The transformative effect of one person's death
By Jhumpa Lahiri
Alfred A. Knopf. 352 pp. $27.95
Reviewed by Kevin Grauke
In 1999, Jhumpa Lahiri emerged upon the literary scene like Athena from the head of Zeus: fully formed and glorious.
Her first book, The Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, one of only four short-story collections to do so since The Stories of John Cheever won in 1979. Since then, she has published a novel, The Namesake (2003), and a second collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth (2008), both of which were widely lauded. And now she has returned with her second novel, The Lowland, which deserves just as much praise as her previous work. In fact, if she hasn't already been proclaimed an American master, this addition to her oeuvre should guarantee it.
The Lowland begins as the tale of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan Mitra. Born 15 months apart in the 1940s in Tollygunge, a neighborhood of Calcutta (now known as Kolkata), they are inseparable; however, Udayan "was blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving certain colors," while "Subhash strove to minimize his existence, as other animals merged with bark or blades of grass." Both go to college - Subhash to study chemical engineering, Udayan to study physics - and it is during these years that their contradictory natures separate them. Subhash decides to pursue graduate work in the United States while Udayan finds himself growing deeply involved in a radical, militant Communist movement, the Naxalites, and neither thinks too highly of the other's pursuits.
For a while, it seems as if the novel's lens will remain focused upon the brothers' divergent paths throughout, but then Subhash, now studying in Rhode Island, receives word of Udayan's death back in India, and from here The Lowland begins to chart a different path, one that requires a bit less exposition concerning the rivalrous politics of India in the decades after Partition. From this point on, the novel mostly concerns the transformative effect of Udayan's death on those who survive him: his parents, his brother, his wife, and his yet-to-be-born daughter.
Lahiri explores here what she has always explored best: the fragile inner workings of her characters. Alternating among the survivors - Subhash, Gauri (Udayan's widow), and Bela (Udayan and Gauri's daughter) - she follows these characters from the 1970s to the 21st century. All of them struggle with having been abandoned, both by people who have died as well as by people who have simply departed. All hold resentments, but almost all do their own abandoning, as well. All also attempt to cobble together new lives in an effort to fill the lonely holes left by the deserters, to varying degrees of success.
As she's always done, even in her short stories, Lahiri takes her time as she develops her portraits of the novel's characters. Their true, hidden natures shimmer vibrantly for us, even if they rarely do for each other. And as these people subtly transform over the years, making small but meaningful adjustments, they seem just like us, even when they are being cruel or selfish. Or maybe especially when they are being so.
A simple but profound question seems to hover in the air throughout The Lowland, and that question is this: What do you live for? Do you live for yourself? For your children? For an ideal? Each character whose perspective we are shown at one time or another - Subhash, Gauri, Bela, Bijoli (the brothers' mother), Udayan - answers this question differently, and sometimes these answers have disastrous consequences, leaving others wounded and unable to answer this question for themselves and their own lives. While we may respect the choices made by some much more than others, Lahiri compels us to empathize with all of these characters as they muddle through life, maintaining secrets in some instances and revealing truths in others - all in the name of protecting whatever or whomever it is that they hold most dear.
In a letter to a friend, Emily Dickinson once wrote, "The heart wants what it wants, or else it does not care." With The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri continues to transfix us with her subtle explorations of what our sundry hearts want, and while her characters may sometimes reach that point of not caring cited by Dickinson, we never do, not while we remain in the exquisite world of her making.
Kevin Grauke is an associate professor of English at La Salle University. He is the author of "Shadows of Men," a short story collection.