Does it sometime seem to you as though Indian novelists are muscling into the ranks of top English-language writers, making their way onto the best-seller lists and snapping up a disproportionate share of the literary awards? No? Think of Anita Desai, Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Chanda, Kiran Desai, Aravind Adiga, and don’t forget Salman Rushdie. And that’s just those who come to mind without effort.
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
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Within this pantheon of literary overachievers, the Indian-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri fits comfortably. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her first collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. The Lowland, the second of Lahiri’s novels, was shortlisted for the National Book Award this year. (Her first novel wasn’t overlooked, either, gaining bestseller status and receiving rave reviews like pretty much everything else she’s written.)
On one level, The Lowland reflects two sides of its author’s persona — her Bengali heritage (though she was born in the UK) and her upbringing in Rhode Island. The novel’s action is divided between the middle-class precincts of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) and the academic world of Rhode Island. The plot revolves around two momentous incidents, one taking place in Kolkata in 1971, the other in Rhode Island twelve years later.
In another sense, the novel is a tale of two Bengali brothers, preternaturally close in their youth, whose passions take them in divergent directions. Subhash, older by fifteen months, emerges as the protagonist, pursuing a vocation for marine biology through graduate studies, laboratory work, and teaching in Rhode Island. The more adventurous Udayan becomes caught up in the violent revolutionary politics of the Naxalite Rebellion, a Maoist insurgency that continues to rage throughout much of northeastern and southern India.
Lahiri’s sense of history and its consequences is as insightful as her grasp of the human heart. She weaves her tale with a sure hand around the threads of the two brother’s intersecting lives, moving swiftly back and forth from one continent to the other and ranging across the seven decades from Subhash’s birth in 1943 to the present day. It’s difficult to read this story without succumbing to the illusion that Lahiri’s vividly drawn characters are real. The Lowland is a sad story of love and loss, but a hopeful one nonetheless. Lahiri never lets us get lost in despair, finding hope and possibility in birth, renewal, and forgiveness.
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