"The Lowland" by Jhumpa Lahiri is a family saga spanning a total of four generations and thousands of miles, from Calcutta (now Kolkata), India to the U.S. and back. It gives an intimate view of individual characters’ lives set on a canvas so rich and so wide that the reader is utterly transported. This novel is not a portrait of a family, but a complex and beautifully crafted tapestry relying on a common thread to keep it all together.
Subhash Mitra and his younger brother Udayan grow up in the lowlands of their neighborhood, Tollygunge, in the late '60s and '70s during one of India’s periods of political unrest. As they near young adulthood, Udayan becomes involved with the Naxalite political movement. Subhash leaves Calcutta to pursue a graduate degree in America.
For the first time since birth, the brothers are truly separated.
Though the narrative first follows Subhash leaving his childhood home, the story keeps revisiting Calcutta. Subhash and the entire cast of characters are inextricably tied to the lowlands not just because of his family upbringing, but because of the events surrounding his brother’s violent, politically charged death. Lahiri masters the scope of both time and place in her writing.
After Udayan’s death, more members of the Mitra family are dispersed, and his pregnant widow Gauri moves to the states with Subhash. Gauri is more reserved when interacting with other characters in the story, yet her perspective, as relayed by the narrative voice, is one of the most dynamic and revealing.
To read about Gauri’s inner conflict with motherhood, marriage, philosophy and her own desires is a glimpse into a young woman becoming herself. This depiction of Gauri is particularly noteworthy because, while there is no singular antagonist of the book, Gauri becomes a source of tension and conflict in her daughter’s and Subhash’s narrative development. The reader is conflicted over whether or not Gauri’s decisions are good ones. It is yet another way that Lahiri depicts how actions are never solitary, rather they resonate in more ways than initially intended.
In some ways, "The Lowland" is a story of reckoning. It is a story of reckoning with past actions, absent family members, individual decisions, social justice and what determines the value of life.
No matter how far away they move, Lahiri’s characters are forever connected to the marshy ponds and grasses of the lowlands. It still holds meaning in a past that is both inescapable and enduring.
Each character’s handling of his or her past, and his or her own relationship to the lowlands, are the basis for a story that will stay with readers long after they’ve read Lahiri’s final words.