In The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri contrasts the lives of brothers, Subhash and Udayan, as their stories slowly emerge in the backdrop of a changing world. Although the narrative begins with protracted attention to the brothers’ childhood in India, soon after its independence in 1947, their roots and surroundings provide a necessary grounding for the story of familial loyalty and cultural ties that follows. If you patiently wade through the excruciating details, you will be caught in another time and place, and Lahiri once again will hypnotize you with her storytelling.
Having grown up in Rhode Island, Lahiri taps into her knowledge of that area when older brother, the quiet and cautious Subhash, leaves Calcutta for his doctoral studies in the United States, but her research into younger brother Udayan’s involvement in the beginnings of the Naxalites reveals her detailed attention to a movement that is still active in India today. As one brother leaves family and country behind to adopt a new life, the other, more reckless and bold, defies his parents to become a rebel. Lahiri carefully notes that the movement in India has little press in the United States and the action only provides a backdrop for the incidents that affect the brothers’ lives, but through her descriptions, she effectively reveals an India that many would not have known.
Udayan becomes a follower of the Maoist Naxalite movement, which fought for the violent overthrow of the Indian government beginning in the 1960s. After Udayan is arrested and killed by the police, Subhash returns home. He marries his brother’s young widow and takes her back to the United States, where he raises the child she was carrying as his own.
Lahiri’s genius may be to connect those universal feelings – family rivalry, loyalty, and love – to extraordinary circumstances and unfamiliar surroundings. Subhash struggles with loneliness in a new country, missing his family but relieved to be disconnected from their expectations and demands. Udayan forsakes a future as the beloved son, rebelling against those same expectations and demands. When he marries Gauri, without his parents’ permission, he tries to accommodate both worlds by living in his parents’ house with his new wife, while secretly conspiring with the underground. When he is caught and executed, brother Subhash returns to India, not knowing how his well-meaning rescue of Udayan’s wife will affect their lives.
The story flips back and forth from life in Rhode Island to memories of India, and through three generations that eventually find peace and acceptance. But, the journey of the three principals – Subhash, Udayan, and Gauri – and their complicated moral choices – creates a unique perspective not only on how much the world has changed in the last fifty years, but also how inner struggles and successes continue to make life go on.