Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland: The lowdown on Bengal

I just finished reading The Lowland in Kolkata, where I visited some of the places mentioned by the author, Jhumpa Lahiri. Recently I attended two weddings at the Tolly Club, which is described in the novel.

Kolkata, formerly called Calcutta, features prominently in some recent novels such as Paul Theroux’s A Dead Hand and Jeffrey Eugenides’ A Marriage Plot.  Amitav Ghosh described early 19th century Calcutta when it was the capital of the British Raj in his historical saga, Sea of Poppies, besides depicting the city in several other novels including The Glass Palace, The Calcutta Chromosome, The Shadow Line and The Hungry Tide. Calcutta is also very much present in Amit Chaudhuri’s collection of stories, Real Time, his novel, A New World, and his novellas, A Strange and Sublime Address and Freedom Song.

Jhumpa Lahiri has also described Calcutta in her earlier novel, The Namesake.

What sets The Lowland apart is that it also it recalls the Naxalite movement, a violent Maoist insurgency which shook Calcutta and the outlying districts of West Bengal in the late 1960s and ‘70s. The Naxalite movement is not yet dead – it still threatened a part of Bengal a couple of years ago and continues in other parts of India.

The Nobel laureate VS Naipaul wrote about the Maoist guerrillas in his novel, Magic Seeds. While Naipaul described the insurgency in the countryside, Lahiri writes about the early Naxalites in Calcutta.

The Lowland is the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan. Born into a lower middle class Bengali family in a marshy lowland (hence the title) in the south Calcutta suburb of Tollygunge, the boys are brilliant students. Udayan goes to Presidency College, Calcutta’s leading college at the time and now a university. Subhash, a year older than Udayan, attends Jadavpur University.

And then their paths diverge.

Udayan joins the Naxalites while Subhash goes to America for higher studies.

Lahiri contrasts Subhash’s peaceful life in Rhode Island with Udayan’s guerrilla activities in West Bengal.

Udayan continues to be involved with the terrorists even after marrying the young woman, also a Presidency College student, he loves.

It ends in tragedy.

After getting involved in the murder of a policeman, Udayan is killed in cold blood by the police outside his home in front of his pregnant wife and his parents.

The shooting is described in chilling detail.

They pushed him into the back of the van and started the engine. He felt the vibration of the door slamming shut. They would take him somewhere, outside the city, to question him, then finish him off. Either that or to prison. But no, they’d already cut the engine, the van had stopped. The door opened. He was pulled out again.

They were in the field where he’d come so many times with Subhash.

They asked him nothing. They untied his hands, then pointed, indicating that he was to walk in a certain direction now, again with his hands raised over his head.

Slowly, he heard them say. Make sure to pause after every step.

He did as he was told. Step by step he walked away from them. Go back to your family, they said. But he knew that they were only waiting for him to fall into the ideal range…

For a fraction of a second he heard the explosion tearing through his lungs. A sound like gushing water or a torrent of wind. A sound that belonged to the fixed forces of the world, that then took him out of the world. The silence was pure now. Nothing interfered.

It is true. That is how Naxalites were killed by the police in West Bengal in the 1960s and ‘70s. Of course, there were others who were jailed and released. But executions – “encounters”, the police called them – were not unusual.

The Lowland seems to come with the subtext that Indians are better off abroad.

Subhash becomes an academic in America.

So does Gauri, Udayan’s widow, whom Subhash marries over his parents’ objections.

It is not a happy marriage.

Gauri abandons her daughter, Bela, and Subhash to lead her own life as an academic in America.

When they meet years later, Bela, now all grown up, tells her mother to go away.

Their relationships fail, but they succeed on other fronts. Bela loves the work she does and has a daughter and a man who loves her. Subhash marries a second time in ripe old age. Bela has also had relationships, including one with another woman.

The kind of lives they lead would be unusual, to say the least, in West Bengal. Going abroad has been liberating for them and helped them grow.

It’s true Gauri failed as a mother and a wife. But she is entitled to be her own woman and enjoy professional success, which she would have never had had she remained a widow living with her disapproving in-laws in Calcutta.

Gauri, Subhash and Bela’s lives are in such sharp contrast to Subhash’s parents’ in Calcutta. They continue to live in their old house in the lowland, mourning for their dead son. Finally, the father dies and the mother goes mad with grief.

Compare that with the happiness Subhash finds when he honeymoons in Ireland after his second marriage.

He returns to bed, still looking out the window at the sky, the stars. He is startled anew by the fact that their beauty, even in daytime, is there. He is awash with the gratitude of his advancing years, for the timeless splendours of the earth, for the opportunity to behold them.

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