Book 32: A book that takes place in a different country, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Lahiri is truly an artist of her craft. I am always in awe of her beautiful prose and her particular strength of illustrating gorgeous landscapes in our minds as we read. She is an author that truly makes you feel as if you can see, smell, touch, and taste the fictional world of her characters. Even if you dislike the plot or underlying themes of her work, I find it hard to disagree that she is truly a gifted writer.
The Lowland begins in Calcutta, focusing on a family living in Tollygunge with two small boys. Subhash and Udayan are brothers, born fifteen months apart. Although the boys differ in their temperament, they suit one another like either half of the yin and yang. Throughout childhood, they are nearly inseparable. However, as they age, Udayan begins to follow a dangerous path of political activism against poverty and inequality in Calcutta. During the 1960’s, this was a dangerous time for young people speaking out against the status quo. Subhash is the dutiful son, always cautiously toeing the line to keep his parents satisfied and the family honor intact. Subhash travels to the United States to pursue graduate learning while his brother remains in Calcutta working against the government to further a cause he believes in enough to give his life for. During this time, Udayan meets a woman named Gauri and marries her, much to the chagrin of his parents who had planned on arranging a marriage for him.
Communication becomes strained between the brothers during this time as Udayan cannot reconcile his brother’s ability to pick up and leave rather than stay behind in Calcutta to fight for the cause. Subhash is unable to reconcile his brother’s selfishness by endangering his life and the lives of his parents should he be discovered. The conflict reaches its breaking point when one day, Udayan is captured and murdered by the government just outside the lowland by the family’s home as his parents and wife stand nearby, watching the event unfold. This single event inexorably alters the course of the entire family.
Unbeknownst to Udayan, his wife Gauri is newly pregnant with his child. He dies never knowing he will be a father. His parents, who were against their union, now make life for Gauri unbearable in their home. They are shadows of themselves, mourning the loss of their favorite son. Gauri is trapped in the life of a widow after being married such a short time in her young life. She craves more for her life, but out of duty and the impending child, she feels bound to remain with Udayan’s parents. When Subhash returns to Calcutta for the funeral, he meets Gauri and learns of her situation. Out of a fierce sense of loyalty and duty to his brother and to save Gauri from the neglect of his grieving parents, he offers to marry her and raise the unborn child as his own. Feeling this is her only option to escape her unhappy fate, she agrees. This decision will serve to destroy the lives of the members of their family.
Subhash desperately tries to love Gauri, to open her heart to him and have a real marriage. However, the loss of her husband and her inability to open up drives a wedge between them, and although they live as husband and wife for many years, it is a farce. They move back to America and nobody, not even the child she is carrying, learns the truth behind their union. Subhash and Gauri lead an unhappy life in the pretense of the happy family as their daughter, Bela is born and raised in Rhode Island. Yet Gauri can’t seem to settle into her role as wife and mother, and both Subhash and Bela feel this. Ultimately, it drives an impenetrable wall between them, and when Bela reaches middle school, Gauri commits the ultimate selfish act–she leaves the family and moves across the country to persue a career without saying goodbye.
Of course, this action rocks Subash and Bela’s worlds. Bela struggles with the sense of abandoment for years to come, and Subash feels anger at her abandoning her duties moreso than any betrayal (he gave up on loving her years earlier). They never contact Gauri or ask for answers. She lives a happy but lonely life as a professor in California. Subhash continues on raising Bela and settling into old age in Rhode Island. Bela takes on the life of a nomad, traveling all around the country and returning home for brief stints to visit Subhash. Subhash’s parents, who had basically disowned he and Gauri for their decision to marry, live isolated in Calcutta. His father passes away first, leaving his mother behind to slowly lose her mind over the murder of her favorite child. Eventually she passes away as well, unable to recognize her son at the end.
How will the fates of the remaining family members unravel? Does the selfish act of one man determine the lives of many? Can Bela reconcile Gauri’s deeds? Will Subhash find love and acceptance before it’s too late?
So many of the reviews I read about this book were mixed because although everyone seems to agree that Lahiri is an amazing writer, several readers felt conflicted regarding the tone of the story and the fate of these characters. They felt disappointed that the characters suffered throughout the novel with little to no real redemption. Many were shocked that people could carry on with such heavy sadness and disapointment or in such isolation. I feel this quote sums it up pretty well: “They were a family of solitaries. They had collided and dispersed. This was her legacy. If nothing else, she had inherited that impulse from them.” The one fatal moment in the lowland continues to shape their fates decades later, turning each of them into a lonely island of unhappiness and sadness.
I know this isn’t a very uplifting thought, and our American mentality frowns upon us candidly discussing it, but I will say it anyway. Life isn’t happy for most of the people who live on this planet. It is a difficult, uphill battle. Very few of us are truly lucky enough to have the luxury of worrying about being satisifed (emotionally, intellectually, etc) during our brief time here. I think being American gives us a different reaction to this story. I kept thinking as I watched Subhash struggle and plod along in his unhappiness, dutiful to the last, that no American would behave this way. We would protest, scream, tear the world apart to pursue our “right” for individual happiness. Not so in other cultures in the world. Historically speaking, most people had little to no freedom over whom they married, loved, where they worked, or how they lived their lives. The majority of humanity is a study in quiet, dignified unhappiness. Not just the unhappiness but the ability to function despite its constant presence in your life. Largely this was not just mere fortitude, but survival counted upon a person putting that aside to get up and do whatever was necessary that day to feed one’s family. To carry on.
Subhash, Bela, Gauri, and even Subhash’s mother are all representative of this way of life. Each of their lives are damaged by the selfish decision of Udayan. They must live with the consequences of his actions, which continue to resonate throughout all time into the generation of his children, his grandchildren. There is something starkly beautiful about a person who is handed a burden and yet so courageously carries it on. Subhash could have left Gauri, could have refused to support her unless she gave herself to him completely. He never did this. He allowed Gauri to have the life she wanted at the sacrifice of his own. The poigniant aspect of this is that his brother Udayan calls him selfish early in the story because he refuses to fight for the country. Yet Udayan ends up being the selfish one, while Subhash dutifully carries this burden of his brother’s for his entire life, allowing it to completely overshadow his own needs and desires. The fact that he survives this burden, entirely alone, entirely for the sake of doing it (not to look good to someone else) makes him a true hero in my eyes. And while many readers found this a sad theme, I found it truly uplifting that there are in fact human beings this decent and good in the world. Even if it is a fictional one. While I wouldn’t be able to sacrifice my happiness to the extent that Subhash does, it does motivate me to be a little less selfish and little more giving to those in the world around me.