There are few books you read because you are addicted to reading. Then some others because everyone else has read it but you, and then there are those books that you read because you know that somewhere between the pages, you will remain forever. Books that you eagerly wait for; like that distant music which falls on the ears, so sweet yet agonizing and wants you to get closer and feel it, revel in it. Such books are rare.
With Lahiri’s books, I have always experienced this poignant feeling. Having read all of her books, I sometimes feel, I am too prejudiced. Like a friend said, “If it is a Lahiri book, it has to be 5 stars and maybe more from you even before you’ve finished it.” I’m not surprised.
About reviewing Lahiri’s latest book, the Man Booker prize nominee, The Lowland, I am torn between doing it the right way and doing it the best way. The same sickly-sweet tugging feeling that leaves your heart slightly rattled. I mean I could scribble down pages but then that would seem cruelly overdone.
The Lowland is the story of Subhash, Udayan, and Gauri. Running through decades and stretched over a vast expanse from West Bengal in India to Rhode Island in the United States, this is a heart-wrenching tale of love, life, family, sacrifices and more.
The lowland, a small plot of land that floods during monsoons and houses the neighborhood debris and yet life for Tollygunge boys surrounds this pond which is witness to memories that have pooled up for years. Growing up in Calcutta, born just fifteen months apart, Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable brothers, one often mistaken for the other. But they are also opposites, with gravely different futures ahead of them. It is the 1960s, and Udayan–charismatic and impulsive–finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty: he will give everything, risk all, for what he believes. Subhash, the dutiful son, does not share his brother’s political passion; he leaves home to pursue a life of scientific research in a quiet, coastal corner of America.
Life takes a turn after Udayan is killed and Subhash has to come back to Calcutta. Subhash marries Udayan’s widow Gauri after he learns that she is pregnant with Udayan’s child and takes her to Rhode Island with him. Life in Rhode Island both for Subhash and Gauri take such turns that they rather start drifting apart than growing close as one. Udayan’ ghost is always present between them and as a result, Gauri is never really able to live a life beyond him. Even as Bela is born, Subhash is torn between admitting the truth about not being her father and sharing the same roof and betraying Bela day and night by hiding it from her.
Bela grows up to be an environmentalist. Somewhere around all this, Gauri leaves both Bela and Subhash uninformed, never to be contacted. Bela finally learns about the truth, about Udayan, about Subhash and the untold tragedy of her life. Gauri tries to put together the bonds she severed once by returning to Bela but Bela’s hostility only pushes her beyond the edge, making her realise the mistake she’d committed for life.Toward the closure, we are left with fickle ends about the lives of Subhash, Bela, and Gauri. Each stuck amidst time past and that which is yet to come.
The Lowland is an incredible confirmation that Lahiri is a writer of extraordinary calibre who makes seem even the tryst of times and the most complex human emotions quite effortless to be captured on paper and delivered to readers’ hearts. This remains in my memories, as Subhash feels,
“And yet he had loved her. A bookish girl heedless of her beauty, unconscious of her effect. She’d been prepared to live her life alone but from the moment he’d known her he’d needed her.”
Lahiri dips the nib in history dripping with myriad catastrophic situations and very carefully has written a prose that is due to remain with you for long even though it hangs on the edge of monotony and the very predictable style that she is known for. But should that stop you from exploring the poignant lives of her characters so brilliantly crafted in The Lowland? I don’t think so.
If you happen to read The Lowland or have already read it, do share your thoughts below.