In 1967, I was wallpapering a nursery in anticipation of the birth of our first child. In 1967, police were using Mace to control anti-war riots in Berkley. In 1967, a woman in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Lowland, is also anticipating the birth of a child.
Gauri, although a student, is far from Berkley—and although carrying a child, she is far from the diversions of nursery décor. She stands in the lowland behind her in-laws’ home in the suburbs of Calcutta while the police prepare to execute her husband.
The lowland is where Udayan and his brother Subhash wandered while they were growing up, a place strewn with both trash and water hyacinths. They played among these flood plains, never losing sight of each other and remaining close as brothers and friends even as they entered different universities in the sixties. By graduation, however, their lives diverge: Subhash enrolls in an American doctoral program in Rhode Island; Udayan—idealistic and impulsive–is caught up in the Maoist Naxalite revolution in West Bengal. He hides the fierceness of his involvement from his family, including his young wife Guari, until the day he is arrested and shot before their eyes.
Grieving for his brother, Subhash returns to his shattered family. Realizing that his parents intend to drive the pregnant Guari out, he marries her and returns with her to the United States. The novel pivots at this point, transporting us to the course of their lives in America.
More than a tale of political strife, this novel is a meditation on the way events can transcend time and distance to affect generations to come. Often painful, The Lowland is always engaging, with never a false note. As readers of Lahiri’s previous novel The Namesake know, she writes about the immigrant experience with quiet grace and precision.
Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for her short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies. Now The Lowland has been shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize to be announced on October 15. No matter what the judges decide, you can rest assured it’s a winner.