The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri, Aflred A Knopf, 2013, 340 pp
Earlier this summer, I began Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie. It was tough going and I spent as much time in the dictionary and on the Internet as I did reading, due to my ignorance of Indian history. Because I am a book reviewer and am ruled by deadlines, I had to abandon that book and so far have not gotten back to it. But it turned out to have been time well spent because the time scape fits with the beginning of The Lowland and I was at least somewhat in the know about the early years after India achieved independence.
Jhumpa Lahiri is not Salman Rushdie and The Lowland is not Midnight's Children but both are challenging books. Lahiri lacks any sense of humor; she is concerned with the serious side of history and family but she has a sixth sense for the emotional detritus of family conflict and the subtle effects that social and political upheaval can infuse into personal life.
The story revolves around two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, born 15 months apart in a suburb of Calcutta shortly after World War II. Subhash is the elder brother but has no memory of life before Udayan arrived. They might as well have been twins.
The opening chapters cover their childhood, their schooling, their pranks, the bond between them and the development of their eventual separation. Subhash is the obedient, conservative and somewhat fearful brother while Udayan is bold, daring, and defiant. They are both brilliant in school, studying science, and by college show promise while bringing pride to their middle class parents.
Udayan becomes a member of a communist group dedicated to righting the wrongs in India. It is the 1960s; his heroes are Che Guevara and Mao Tse-tung. Subhash opts for study in America. Enter The Woman. Udayan falls in love with his best friend's sister, Gauri. This young woman has been raised by her grandparents who took her in when she was a small child. Left to her own devices, she is not a protected Indian girl but allowed to attend University and to spend all her time studying philosophy.
She and Udayan marry and go to live with his parents, as is traditional, but because she was not a wife chosen by the family, she brings shame to the household. Within a year of the marriage Udayan is killed by police because of his revolutionary and subversive activities. Subhash comes home to find Gauri rejected but still living in the family home. She is also pregnant. Driven by grief and sympathy, Subhash marries her and takes her back to America. Nothing goes right after that point and in fact goes about as wrong as could be.
The lives of these desperately unhappy people infested my mind and spirit like the termites in my mimosa tree. I did not lose any limbs, only sleep and any ability to digest food. This is perhaps one of the most disturbing books I have ever read, not due to violence or evil, but because I felt how close we all are to overwhelming despair and dysfunction. Subhash only wanted to be a loving brother and obedient son. Udayan only wanted equality for his fellow men. Gauri only wanted personal freedom. The loss of Udayan could not be overcome.
In the end, Lahiri allows a glimmer of hope brought about by a child. And so it goes. We make our choices or are the victims of circumstance, we suffer the consequences, and the young pick up the pieces. The novelists tell the story over and over. Somehow a story told with this much insight and compassion is a glimmer of hope in itself.
(The Lowland will be published on September 24, 2013 and is available now in hardcover or eBook for pre-order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)