Monday, December 30, 2013

THE LOWLAND by Jhumpa Lahari (fic)

Jhumpa Lahari is a past Pulitzer Prize winner and The Lowland like many of her novels deals with Indian immigrants adjusting to life in America.  Lahari writes beautifully expressive prose.  Her descriptions are so complete that the reader is immersed in the settings which play an important part in filling out her characters. She is also perfectly attuned to the joys and sadness in family relationships.  This novel moves back and forth in time from the late 1960s to present day, which makes it difficult to write about the plot without giving too much information.

Essentially this is the story of two brothers, Udayan and Subhash who grow up in Calcutta.  During their university years, there is a radical movement called Naxalism, inspired by the writings of Mao, that has taken hold of many students who cannot help but see the injustice of the poverty which surrounds them in this overcrowded city.  Udayan, the more daring and idealistic brother becomes an active participant in the communist movement, while Subhash the studious and more serious brother continues to focus on his goal of becoming an oceanographer.  Lahari does a good job of presenting the dynamics in a traditional Indian family and the breakdown caused by Udayan's terrorist radicalism.

Subhash in pursuit of a doctorate, moves to Rhode Island to complete his studies.  While Subhash is away, Udayan, in Calcutta, marries a modern very independent student named Gauri. She is a great disappointment to his parents who believe in arranged marriages.

 Having grown up in Rhode Island, I found Lahari's descriptions of the coastline and nearby scenery spot on.  I know exactly each area she presents to the reader, the University, the watch tower, the beaches and ports for working fishermen, the small homes and churches along the coast.  I felt right at home, just as I imagine her descriptions of Calcutta are equally accurate.

Subhash has a sweet affair, his first, with a local woman whom he meets on the beach.  He is devastated when she returns to her husband.  Lahari treats this relationship with all the tenderness that is absent in his later relationship with Gauri.  Gauri is an interesting character in the beginning of the book, when she is a young student in love with Udayan.  She seems real in those moments, but as the story moves on, Gauri seems to lose her humanity and certainly the reader's sympathy.  She is portrayed as selfish and cruel, a cardboard figure.  When Gauri arrives in Rhode Island, she is carrying Udayan's child.  After her daughter's birth, Gauri pursues her own path and eventually abandons both Bela, her daughter, and Subhash who brings up Bela with tender care as his own child.  Bela only discovers her real father as a young adult, and the consequences change the direction of her life. 

While The Lowland is written with expression and attention to detail, it is not Lahiri's best work.  I enjoy her short stories and especially liked The Namesake. This book would have been more enjoyable if the reader could have a clearer understanding of Guari's motives, as much of the plot hinges on her relationship with the other characters in the book.

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