Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Sister Reads | Review: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri


Book: The Lowland

Author: Jhumpa Lahiri

Pages: 340

Time taken to read: About a day

Plot Summary: Two brothers bound by tragedy; a fiercely brilliant woman haunted by her past; a country torn by revolution. A powerful new novel-set in both India and America-that explores the price of idealism and a love that can last long past death.

Growing up in Calcutta, born just fifteen months apart, Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable brothers, one often mistaken for the other. But they are also opposites, with gravely different futures ahead of them. It is the 1960s, and Udayan--charismatic and impulsive--finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty: he will give everything, risk all, for what he believes. Subhash, the dutiful son, does not share his brother's political passion; he leaves home to pursue a life of scientific research in a quiet, coastal corner of America.

But when Subhash learns what happened to his brother in the lowland outside their family's home, he comes back to India, hoping to pick up the pieces of a shattered family, and to heal the wounds Udayan left behind--including those seared in the heart of his brother's wife.

Thoughts and some Context: Anything to do with the Naxalite Movement is very difficult for us to read or watch because of a family tragedy that took place during this period and connected with this "movement", which tore my family apart in irreparable ways. So, we typically avoid reading books about this movement, irrespective of whether that book glorifies or vilifies either the young men or the ones they killed, because no matter which perspective is presented, the tragedy that hurt our family makes it impossible for us to be dispassionate, neutral or even forgiving towards these (euphemistically labelled) "misguided young men". So, anyway, I thought this context required sharing because a lot of why we loved this book has to do with this.. our past and our family. Also, we wouldn't really read this book if it hadn't been written by Jhumpa Lahiri- an author we both adore! 

So, like the plot summary mentions, Subhash and Udayan are two brothers who, like most brothers close in age, were very close as kids. As they grow older, especially, with Udayan's involvement in the Naxalite Movement, there is a chasm of sorts between the brothers, which widens significantly as Subhash goes off to the US to pursue a Graduate degree. 

The book presents four perspectives- Subhash, Udayan, Gauri (Udayan's wife) and Gauri's daughter (I forget her name)- and not all are equally interesting, relate-able or empathy-inducing- but they do form a cohesive whole making the narrative robust and thought-provoking. 

What I Liked: Lahiri's writing is sheer poetry, in fact, it is better than poetry. It is glorious, evocative, lyrical and just plain simple brilliant. So, let's get that out of the way. I loved how this book was written and if you enjoy good writing, you should read this book just for the joy of reading something well written. 

I also liked the perspective with which Lahiri looked at the Naxalite Movement, it is neutral for the most part. But in the end she does call it out for what it was- a flawed plan to say the very least. She does throw some light on the misguided beginnings and it's pathetic end. I learnt a lot of this movement which I knew very little about- mainly because I kept away from it and no one in my family can talk about it dispassionately. 

The characters, all of them, even the others apart from the three lead characters, are all wonderfully written. Even minor characters come across as real and nuanced. I liked reading about them and what they were thinking and feeling. 

I adored the sibling relationship depicted in the book. The brothers are close, as close as twins since they are very close in age, but the relationship goes from really close- to distant- to one that deserts them as soon geography intervened. I also felt that the depiction of Subhash's crippling guilt at Udayan's death and his life choices post that were very sensitively written. While I may not endorse the life choices Subhash made, but I do understand the guilt and where he was coming from. 

Udayan's perspective was interesting to the extent that it provided a window into what motivated these bright, educated young men to give up everything for a cause that, to a lot of people, seemed doomed from the start. His idealism, his struggles with the ups and downs of the Movement did help humanise this 'other' that everyone in my family is conditioned to dislike. 

Also, I enjoyed reading about the 'lowland', the bit of marshy land where Udayan was killed. We have family that stays very, very close to where this place, possibly, is in Tollygunj, Calcutta. The fact that we have seen this lowland and driven by it several times really brought certain scenes in the book alive for us- but this is just a bonus, really :) 

What I Didn't Like: Rather, what I couldn't empathise with, was Gauri's character. She seemed like she had a giant stick up her you-know-where and she was colder than a Popsicle in the North Pole. I get it- you loved and married a guy who had some misguided notions and who was killed in a horribly brutal manner in front of you. That is sad and terrible, but does that mean you freeze up and are the worst wife and parent ever?! I could not relate to her much and her perspective in the book just pissed me off, to be honest. 

Will you like it?: If you want to read about India, rather about Bengal, during one of the most turbulent, intense and tragic times in its post-Independence history, then this is a good book to read. If you like reading about complicated people and complicated relationships, then again, this is a good book to read. If you like reading well written books with a lot of heart, then this is a good book to read. Overall, this is a book I highly recommend. 

Rating: 4/5 (I docked one point for Gauri's perspective and character- did not enjoy it!) 

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