None of us really know the pain and suffering that others experience. Our friends, our brothers, our mothers may have lives that were shaped and inextricably altered by a single heartbreaking event, with details kept secret over a lifetime, and that will affect generations to follow.
This is the message in Jhumpa Lahiri’s astonishing new novel, “The Lowland,” a masterful work that shines with brilliant language as it follows the sad lives of a single family living in a Bengali suburb of Calcutta called Tollygunge.
Subhash and Udayan Mitra, two brothers 15 months apart, were inseparable as children but drawn in different directions as they grew. Subhash was more reserved, more careful, pulled deeper into the sciences as a way to understand the world; Udayan took more risks, got in more trouble as a child, and became more politically aware and active than his older brother. As young adults in the 1960s, Subhash went to America to pursue his scientific studies, while Udayan stayed in India and became deeply involved in the Naxalite movement, which sought justice and equality in the fledgling independent nation that, at that time, had little of either.
As the novel progresses to the present day, Lahiri’s rich descriptions tell the wider story by shifting viewpoints between family members. Subhash, at first alone in America, often thinks of home: “On cloudy days, at intervals, the sound of a foghorn pierced the air, as conch shells were blown in Calcutta to ward off evil.” Back in India, Gauri, the young woman who will marry Udayan, stands on her grandparents’ balcony observing the world below: “There was something elemental about so many human beings in motion at once: walking, sitting in busses and trams, pulling or being pulled along in rickshaws.”
The contrast between the two countries — the spaciousness of America and the density of India, the freedoms found in Providence and the oppression of Calcutta — is seen in many of the author’s earlier stories and in her first novel, “The Namesake.” As she has before, she once again dazzles us with beautiful words that flow effortlessly, creating a narrative that takes hold and won’t let go. While the sudden death of a family member drenches “The Lowland” in sorrow, it also raises questions of love, parenting and finding one’s way in the world — especially for immigrants.
Jhumpa Lahiri puts her readers deep into the heart of this family, as she does here when she describes Gauri observing her baby: “When she was sleeping, she breathed with her whole body, like an animal or a machine. This fascinated Gauri but also preoccupied her: the grand effort of each breath, one after the next for as long as she would live, drawn from the air shared by everyone else in the world.”
We are fortunate that Jhumpa Lahiri has shared her words with all of us, and with these words has created a masterpiece with “The Lowland.”
Jim Carmin is a National Book Critics Circle member who lives in Portland, Ore.