Book review: ‘The Lowlands’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

Alfred Hitchcock once said “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out”. It must be true. But sometimes a book can be dramatic, even while being a bit, dull.

Jhumpa Lahiri in her last fiction, The Lowlands, talks about the Naxal movement through the lives of two brothers –Udayan and Subhash. Born in a simple, middle-class, independent India, they grow up close to each other. And yet with the Naxal movement taking its first steps in the country, the brothers are faced with ideological challenges. They go their own separate ways, yet are tied back to their home. The story goes on when Udayan is killed in an encounter and his pregnant wife marries Subhash. While the story could end happily here, with her finding Udayan’s reflection in Subhash, all it does is show her the life she was supposed to have and would never be able to. Her daughter grows up without being attached to her, and without knowing about Udayan. And yet the family must come to terms with how the past has played out and how the future might be.

Now, the Naxal bari andolan, or the Naxalite movement has been written about extensively. What then can make ‘The Lowlands’ stand apart from the rest? You do not see a historical play by play of the events in the book. But what makes it nice to read, firstly is her humane characters. They are all despicable, and yet they all have something admirable. Subhash wants to marry his brother’s wife because he wants a better life for the child, but at the same time he is not able to understand what she is passionate about. Udayan is passionate about a cause and promises to be selfless and sacrifice his life if required. However, ultimately it is his selfishness that makes his wife go on with her life, in a place she never wanted to be in, by herself. These lines probably sum it up:

“Nor was her love for Udayan recognizable or intact. Anger was always mounted to it, zigzagging through her like some helplessly mating pair of insects. Anger at him for dying when he might have lived. For bringing her happiness, and then taking it away. For trusting her, only to betray her. For believing in sacrifice, only to be so selfish in the end.”                     

Lahiri, like all of her works, can draw you into her world without any effort. The simplicity in her language is interesting. But then, I did notice that she tends to compare and explain objects or situations, which as a reader sounds nice once or twice – but not throughout the book. Take a look at these:

“So that she began to see herself more clearly, as a thin film of dust was wiped from a sheet of glass.”

“He was blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving certain colors.”

“Her own withdrawal, covert, ineluctable. With her own hand she’d painted herself into a corner, and then out of the picture altogether” 

What I also liked about the book is something my parents have often spoken about. Former classmates of my parents have moved away from the cause and some have never hidden their affiliation towards it. But some have moved to various countries, moved away to erase a part of their past that brought them nothing other than loss (be it financial, emotional or psychological). Lahiri’s book is often repetitive and slow, but it does highlight how the revolution’s effect did not end just with those who were activelky involved in it. Their families were torn apart, or brought together by the ideologies of one of the turning points in Indian history.

I would probably not read it again, but I have given it to my grandmother to read now. So yes, it is certainly recommended one. Especially if you have ever known anyone close to the revolution. And even if not.

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