Whenever I read a book like Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, I wish I were teaching again. This is a novel to be discussed with other people, especially young people. Its themes and its literary excellence beg to be part of a larger book list, part of a class where intelligent conversation can occur week after week through the course of an entire semester. A class reading ethnic writers, for example, authors writing of displacement from home and adjusting to an emigrant America. Or a class focusing on family disconnections, on generations of silence and miscommunication. Or a class considering what is “a classic,” which I always defined as a book I wanted to read over and over again, where I would always find something new. The Lowland, originally published in 2013, will someday be a classic, I think.
The prose is carefully wrought, especially when bringing scenes in Calcutta and in Rhode Island to life. Lahiri’s Calcutta is awash, both in color and in the dankness of decay. “The flooded plain was thick with water hyacinth. The floating weed grew aggressively. Its leaves caused the surface to appear solid. . . . In autumn egrets arrived, their white feathers darkened by the city’s soot, waiting motionless for their prey.” Thus Lahiri describes the lowland that gives its name to the title of her novel, a few acres covered with water during the monsoon season, that then dry out with evaporation, cyclically and symbolically. Students would do well to ponder the meaning of the lowland, how its physicality measures the lives of The Lowland characters, themselves ebbing and flowing as the years come and go.
Lahiri’s prose is thoughtful, too. Four generations come alive in The Lowland—some born in India, others in the United States; some immigrating to America, others staying put; some westernized, others never escaping their ethnic expectations. The story begins with Subhash and Udayan, siblings born fifteen months apart in Tollygunge, raised in a house overlooking the lowland. Inseparable, the brothers study and play together exclusively, although their temperaments differ and, as they mature, their interests diverge. The Lowland centers on their lives, finally separate but always bound together by invisible strands of family and love. Initially Lahiri’s book can be defined as a coming-of-age novel, later as a family saga that spans decades and oceans. Always, Lahiri is penetrating the innermost ties that bind, or snap.
Near the end of The Lowland, while scanning the internet for breaking news and articles archived from years before, one character observes, “At every moment the past is there, appended to the present.” Earlier, her daughter would confuse the meaning of yesterday, wanting it to blur in a timeless fashion. Now, as The Lowland draws to a close, Gauri realizes that the present cannot free itself from the past, that ancient actions reverberate, that youthful indiscretions have consequences. She returns to Kolkata (yesterday’s Calcutta) for the first time in decades. The lowland is gone. “New homes filled up an area that once been watery, open.” But Gauri’s memories remain. She can still conjure up the lowland, the water hyacinth, the ebb and flow, the actions and emotions generated there. The past can still be present, if only inside Gauri’s head.
Will The Lowland one day be a classic? I repeat my affirmative prediction, as I continue to imagine future classrooms of college students mulling over the layered generations of this very provocative novel. The Lowland is smart, thoughtful, often profound. It deserves to be read many, many times. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Jhumpa Lahiri: Unaccustomed Earth; The Namesake; Interpreter of Maladies.