I’ve been a fan of Jhumpa Lahiri’s since reading her first novel The Namesake (2003), and I moved from there to her short stories, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning collection Interpreter of Maladies (1999). I will read anything she writes. So when her second novel The Lowland (2013) came out last year, I jumped at the chance to read it. I quickly put my name on the library list, and then I had to wait many months to actually get my hands on it. It was worth the wait.
The novel is about two brothers, born around World War II. Udayan becomes a Naxalite Communist in India in the 1960s, while the Subhash goes to Rhode Island for school. He stays in the United States and earns a Ph.D., eventually marrying his brother’s wife! It is an interesting and tragic twist of fate. His brother is arrested and executed for being a traitor, and when Subhash returns home because of the tragedy, he learns that his sister-in-law, Gauri, abhorred by his parents, is expecting a baby. He hears the story of how his brother had to hide in the lowland near the house, trying to hold his breath in the water, while the police searched for him. He is moved by the tragedy and subversive circumstances and feels sorry for the wife. He makes a deal that he will marry her and take her back to the United States with him and raise her baby as his own. It is an arranged marriage, but not approved by his parents.
The rest of the novel plays on this arrangement, one that is strange yet seemed like a logical course of action. As the marriage unfolds, Subhash and Gauri learn to love each other in some ways, but drift away in others. The daughter they raise, although not his, is more connected to Subhash than Gauri in relationship. This becomes solidified when Gauri abandons them both for a teaching job at a college in California.
It is a tragedy, but one that we can see having unfolded from previous tragedy. This tale is the Russian nesting dolls of tragedy, with one precipitating another and another. There is no end to the suffering and pain of life. This is something I constantly learn, and it is disheartening. Life is pain. Sorrow, fear, and anxiety are more constant than I would like. I find comfort in a phrase from the scriptures: Men are that they might have joy.
In all of this tragedy, do Lahiri’s characters find joy? In some ways, yes. Subhash finds joy in fathering his daughter, even though she is not his biologically. The daughter finds joy in her own daughter once she is grown and becomes a mother herself. There is a strain between her and Gauri, who abandoned her and never looked back. When the two come face-to-face after some thirty years, there is tension and anger, but ultimately some hope. In every difficult situation, there can be hope and we can find joy despite the difficulty.
The Lowland explores this, while honestly representing the disappointment that life can bring. Lahiri does this from the perspective of Indian immigrants to the United States, a common theme in her work, but it is universally applicable. We are all strangers in a strange land and wanderers searching to belong. She enacts that familiar human story through her Indian characters, but we can all identify with them. This is the power of Lahiri’s storytelling.