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Jhumpa Lahiri: The Lowland
Lahiri’s second novel deals with one of the issues she dealt with in her first novel, that of adjusting to life in a foreign country as, once again, a married couple move from India to the United States. However, the rest of the story is quite different. The story starts in Kolkata with two brothers, Subhash and Udayan Mitra, with Subhash just fifteen months older than Udayan. Udayan is the bolder, less conventional. It is his idea to break into the Tolly golf club, stealing balls and practising golf in a far corner of the club, after hours. The brothers remain very close, till their studies take them apart. Udayan is studying physics, while Subhash is studying chemical engineering. As they drift apart so do their politics.
Udayan gradually takes an interest in the Naxalbari Uprising, an uprising of peasants living under feudal system and repressed by the local landowners. Both boys are interested but it is Udayan who gradually and, to some extent, secretively, gets involved. He feels that the peasants were right and argues with their father about it. Some of the leaders of the uprising espouse Mao Zedong and his tactics and it is Udayan who supports this point of view. An emergency is declared and Udayan gets more involved, painting slogans on walls. Meanwhile Subhash goes to Rhode Island to study, where protest to the Vietnam War is raging. However, he does not get involved, fearful of losing his visa. He hears from Udayan. Initially, Udayan asks him to destroy the letters, as he tells him something of his political activities but then the letters are more bland. It seems that Udayan has settled down. To his parents’ disgust, Udayan has married a woman not selected by them. Subhash, who is now studying chemical oceanography, has an affair with a white American woman, separated from her husband.
And then Subhash gets a call. Udayan has been killed by the police. It turns out that he was more involved in politics than anyone thought and was planning an attack on the golf club the boys had broken into when young. He has left a widow, Gauri, who is pregnant and despised by both her family (she is an orphan) and her parents-in-law. Subhash is sympathetic towards her when he returns and even more so when she is harassed by the police. Realising that her prospects in India are grim, he decides to marry her, be a father to her child and take her back to the USA. Back in the USA, the couple struggle somewhat. She wants to continue her studies of philosophy and manages to sneak into classes. However, she is concerned that she does not feel the love for her daughter, Bela, that she should do. Nor does she feel a great deal of love for Subhash. She is determined to make her own way and does.
The novel is about adjusting to a way of life in a foreign country but it also about the effect of tragedy and emotional upheaval on a family. The three main characters, Subhash, Gauri and Bela, struggle to have stable relationships and they have certainly been affected by what has happened to them in their lives. But, while Lahiri tells her story well, it is not as well structured as her previous novel. Too often, she gives us some information, only to elaborate much further in the book, without adding a great deal more information. You wonder why she has chosen to do it in that way. Indeed, you are waiting for the big revelation or plot twist and it never happens. Of course, there are many great novels without great revelations or great plot twists but Lahiri sets us up for something more and then barely delivers. Of course, this is, to a certain degree, carping, as it is still a good novel but not up to the quality of the previous one.
First published in 2013 by Knopf