Subhash Mitra comes home one day from his Rhode Island lab to an unexpectedly empty apartment and finds the bedroom table covered with the dark hanks of his wife Gauri’s hair. She’s chopped it all off with a pair of kitchen shears, and then taken the blades to her clothes as well, so that “her saris, and her petticoats and blouses, were lying in ribbons and scraps…as if an animal had shredded the fabric with its teeth and claws.” When she returns a few minutes later she’s dressed for the first time like an American, in pants and a breast-hugging sweater, but she can’t really be bothered to explain. “I was tired of it,” she says, that’s all, and sweeps the old things into the trash, while Subhash bites his anger down, unable to tell her how wasteful she seems, or how bad such “destructive behavior” must be for the child she’s carrying.
The moment pulls us within the bitter logic of the Mitras’ marriage and forecasts the eventual relations of this Calcutta-born pair with their daughter Bela, the girl who isn’t Subhash’s, and yet will be. But it also says a great deal about the deliberate restrictions of Jhumpa Lahiri’s own work. Because we don’t get the rage Gauri must have felt as she sliced through the cotton and silk, or the determined grimace—I’m inventing these details—on her face as the scissors met the resistance of her hair. Lahiri underplays it all. The scene she actually writes presents Subhash’s reaction to that earlier and unwritten moment of wreckage, and her prose remains unruffled. Gauri may burst beyond decorum. Her creator never does. Nothing extreme, nothing unmannerly; it’s all a little bit gray, as if the novel itself were as determined as Subhash to refuse any moment of emotional crisis.
That makes Lahiri sound cautious, and in reading her I have in fact sometimes wished she would break her own rules, and allow herself to flower into extravagance. Yet restraint has a daring of its own, and The Lowland is her finest work so far, rivaled only by the “Hema and Kaushik” stories in Unaccustomed Earth (2008). It is at once unsettling and generous, bow-string taut and much, much better than her episodic first novel, The Namesake (2003), in which an open ending fizzled out into inconsequence. At the same time, I expect it will prove her most controversial book to date, for its plot grows out of the Maoist-inspired Naxalite uprising that began in West Bengal’s Darjeeling district in the late 1960s.
The Naxalites had their roots in the countryside, in the disputes between landlords and peasants, and even now remain a potent force in India’s tribal areas. They also appealed, however, to an urban intelligentsia, radicalizing those students, like Subhash’s younger brother Udayan, who could no longer abide the country’s poverty and corruption, and in the early 1970s their actions, along with the government’s smothering response, gave Calcutta its own years of lead. The Naxalites killed policemen along with some teachers and businessmen, and many people saw—see—them as terrorists. Others admired their idealism, regretting their tactics while sharing their goals, and still more were appalled by the scale of the state’s paramilitary reaction. Lahiri takes no explicit position, and reading The Lowland made me recall one of Stendhal’s most famous aphorisms: politics in a novel are like a pistol shot in the middle of a concert. They are entirely out of place but impossible to ignore, and though Lahiri herself has put those politics in, she also wants us to look away from them, to concentrate on the spectators instead of the struggle around the gun.
This book is a determinedly apolitical writer’s attempt to deal with an explosive subject, and some readers will think it quietist. They will miss the edge of impassioned engagement that they might find, say, in Arundhati Roy, and argue that with this material Lahiri should have produced a different kind of book. But there’s another way to put it. For though she deals more fully here than ever before with a specifically Indian subject, though the book both begins and ends in Calcutta and what happens there will forever mark its characters’ lives, The Lowland is written in an American vein.
The title comes from a few acres in the south Calcutta district of Tollygunge, a marshy spot that floods during the monsoon, growing so “thick with water hyacinth” that it looks solid. The surrounding neighborhood is one of “narrow lanes and modest middle-class homes,” and a good place for an uneventful childhood. Subhash and Udayan were born only fifteen months apart, shortly before the subcontinent’s 1947 independence, and their bond is so tight that their parents hold the older boy back so that they can start school together.
Subhash is the cautious one, who likes helping his father plant dahlias, and strives “to minimize his existence, as other animals merged with bark or blades of grass.” Udayan is in contrast “blind to self-constraints,” impetuous and charming, always arguing with his teachers and making his parents worry. But their voices are almost identical, and Subhash has “no sense of himself without” his brother; “each day of his life began and ended with Udayan beside him.”
