Like most non-academic types interested in an occasional dose of literary fiction I chose to pick up ‘The Lowland’ swayed by the Booker shortlisting of a ‘desi’ novel.
‘The Lowland’ is a story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, based in Kolkata who end up seeking different paths in life; Subhash moves to the US for a PhD while Udayan joins the Naxalite movement. Udayan marries an independent-minded Philosophy student Gauri but dies soon after their wedding. This leads to Subhash marrying Gauri to save her and her unborn child from his parents’ oppression.
As a narrator, Lahiri is observant but often gives the impression that she is watching the events through a glass window, attributing motives, emotions and ideas to people and interpreting their lives for us. At times she spells out feelings that she would have been better off simply depicting. Each character has a different perspective on many events that are repeated through the novel without adding much to our knowledge.
And these perspectives are presented in the same monotone. There is little difference between the voices of Gauri, her daughter and her mother-in-law, despite the fact that the differences in their journey and attitudes form the backbone of the plot. The illiterate mother from Kolkata and the PhD student sound similar.
Here is Udayan’s mother reminiscing about him:
“Some days, she would tell them if they asked, she sees him coming into view, approaching the house after a long day at college. He walks through the swinging doors into the courtyard, a book bag over his shoulder. Still clean-shaven, focused on his studies, eager to settle down at his desk. “
And now it is Gauri missing him:
“In the evening she waited for Udayan to return from his tutoring job, watching from the terrace of her in-laws’ home. And when he pushed through the swinging doors he always paused to look up at her…. “
Lahiri does try to make Udayan different from Subhash, and Gauri from Bela (her daughter). Yet the two brothers are not all that different in their attitude to their parents, their dedication to their chosen careers and, yes, Gauri. But everyone is viewed from the same dispassionate lens. Even Udayan, supposedly an ideologue, hardly comes across as passionate.
Minute details and mundane descriptions hinder the plot flow, leaving the reader frustrated at times, especially when the emphasis is on ordinary people’s daily routines. Unfortunately, though characterization is Lahiri’s strength, she fails to make her characters lively, alive or sometimes even plausible. Their actions seem stiff like the plot. And boredom creeps into many pages because of lengthy, repetitive descriptions of scenery and petty events like breakfasts and walks.
The repeated descriptions and evolution of Subhash’s house also fails to evoke the mythical feeling Lahiri tries to evoke. She perhaps needs to get over historical fiction, which is hard to pull off for most without making the narrative tedious.
[quote]The plot is similar to The Namesake on many accounts[/quote]
Lahiri’s narrative can be observant and realistic but the plot lacks the spontaneity and freshness of the ‘Namesake’ or even the ‘Interpreter of Maladies’. The burdens of the history of Bengal, the Naxalite movement, environmentalism and even feminism bog the already slow narrative down. The plot is similar to ‘The Namesake’ on many accounts, only more weighty, and with more history. I got the sense that Lahiri had read some history books and then decided to write fiction about them.
The real lowland in the book is situated close to the two brothers’ house in Calcutta. It is probably an analogy for the lives of the brothers and the development of post-partition Calcutta. Initially, when the brothers are growing up, the lowland is empty and fills with the rainwater during monsoons. But after Udayan’s death, when the movement finally appears to be a lost effort, the lowland becomes a wasteland where people dump their trash.
Finally, when everyone is settled abroad and has a clear idea of where their life is going, the lowland succumbs to the rapid construction in Kolkatta. Houses are built on it, wiping away memories of Udayan and Subhash’s childhood. Or maybe the lowland represents the low point in every character’s personality that forces them to make weak decisions that can fill the emotional gaps in their lives – Udayan fills it with the movement, Subhash with Bela, and Gauri with her career, Bela and community service.
Despite the horror most literary fiction seems to feel at the idea of stating anything clearly, the thrust of Lahiri’s prose isn’t devoid of moral judging. It is often implied in the story that Udayan and many other young men wasted their lives.
The book might best be enjoyed by those unaware of Bengali culture and history. For those who frequently read Indian fiction, and are familiar with Lahiri’s work ‘The Lowland’ doesn’t really offer anything particularly new.
The writer is a journalist and tweets as @ammarawrites