The Family Ties that Bind
In her 1999 Pulitzer Prize–winning book of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, and subsequent books such as The Namesake and Unexpected Earth, Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri introduced a global readership to her particular brand of the American immigrant story, the struggle to reconcile clashing cultural values between generations and the ways those who are first- or second-generation immigrants relate to those who have never accepted newer values. Lahiri’s brand-new novel, The Lowland, skillfully explores these themes anew as she relates a tale of two places and a family split over sixty years by the difference between cozy, or rigid, traditional origins in Calcutta and the much-touted freedoms, and their downsides, in America.
In the beginning there are Udayan and Subhash, a pair of brothers separated by two years who look like twins and do everything together, from sleeping in the same bed to playing soccer on the land near their house, and area beyond two oblong ponds that mirrored each other and a lowland that flooded every year at monsoon season. Living in a secure, stable middle-class household near Calcutta, the brothers are very close, both excelling academically in the sciences but eventually attending colleges in different parts of Calcutta.
Udayan, the younger, favored, and more reckless brother, becomes intrigued at his school in the late 1960s by tales of Naxalbari, an Indian village where peasants are rising up against greedy and exploitive landowners who would keep them in a state of feudalism and starvation. Subhash listens but takes a more neutral stance, unaccepting that the fiery, bombastic rhetoric that praises the Chinese Communism of Chairman Mao in promoting the revolution of the peasants will ensure equality among all.
Always feeling less daring and less favored than Udayan, Subhash plans after graduate school to get his Ph.D. in the biology of estuaries in the United States. As Udayan does not approve, it seems as if Subhash is leaving in small part to form his own experience and personality in a place focusing on the individual. On one level, he does not want to sacrifice himself to Udayan’s collectivist values, which have become increasingly radical and activist. Subhash comes to realize after going to school that his move to a Rhode Island campus near the ocean, stripped of all color during the winters, has become an antidote to his brother, one that will both feed his academic sense of satisfaction and personal introversion while giving him a seemingly permanent sense of displacement from his former home.
When his parents send him a telegram in 1971 relating dreadful news about Udayan, shot as a Communist Naxalite, Subhash returns home briefly after three years. In doing so he tries to recapture a sense of him, through marrying his brother’s pregnant bride, whom his parents despise. Gauri is a philosopher and budding academic who, unusually in that time and place, never meant to marry, until she fell in love with radical theorist and activist Udayan.
For the first time Subhash stands up to his parents. They expect to pick a bride for him in Calcutta, where he should return to live in the family home. Instead, Subhash whisks Gauri back to Long Island. There she starts sitting in on philosophy lectures at the university he attends. This tale progresses in an endless tension within and between old and new families. Subhash, the responsible older brother, has a subconscious desire to hold on to his relationship with his younger brother through acting as father to his brother’s baby and through continuing his marriage to Gauri. Both Subhash and Gauri’s gradually thinning ties to the Calcutta in which they grew up and adherence to more American modes of being create compelling and wrenching plot twists that bring the story to the current day.
Jhumpa Lahiri is a gorgeous writer. Her sentences are simple, devoid of excess adjectives and other frills, but her symbolism is not. As a result, her stories are very accessible. You can focus on her underlying meanings or ignore them. Yet they will eventually permeate your understanding of her all-encompassing depictions of families in turmoil, wrenched by cultural displacement. Her characters try to make sense of uprootedness and loneliness in unfamiliar settings by making a place for themselves. In these immigrants separated from home soil bloom repressed values, or new aspects to their senses of self that circumstance grafts to them. They are trees surviving or flourishing by digging their roots into new cultural earth. Watching them develop and grow through recurring seasons is a beautiful experience.
~ Written by: Miriam R. Kramer