Louise Harrington

In a novel that spans over fifty years and crosses borders from India to America to Ireland, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland weaves an intricate story of two brothers from Calcutta who choose very different paths in life but remain indelibly intertwined. Subhash and Udayan are teenagers when we first meet them, embarking on various misadventures in the Tollygunge area of Calcutta until

their studies and politics create a gulf between them. In chronicling the melancholy and often tragic story of these brothers, Lahiri directly engages with an underrepresented group in India: the Naxalites. The Naxalite movement began as a Maoist-inspired, radical left-wing group with strong ties to China. It originated in the 1967 peasant uprising against large landholders in the village of Naxalbari in the northern part of West Bengal in India. The uprising was led by communist activist Charu Majumdar against the exploitative landowners and government officials of the area, and was supported by the revolutionary peasants as well as one of India’s largest tribal groups, the Santals. The ideology of 1960s Naxalism survived and mutated through the following decades and is presently very much alive in the form of Maoist guerrilla resistance to the Indian government and its agents.

While the Naxalites in India have been the focus of some scholarship in the fields of history, political science, sociology and anthropology, including the significant work of acclaimed novelist and activist Arundhati Roy, there has been little consideration of the topic in English-language fiction. There have, however, been a couple of notable publications on the subject of communism in Nepal, such as Saurat Upadhyay’s collection of short stories written in English called The Royal Ghosts (2006), and Narayan Wagle’s Nepali novel Palpasa Café (2003), which was translated into English in 2008. Few novels dealing specifically with Naxalism in India have garnered much success, although Sami Ahmad Khan’s thriller Red Jihad: Battle for South Asia (2012) is significant in its exploration of the nexus between the Naxalites and the Mujahideen. This literary lacuna is redressed to some degree in The Lowland as it draws attention to a complex and crucial facet of India’s past and present.

On hearing the news of the 1967 uprising in Naxalbari and the death of many unarmed peasants at the hands of police officers, Udayan reacts “as if it were a personal affront, a physical blow” and tells his family that “Naxalbari is an inspiration. It’s an impetus for change.” It is not surprising that Udayan, the more outgoing, adventurous and emotional of the two brothers, joins the Naxalites and forges his own path despite the traditional expectations of his parents and brother. Through the depiction of his character and that of his wife, Gauri, often in flashback sequences, the Naxalite struggle in India emerges as the perceptible heart of the novel and is in many respects the most successfully rendered aspect of the narrative. 

Lahiri writes:

“In the papers there were photographs, taken from a distance, of those gathered to hear Sanyal’s speech, to give the Red Salute. A battle cry declared, a generation transfixed. A piece of Calcutta standing still. 

It was a portrait of a city Subhash no longer felt a part of. A city on the brink of something; a city he was preparing to leave behind.

Subhash knew that Udayan had been there. He hadn’t accompanied him to the rally, nor had Udayan asked him to come. In this sense they had already parted.”

Jhumpa Lahiri deftly threads complex historical and political dimensions into her story without it feeling heavy-handed or impenetrable. The injustices surrounding guerrilla insurgency in Calcutta through the 1960s and 70s resonate in the lives of all the characters and are revealed to strongly influence them, often in ways that neither they nor the reader could predict.

The Lowland ambitiously spans a vast amount of time, referencing major historical events in South Asia, such as the legacy of the Raj, the 1943 Bengal Famine, partition and independence, the rise of Indira Gandhi and the Emergency, in addition to the impact of the Vietnam War in the USA and the shadows of native American Indians in Rhode Island. Nevertheless, its strength lies in consciously relating, in effect, a narrative of diasporic existence. In this way it follows the themes and concerns of Lahiri’s previous works, The Interpreter of Maladies (1999), The Namesake (2003), and Unaccustomed Earth (2008), which reflect the author’s own immigrant experiences. Ideas about cultural connection and dislocation abound in Lahiri’s work, and her writing has been very successful in speaking to Indian American society and indeed reflecting the experience of belonging to more than one place. Thus, The Lowland represents many of the very familiar and now somewhat weary tropes of life in the diaspora: existential crises brought on by feeling like a 'foreigner,' the ever-present memories of 'home,' the effort of building a new home and comparing various homes, and struggling to balance the endless tensions of the ‘new place’ and the ‘old self.' 

These tropes are primarily illustrated through the character of Subhash, who moves from Calcutta to pursue a PhD in America, leaving behind Udayan who is at this point immersed in local Naxalite politics. The route that Subhash has chosen yields a lonely period of settling into college life in Rhode Island, and his struggle to adapt to a different way of being, in addition to his pangs of guilt regarding those ‘left behind’ in India, are carefully depicted. Furthermore, when his wife joins him in America, her own battle with cultural integration and the apparent gaping chasm between American and Indian cultures, the modern and the traditional, are frequently emphasized. These issues have been the subject of immigrant and multicultural literature for many decades, and The Lowland reiterates such established debates. However, the novel seems to problematically suggest that the path chosen by Subhash, one that sees him becoming an international traveler with a more ‘global’ outlook, is preferable to the closed and conservative existence of those he leaves behind in Tollygunge, where stifling convention, internal conflict and economic expansion hamper personal development. In this way, Subhash and Udayan, as brothers close in age but distinct in personality, represent a twin image of one existence. With an equal start in life, they take divergent paths as young adults, a binary approach which is further emphasized by the fact that Subhash chooses the West, represented by America, and Udayan chooses the antithesis, the regionalism of India as embodied by Naxalism. Consequently, the novel charts unambiguous territory that is perhaps somewhat facile in its rendering of migration and home; it is an either/or decision.

A real strength of Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing is her employment and portrayal of place. Locations become as central as people; they are carefully illustrated and lovingly consumed. When the lowland at the back of Subhash and Udayan’s house in Calcutta is flooded by the two ponds on either side of it, it is “thick with water hyacinth,” while at other times “certain creatures laid eggs that were able to endure the dry season.” This symbolic ground undergoes major changes when it is later covered over with housing developments, clearly reflecting the significant changes in the characters’ lives. The quiet yet unsettled terrain of Rhode Island also features greatly, with evocative descriptions of the coast and the salt marshes alongside the more urban academic spaces and the relative calm of the New England environment. And finally, the rugged and enchanting landscape of the southwest coast of Ireland is brought to life in all its wild glory, revealing “prehistoric agriculture” and “an Ogham stone” that causes Subhash to contemplate “ancient archaeology.” the enormity of time and space. The connections and disconnections between these places are skillfully exposed in The Lowland and thus raise bigger questions about life and death, and about journeys beginning and ending, that stay with the reader long after they have put the book down.

Louise Harrington completed her doctoral work at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Alberta in Canada. Her research interests include global partitions, on which she is completing a book project, South Asian and Irish literature and film, as well as migration and diaspora studies. She has published her work in the academic journals South Asian Diaspora, South Asian Review and the Journal of Postcolonial Cultures and Societies, and contributed to the book collections, Transport(s) in the British Empire and the Commonwealth (2007), India and the Indian Diasporic Imagination (2011), and The Other India: Narratives of Terror, Communalism and Violence (2012).