“The Lowland” by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri is set in both India and America. It is about two brothers, Subhash and Udayan Mitra, born just 15 months apart, who grow up in Tollygunge, a small village outside Calcutta. The novel takes its title from a piece of land between two ponds where the brothers grow up, a pond that floods each year during the monsoon season.
The story begins with the contrast between the two brothers but is more about the generations dealing with two cultures. The historical backdrop is provided by the Naxalite movement, a radical Communist faction started in the village of Naxalbari that resulted in a terrible uprising in 1967, in which the peasants rioted against the police and landlords. The riots and violence affected all of India. As a young adult in the 1960s, Udayan reacted to the inequality of wealth in India and the lack of rights of the poor. Of the two brothers, Udayan, the younger one, is the more adventurous and often the leader, while Subhash, the older one, is the protector. Subhash, the dutiful son, graduates from university and leaves to get his PhD. In Rhode Island he involves himself in a life of scientific research. There he finds students protesting the war in Vietnam and marching for civil rights.
He does not get involved; he is after all a guest of the United States.
The two brothers always remained loyal to each other even when and by the path each had taken. Later, separated by continents, they remain despite. Eventually Subhash is summoned home to deal with family tragedy when his brother is killed. He is still the dutiful son, but he has changed in America. He disapproves of the way Udayan’s pregnant widow Gauriis is treated in their home so Subhash marries her and brings her to Rhode Island. Gauri gives birth to a daughter, Bela, then returns to university to pursue an academic career of her own in philosophy. Readers will perhaps want to dislike her. Gauri seems an indifferent mother, incapable of loving Bela.
This powerful novel, nominated for the National Book Award as well as shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, tells of the history of India through the eyes of the brothers. The Naxalites are still active today in 10 states of India, leading some to declare that they are the most serious threat to India’s national security.
Two brothers, two points of view. In the novel a young daughter asks her father why, if she has two eyes, she sees only one of him. He tells her, “the brain fused the separate images together.” The daughter replied, “So, I see with my brain, not my eyes?” There are always two ways of looking at anything.