Calcutta brothers have opposite personalities in Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Lowland’

The Lowland. Jhumpa Lahiri. Knopf. 340 pages. $27.95.
The Lowland. Jhumpa Lahiri. Knopf. 340 pages. $27.95.

In her new novel, Jhumpa Lahiri returns confidently to the themes that have earned her critical praise, an eager audience and a Pulitzer Prize: cultural dissonance between generations; the uneasiness of the recently emigrated; the unbreakable, unpredictable bonds of family.

Lahiri has written elegantly and poignantly about Bengali families separated by distance and tradition in her novel The Namesake and in the unforgettable stories of Unaccustomed Earth and The Interpreter of Maladies, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award in 2000. But in The Lowland —about two brothers from Calcutta whose lives remain intertwined even after one emigrates to America — she adds a historical dimension that creates a vital, intriguing backdrop. Though some of the novel’s early pages read a bit too much like an unwelcome history lesson, the rest of The Lowland never loses sight of its very human tragedies and triumphs.

Named for a low-lying parcel of land that floods during the monsoon season near the home of brothers Subhash and Udayan, the novel examines the repercussions of a volatile period on one family. Just as America turned on itself during the late 1960s, India struggled with turbulence of its own between government forces and Naxalite rebels, Mao-inspired Communists who fought the status quo and were eventually declared terrorists.

Against this framework, Subhash and Udayan — 15 months apart in age, light years apart in temperament — come of age. Subhash, the eldest, is dutiful; Udayan is daring, rebellious. A fond family story sums up their lifelong roles: When a mason smoothes wet cement in the courtyard, both boys are told to stay indoors, away from his work. Subhash obeys, but Udayan waits until his mother isn’t watching, then runs down the plank set up as a path to the street. He promptly falls off, his footprints left in the drying cement as a legacy.

“[T]o the mason their father said, leave it. Not for the expense or effort involved, but because he believed it was wrong to erase steps that his son had taken. And so the imperfection became a mark of distinction about their home. Something visitors noticed, the first family anecdote that was told.”

That is the sort of boy Udayan is: bold, impulsive, perpetually wanting — no, demanding — something else, something better. Listening to the end of a World Cup game late one night, he can’t bear the crackling of the radio and insists on opening it up to fiddle with the wires. “It’s good enough,” Subhash tells him. “We’re missing the end of the match.” But Udayan insists on improving the sound, even though they don’t hear a crucial goal.

“Good enough” turns out to be a haunting echo for Subhash. Both brothers are bright and industrious, but only he leaves Calcutta for an American university, drawn to the marshy wetlands and beaches near his Rhode Island campus but lonely and struck by the way each new, strange day feels “improvisational.” At home, Udayan attends classes while his path takes a sudden, more dangerous turn. He is at precisely the right place and time and in the perfect frame of mind to fall in with the rebels, to embrace their cries for justice and an end to poverty.

He also falls for a classmate, the scholarly Gauri, a fascinating young woman who will intersect with both brothers in surprising, unconventional ways.

The less a prospective reader knows about what happens in The Lowland, the better. The novel is not a mystery by any means, though its final chapter allows us a unique view of a devastating event around which much of the story is built. But Lahiri’s sublimely unfolding plot and her delicate revelations about the relationships between these characters are best savored with fresh eyes, as Subhash, Gauri, Udayan and a child named Bela, who connects them all, struggle to find meaning in their lives. Their story is unique, but it’s also universal, a reminder of the past’s pull on us all.

Connie Ogle is The Miami Herald’s book editor.

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