Two brothers – one cautious and shy, the other audacious and daring – grow up inseparable in 1960s Calcutta in Jhumpa Lahiri’s somber but formidable second novel, The Lowland.
Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for her short-story collection “The Interpreter of Maladies,” and her first novel, “The Namesake,” was turned into a movie. “The Lowland” has been nominated for two of literature’s biggest prizes: It is a finalist for Great Britain's Man Booker Prize and last week was named to the longlist of the National Book Award.
Lahiri is an expert in writing about dislocation – the feeling immigrants can have of being simultaneously two places at once and not necessarily belonging to either. “At times it terrified her that she felt so entwined and also so alone," one character thinks of life at home with her baby. Here again, her characters struggle with emotional isolation, no matter how much they might love one another.
Udayan, the younger and more favored son, drags Subhash with him on adventures such as sneaking onto the golf course of the Tolly Club. In addition to grass as soft as moss, the golf course offers a number of features unknown to US courses, such as water buffalo, jackals, and egrets. (Subhash, of course, is the one who gets punished when they’re caught.)
“He was blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving certain colors,” Lahiri writes of Udayan.
The younger boy’s footprints are commemorated in concrete in front of the house, “the most enduring of Udayan’s transgressions.” Unwilling to sit inside, as the boys had been told to do, until the courtyard set, he ran across a plank and slipped, “the evidence of his path forming impressions of the soles of his feet, tapering like an hourglass at the center, the pads of the toes disconnected.”
Careful Subhash doesn’t leave a trace. He "strove to minimize his existence, as other animals merged with bark or blades of grass.”
Then the two go off to different universities and their closeness vanishes. Udayan joins a militant Communist group and marries against his parents’ wishes, while Subhash studies marsh grass in Rhode Island and waits for his parents to choose him a wife.
“He didn’t belong, but perhaps it didn’t matter,” Subhash thinks of Rhode Island. “That it was here, in this minute but majestic corner of the world, that he could breathe.”
Nonetheless, he fully expects to leave the New England coast behind out of duty to his family.
Udayan’s bland, careful letters to his brother reflect nothing of the boy Subhash knew. While Subhash can tell Udayan is concealing something, he assumes they’ll resume their relationship once he finishes his studies in the US and returns to India. Then a tragedy strikes the family and Subhash returns home to find a scene he never expected.
In the “one act of rebellion” of his life, he marries Udayan’s pregnant widow and takes her back to the US to help her escape his parents, who treat her as a pariah in their home.
That act of selflessness leads him to the love of his life: Udayan’s and Gauri’s little daughter, Bela.
Gauri, however, has “misplaced” her affection for Bela and cannot bring herself to love her new husband, who looks so eerily like his brother but whose character is completely different. (Next to Subhash’s mother, Gauri can be the most difficult character to empathize with in “The Lowland.” While her decisions can seem arbitrary and unnecessarily cruel, her emotional isolation stems in part from a secret she’s hiding, which Lahiri reveals near the novel’s end.)
The result is “a family of solitaries,” whom Lahiri follows over the next four decades as they pull away from one another and find a way to come back together.
“Though she’d been created by two people who’d loved one another, she was the result of two who never did,” Bela tells a character near the end of the novel.
Once in the US, Gauri finds it easiest to be solitary. “The ligaments that had held her life together were no longer there,” Gauri thinks.
In Rhode Island, the violence that had consumed India for the past three years never even rates a headline. (Lahiri does an excellent job of catching American readers up on the Naxalite movement.) “What had consumed the city for the past three years, what had altered the course of her life and shattered it, was not reported here,” thinks Gauri.
On a trip to the grocery store in Rhode Island, she discovers cream cheese, “which came in a silver wrapping, looking like a bar of soap.” Thinking it might be chocolate, she buys some. “Inside the wrapper was something dense, cold, slightly sour. She broke it into pieces and ate it on its own standing in the parking lot of the grocery. Not knowing it was intended to be spread on a cracker or bread, savoring the unexpected taste and texture of it in her mouth, licking the paper clean.”
Gauri also discovers the campus where Subhash works. There, she wanders for hours, reading Hobbes and Hannah Arendt in the library and sneaking into philosophy classes. “She liked spending time in the company of people who ignored but surrounded her.”
“The Lowland” switches point of view between Subhash, Gauri, Bela, and Subhash’s mother, Bijoli, as Lahiri examines the cost of sacrifice and deception on each member of the family. When writing about the emotional distance separating her characters, it’s easy for a reader to feel disconnected at times, as well.
But by the end of the novel, Lahiri’s precise writing and clarity of expression ends up casting its usual spell. Subhash who, quietly and without reward, tries to care for those around him, always feels inferior to his brilliant, fiery brother. Yet it’s the gentler sibling who who ends up being the novel’s hero. “The Lowland” looks at the nature of sacrifice and love, the price of personal freedom, and what really constitutes the the greater good.
Yvonne Zipp is the Monitor's fiction critic.