Thursday, February 20, 2014

Reflections: The Lowland

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Lowland is a sweeping saga revolving around complicated characters reconciling with their individual loss and guilt, and connecting with the people they truly love.

The story starts in Calcutta, with two brothers - Subhash and Udayan. Subhash is the elder, more serious, studious, practical brother, while Udayan is the  impulsive, idealistic, smart, and charming younger sibling. The two brothers share a close relationship of love with a sprinkling of envy for each other. Their underlying tussle of sibling rivalry motivates each other to move in different directions. While Subhash heads to the U.S for his PhD, Udayan fervently joins  the newly emerging Naxalite movement. The brothers lead their separate lives, discovering new experiences and revelations, while mostly unaware of each other’s journey. Inevitably, Udayan quickly finds himself embroiled in the movement and faces the danger of being killed. The disconcerting issue is - he now has a young scholarly wife, who is carrying his child. Subhash, playing the role of  the dutiful elder brother, needs to make some tough decisions to pick up where his brother left and restore some balance to his broken family. The story swoops and sweeps across two generations with each character struggling to cope with the chain of events unleashed by Udayan and desperately seeking to fill the gaping voids in their lives.

It was refreshing to read a book by Jhumpa Lahiri that had little to do with immigration and identity. Yes, there are surely parts of the book that deal with it, but it doesn’t take center stage. The story primarily explores the aftermath of loss, and the journey through recovery and guilt. It shows how one person’s actions can ripple and affect so many people’s lives over so many years in the most crippling ways possible. Actions multiply and mutate as they pervade the emotions of people around them, and Lahiri very sensitively showcases this. At its heart, it is a simple story, but it is brought out beautifully by knitting socio-cultural elements with the political atmosphere of India in the 60’s. What is just a footnote in history translates to a rumbling storm in so many people’s lives. The emotional tapestry swirling in the storm flows with all the elements, and no stitch seems jarring or out of place.

The characters define this book. Although every character is unique and interesting, I could not relate to anyone, except perhaps Subhash. I was initially drawn to Gauri, because she was the most complicated one with the greatest emotional turmoil, but there were many moments in the story where she is hard to sympathize with. She distances herself from even you, the reader. I find that Lahiri sometimes over-complicates her characters while portraying their external reactions to their inner tumult. I don’t think it is completely realistic or even necessary for characters to always act out in irrational, bizarre and exaggerated ways to deal with emotional trauma. So, Gauri’s progression through the story was a little frustrating, although arguably, the most intriguing. On the other hand, Subash’s character was excruciatingly touching and endearing. Initially, his motives seemed dubiously double-edged and I wasn't convinced of his good nature. I fearfully expected him to turn “crazy” or weird and complicate things, but he consistently remained "simple" in his motivations and just kept going with the beat. His character was rendered true to many real life souls whose patience, kindness and resilience are inspiring. Bela’s journey from child to adult was honest in its portrayal, but her rebellious stage seemed a little too long. I guess that’s just a slice of reality. I grappled to understand her during her years of emotional estrangement with Subhash, because I was uncomfortable in the knowledge that no matter how much one parent does, children need both parents, a complete home and a family to grow into their own, find themselves and mature into confident, secure individuals. It broke my heart that despite all of Subhash’s unconditional love and effort, Bela still loses her way and meanders for a long while.  

This is another book that is mainly driven by characters. Lahiri delicately handles the mess of emotions that plague a family after a tragedy. I was emotionally invested while reading this book and remained interested in the characters’ individual journeys to make peace. This is a quiet, introspective, and absorbing read. 

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