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 …