Jhumpa Lahiri initially came to prominence in 1999 upon the publication of her Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories Interpreter of Maladies. Some four years later she followed up with a novel The Namesake, returning to the short story form in 2008 with Unaccustomed Earth, a book that, arguably, even surpassed in excellence her prize winning work of almost a decade before.
She took the title of her third work from the book’s epigraph, itself a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel The Scarlet Letter. London born, American raised but steeped in her parents’ Bengali culture, she was well placed to make her shtick characters most assuredly on unaccustomed earth or, to phrase it differently, shaky ground, many of them being Indians who for better or worse seek greener pastures in that great bastion of the capitalist west, the United States.
Ms Lahiri’s most recent release, the novel The Lowland delves into the lives of characters facing a familiar dilemma. But of the two brothers at the heart of the story, Subhash and Udayan, inseparable from their early childhood, only the former leaves India in search of opportunity. Like many of the writer’s characters of yore, in numerous respects Subhash fares ably in his adopted homeland. In a deeper sense, however, his life in the US is one of ignominy. The memories of what has been left behind are too strong, the new land too cold and different to ancient India, to allow for a complete subsuming.
Subhash’s difficulty is compounded by the fact that he is bound never to forget the sibling he separated from, whose involvement in India’s tumultuous Naxalite movement results in tragedy. On a return visit to his native land, Subhash offers to extricate his sister-in-law Gauri from an impossible living situation with her in-laws. Gauri joins him in the United States though her years there show her to be even more caught between worlds than her noble rescuer.
Ms Lahiri’s prose is as succinct yet expressive as ever. From page 38, when Subhash has not long been in the US:
Every morning on a bus, he left the village behind, traveling along a road where mail boxes stuck on posts were visible but many of the homes were not.’
She also retains the uncanny knack of rending the heart with a single parry, for example on page 271:
After she became a mother she told Subhash it made her love him more, what he’d done.’
Read in context, moments as beautiful and simple as this will doubtless move some readers to tears. While never abandoning her cast of characters, the writer’s occasional depictions of the incidents of their lives (on holiday in Ireland or living in California, for example) might almost be read as short stories or stories within the main story. Both prior to and after the tragedy there are flashes back and flashes across to India as the fate of the brothers’ parents and others, including Udayan himself, are portrayed. We are again in the past when the novel ends, witness to imagery that wields a profound impact. At the end of the day, it should be said, each of these characters, regardless of where they happen to live out their destinies, is a stalwart and admirable for being so. Their creator knows this, cares for them accordingly and refuses to let them fall into complete despair. The Lowland is a work of art from an accomplished writer.