Jhumpa Lahiri had requested no photographs, so you will just have to imagine the scene: Two lovely, intense women, both with long dark hair and wearing skirts and boots, seated side by side in comfortable armchairs in the front of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Minneapolis, a wooden table between them set with mugs of water.
The two women are powers of American letters: Louise Erdrich, winner of the 2012 National Book Award (and many other significant awards), in conversation with Lahiri, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and short-listed for both this year’s National Book Award and Man Booker Prize for her new book, “The Lowland.”
No photos, no video, the talk would be “old school,” Erdrich said. “Hardcover books. An event in present time. You, us and this wonderful book — graceful, full of heart.”
Lahiri read a passage of “The Lowland,” in which the two brothers in the book have been caught trespassing in an exclusive country club in India. “Where did this place come from for you?” Erdrich asked. “It’s so powerful.”
The place is real, Lahiri said. The lowland is “the area of Calcutta where my own father was raised, a neighborhood I have come to know quite well. Tolly Land was built by the British, a place for them to retreat and ride horses and play golf and get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.”
In her research, Lahiri learned that the area had once been a flood plain, later drained and developed by the English. “That gave me some sort of working metaphor for the story,” she said.
The story itself sprang from memories of her childhood. Lahiri grew up in Rhode Island, but her family traveled to India every other year to visit relatives. During those visits, she became aware of the Naxalite Movement, a sometimes-violent rebellious faction.
“There was a family who lived very close to my grandparents that had two boys who became involved in the movement,” she said. One evening the police raided the neighborhood, and the boys took refuge in the lowland. But they were captured and were executed in front of their family.
“It just shook me,” Lahiri said. “I found it bewildering and confusing that something like that could happen in the neighborhood where I passed time reading books, visiting friends and family. When I began writing seriously, the idea would float in and out, and I became aware of the desire to shape this and do something with it.”
Erdrich asked her about the origin of the main characters, and Lahiri replied that she was interested in understanding what leads people to violence. “I really wanted to examine violence in many forms — not just physical, but emotional. So much of writing begins with these questions, with wanting to understand.” And Erdrich, whose latest novel, “The Round House,” also involved an examination of violence, nodded in agreement.