BOOKS OCTOBER 9, 2013
In Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel, her second, the terrain is familiar. The Lowland is the story of Indian immigrants to the United States, as her previous novel The Namesake was, and as the focus of many her superior short stories has been. Perhaps Lahiri was worried that she was becoming predictable, because she’s chosen to make this novel more grandiose than her previous work, with capital S-serious historical context and a rather soap-operatic plotline. The Lowland is not just an ambitious novel, though; it is a novel partly about personal ambition, and how that squares with motherhood. It is not simply a novel about immigrants, it is a novel about finding the right place, and the right people—and about whether there are such things at all, or if life is a matter of adjusting to circumstance.
The Lowland begins in Calcutta, against the backdrop of India’s 1960s Naxalite movement, an ultimately unsuccessful attempt at a Maoist revolution that unfolded first in a small West Bengali village before it made its way into the city. Two young brothers, Udayan and the slightly older Subhash, grow up in Tollygunge, a south Calcutta neighhorhood, where they spend their days figuring out how to put together short-wave radios and learning to shave. Both eventually head to college, where they study science and blossom into convenient big-brother/little-brother archetypes: Subhash is careful and studious and wants to please his parents; Udayan is literally rebellious, and gets mixed up with the Naxalites, disappearing for days on mysterious business. Still, it is Subhash who ends up leaving home, heading to Rhode Island (where Lahiri grew up) for graduate school in oceanography.
Udayan, meanwhile, has married for love against his parents’ wishes. Gauri, a dark-skinned philosophy student, is his bride. The two have a brief, happy marriage before he is killed by police for his involvement with the Naxalites. Gauri is pregnant, though, and in order to save her from an unhappy life in the home of her disapproving in-laws, Subhash marries her and brings her back to Rhode Island. There, she cuts off her hair and shreds her saris. In the parking lot of the grocery store, she eats an entire package of cream cheese, thinking that it is a candy bar of some kind—a funny, sweet detail. It is vintage Lahiri, and proof that she still has plenty of fresh things to say about the Indian-American immigrant experience.
Though the book strives for a broad, historical scope, a domestic tale—Lahiri’s bread and butter—becomes its true center. Gauri’s indifference as a mother is at the heart of the story. It begins, during her pregnancy, with her sitting in on philosophy classes at the university where her husband is studying. (Lahiri, whose father was a librarian at the University of Rhode Island during her childhood, often peppers her stories with outsiders peeking in at insider university culture.) After her daughter, Bela, is born, philosophy begins to absorb her entirely, and she officially signs up for classes. When Bela is a little older, she begins to leave her daughter alone for increasing stretches of time. At first, just to run out to the grocery store; then, for freedom from the maternal responsibility she clearly finds soul-crushing. Subhash discovers Bela alone one day, and the jig is up. Later, when Gauri becomes a Ph.D. student, she is afraid to leave her manuscript alone in the house for fear it might somehow be harmed.
It can be no accident that Lahiri chose to make Gauri, a mother uninterested in nurturing, obsessed with philosophy. Philosophy, of course, is at once deeply concerned with the human condition and also at an academic, theoretical remove from actual humanity—not to mention, it's often a male-dominated discipline. Subhash, whom Bela doesn’t know isn’t her biological father, is the family’s nurturer. He doesn’t let himself get trapped by the past, as she does, and instead learns to adjust to the present. What happens to a family in which there is a reversal of traditional gender roles, with an ambivalent mother and a flexible, gentle father, is a crucial part of what Lahiri is exploring in the book.
It’s a dynamic, that at least in this instance, doesn’t work out well in the short term. Gauri isn’t just ambivalent, she is stunningly selfish. But I wonder whether Lahiri intended for Gauri to be quite so unlikable as she ends up being. The un-motherly mother is a promising concept, but Lahiri seems unwilling or unable to delve into Gauri’s interior life, and so she remains a flat character, a stock psychological motivator for other characters. She is a widow in permanent, stone-faced mourning for her dead husband—a very old-world state of affairs. Though she has a new-world life, full of temporary lovers and an all-consuming career, Lahiri doesn’t seem interested in exploring how the old psychological wounds square, or don’t, with Gauri’s daily existence.
Partly that is a function of Lahiri’s writing, which here seems to be elegant to a fault. I have no doubt that Lahiri has imagined a deep inner life for Gauri, but she can’t quite bring herself to break form enough to explicate it. The sentences, like her characters, remain crystalline and rhythmic and detached. “For the the first time," Lahiri writes, when Subhash first moves to Rhode Island, "perhaps because he always felt in Rhode Island that some part of him was missing, he desired a companion.” It’s a tidy , pretty, sentence, but one that appears to ignore, at the very least, human male biology, which I point out only because the book is filled with absurdly dispassionate-seeming characters who are asked to enact a passion-driven plot. It is as if she decided she needed to be a less self-contained writer, and then couldn’t quite burst forth.
Still, the novel is, despite its flaws, an absorbing one. Larger tapestry notwithstanding, it isn’t overly concerned with Maoism or with the details of assimilation—though in tangling the post-70s divorce boom, broken-family narrative with that of a couple figuring out their American identity, Lahiri provides a refreshing slant on a familiar story. The Lowland takes as its real subject the unavoidable human need for companionship. Subhash, the man who supposedly never thought of such a thing until well into adulthood, becomes the unlikely standard-bearer for that impulse, for loving until one is loved. In his character, who is emotional without being overtly so, Lahiri’s prose finally finds its own proper companion.
Noreen Malone is a staff writer at The New Republic.