The boys do well in school and go on to university, but they begin to separate when in 1967 the radio starts to carry a few news items from the Himalayan foothills, stories from a far-off village called Naxalbari. Local quarrels don’t normally merit much coverage. A sharecropper gets beaten, his family starves? No news there, but in this village the Communist son of a local landowner has taught the peasants to fight back. They burn records, they squat on the land from which they’ve been evicted, and they begin to carry red flags and weapons. A policeman is hit by an arrow; a riot is met by police bullets. To Subhash the revolt looks futile, but Udayan is stirred by the villagers’ show of resistance. He begins to quote Che Guevara, spends his days at rallies, and even drags Subhash along one night while he tags a wall, writing “Long Live Naxalbari” in English. The older brother doesn’t have the strength to resist, but he still manages to pose a question: “You don’t think what you’re doing is selfish?”
Udayan finds a job teaching high school, but the careful Subhash now makes a surprising declaration of independence. He applies to an American graduate school, and begins to study oceanography at an unnamed university in Rhode Island. At first the country scares him. Even that tiny state seems so large and so empty, and without his brother, Subhash’s sense of self begins to shake. Still, the New England coast has its magic, its fog and marshes and the majesty of a “slate-colored” heron, and it isn’t long before he begins to fall for this new land.
A letter from home does, it’s true, disturb him. Udayan has gotten married—a love match with the orphaned sister of a friend, a girl who “prefers books to jewels and saris.” Subhash has always believed that their parents would arrange their marriages; he’s drawn to Gauri’s smile in the enclosed picture, but is troubled by this new example of Udayan “getting his way.” Nevertheless the marriage seems to have settled the younger man—the couple moves in with his parents, and his letters now say less about politics. Then a telegram arrives: “Udayan killed. Come back if you can.”
But Subhash’s parents barely register his arrival. They ask no questions about his American life, and with their eyes “calloused by grief” they say nothing at all about what’s happened. Moreover they ignore their pregnant daughter-in-law, who now wears a widow’s plain white sari, and is no longer allowed to taste either meat or fish. It’s a sign of respect on which Subhash’s mother insists; he finds it demeaning and knows that Udayan would have as well. And in his parents’ silence he turns to Gauri to learn about his brother’s death. The police had come for him, she says, they marched the whole family away from the house and held them at gunpoint and threatened to shoot unless he surrendered, and then he burst up from beneath the water hyacinth in the lowland where he’d been hiding. His hand was bandaged, some fingers blown off by a pipe bomb, and they shot him in her sight. His body was never returned to them.
Subhash soon recognizes that he can do nothing for his parents, but he believes that “Gauri was different. Around her, he felt a shared awareness of the person they’d both loved.” His parents see her only as a reminder of what they have lost, and his mother looks determined to push her out, to get rid of her and yet keep the child. He wants her, and he also wants to help her, but he quickly realizes that she can only escape this deadened house if he marries her, if he follows his younger brother “in a way that felt perverse, that felt ordained.” Subhash will take her to Rhode Island and raise the child as his own; someday they will tell the truth, and someday, too, she might love him. Gauri accepts his argument but thinks that kindness has made him weak; when she lands in Boston she feels only “the reality of the decision she’d made.” It will take forty years for the consequences of that choice to work themselves out.
Lahiri was born in London, an intermediate stop on her parents’ westward journey from Bengal, and came to the States as a toddler. She has told a version of their happier tale in “The Third and Final Continent,” the last story in her first book, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), and her concern lies as much with that older immigrant generation as it does with her own. Here she limits herself to her characters’ voices and reactions, and avoids anything like a clinical language in describing Gauri’s enduring grief and what, after Bela’s birth, is clearly an untreated postpartum depression. She recovers only by retreating into a graduate student’s life of crumpled papers and unemptied teacups, resuming the work in philosophy that her first marriage had interrupted, and eventually writing a dissertation on Schopenhauer. With time Gauri surprises herself with desire and begins to sleep with Subhash; but neither he nor her daughter will bring her any moment of joy.
The prose in which Lahiri defines these lives is a bit different than that of her earlier books. In dialogue she now does without quotation marks, and though her sentences have always been spare, she shows a new reliance on sentence fragments, at the end of a paragraph in particular:
So many times Subhash and Udayan had walked across the lowland. It was a shortcut to a field on the outskirts of the neighborhood, where they went to play football. Avoiding puddles, stepping over mats of hyacinth leaves that remained in place. Breathing the dank air.