TEACHING US HOW TO LIVE Lahiri. [Photo by Marco Delogu]
Though Jhumpa Lahiri has noted that it took her years to get one of her short stories published, it seemed to the literary world at large that she came on the scene like a blazing comet. Her 1999 book of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize when she was 32; her 2003 novel The Namesake was made into a film, directed by Mira Nair; her 2008 short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times best seller list; and now, her just-published novel The Lowland (Knopf, $27.95) has been nominated for the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize.
Lahiri was born in London to Bengali immigrants, who subsequently settled in Kingston, Rhode Island, where she and her sister grew up. Throughout her childhood, Lahiri and her family often visited relatives in Calcutta; it was during one of those trips that she heard about two young brothers, members of an extreme political group, who were killed a short distance from her grandparents’ home, in front of their own family.
That story was the catalyst for The Lowland, a tale of two brothers, born just 15 months apart, inseparable as children despite their differences in personalities. The younger brother, Udayan, is always the instigator of mischievous adventures or unusual projects, while his older brother Subhash is skeptical of Udayan’s plans but eventually goes along with them. Together they learn Morse code, build a shortwave radio, and climb over the wall of a nearby golf club to try their hand with a broken putting iron they’ve found.
Despite their modest upbringing, both brothers excel in school and go to local universities to study science. And it’s here that Udayan’s headstrong idealism pulls him into a Marxist-Maoist movement, the Naxalites. He meets and marries a young woman, Gauri, a dedicated student of philosophy, and though he keeps most of his political activity secret from her and his family, she does support his activism. Just before he’s arrested and killed, unbeknownst to either of them, she becomes pregnant.
Meanwhile, Subhash’s graduate studies have taken him to the University of Rhode Island. When he hears of his brother’s death, he goes to Calcutta and convinces Gauri to come back to the States with him, as his wife, so he can be a father to her unborn child and a protector for her during that violent era in West Bengal.
In her previous books, Lahiri has written brilliantly about the dynamics between adult children and their parents; about the complex intergenerational relationships and connections in all families; about the internal turmoil for children of immigrants, trying to meet their own and their parents’ expectations; and the challenging search for identity, among parents as well as children. Here, she adds large doses of political history and philosophy, even a dash of science, and they spice up her already heady concoction.
Most importantly, though, she makes the characters live inside the reader’s head — she makes you wonder and worry about each of them, when you have to put the book down and interrupt the narrative. Spanning an arc of more than 50 years, The Lowland is layered with the characters’ actions and decisions, with their thoughts, feelings, and realizations. Lahiri has a knack for maintaining an edge of mystery to her characters: Why did they take a certain path? How did they really react to a traumatic event? What have they kept hidden from everyone, even themselves? And how has a long-ago pain affected so many of their personal interactions?
And when the answers to these questions are fully revealed, they are often startling, heartrending, and illuminating, touching some inner core of human nature, not just underscoring an individual truth for that particular character.