On Reading “The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri

Deer Lake, Burnaby, BC

Deer Lake, Burnaby, BC

“I don’t think of my books as being forms of entertainment. I don’t read books for entertainment. I read books to deepen my understanding of the human condition, and I think that condition is a very complex thing, and that people are very complex creatures…” ~Jhumpa Lahiri on The Lowland

Sixty – six years separate today from Pakistan and India’s independence. It is hard sometimes to process that fact – to understand that within the last hundred years India was a colony. That it is still reeling from centuries of colonial presence, and that for both countries, the decades since 1947 have been complicated, violent, difficult ones.  Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel “The Lowland” tells the story of two brothers Udayan and Subhash who grow up in the early days of Independence. They live near a British colonial club where they are not allowed entry, and see how for so many people, colonial power was replaced by different forms of exploitation and oppression. They are two scientists who observe what is going on, and make different assessments about how social change can occur. The novel is about family, about the relationship between siblings, parents and children, spouses, and about how one event can shape the life arc of so many people. It’s a fascinating, ambitious book, and one that is well worth the read. Once I started I couldn’t stop reading until I finished a day later, but it’s a novel that imprints itself on you. Without giving any plot spoilers (I read the book without any idea of what it was about), a few thoughts from the read.

The book is an exploration of how one event can shape the arc of so many people. Every person experiences their own trauma from injury. For some the injury is life threatening, for other characters, they manage to continue living. The wars, rebellions, deaths, protests of a nation are often described in a sentence to explain how we got to the present day, but the impact of these events is best understood by zooming up close. This novel looks at postcolonial India and the Naxalite movement by zooming up to one family.

The book is also about globalization, immigration and cultural transition. We see how ideas in one place migrate to other places without the advantage of hindsight, analysis and assessing local context, and from our own vantage point of history, we can see the consequences of this travel. We also observe how destinies and possibilities alter depending on where we live. We can become different versions of ourselves.

Unlike classic literature, this book is ambiguous.  It is not staking a moral claim about which character is  ‘right’, it is simply describing what happens to a set of characters over decades. The story is a reaction unfolding. The two brothers, Udayan and Subhash study physics and oceanography respectively, and this story is an exploration of how the choices Udayan makes impact those around him. We see how his actions have equal and opposite reactions, and unintended consequences. Subhash, an oceanographer, cultivates and studies life. He creates roots. He is careful, measured, slower moving. There are no tidy endings in this book, there are simply flawed, human characters maturing, failing, striving again, failing, continuing to exist. There are contradictions and ironies explored.

“Certain creatures laid eggs that were able to endure the dry season. Others survived by burying themselves in mud, simulating death, waiting for the return of rain.” ~The Lowland, page 1.

Like the creatures of the lowland that titles the book, the book explores how we can become fixed in certain parts of our lives. Like Subhash and Udayan’s mother, we can become struck reviewing and reliving certain moments that come to define us. Growth and survival is only possible from acceptance, moving forward and sharing, We stifle each other and suffocate when we isolate ourselves in our personal grief. This is true collectively as well, and reading this book made me think about all the different histories that exist in our countries and cities, and that our different histories are the backdrop to how we understands other conversations – conversations about assimilation and the ‘rights’ of immigrants,  conversations about the tolerance and accommodation of benevolent nations. In a multicultural nation, there is no dominant shared narrative. To understand, you need to be aware of the world.

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