Six Word Summary: Bengali first world problems. Again. Headdesk.
I rate it: 5/10
Brothers Udayan and Subhash are inseparable while growing up in a working class family in Kolkata, but adulthood takes them down different roads. The outgoing and bold Udayan joins the militant Naxalite movement spreading like wildfire in East India in the 70s. The quiet, measured Subhash chooses to move to the US to do his PhD and ends up staying there. Then Udayan gets killed by the paramilitary, and seeing that there is nobody to take care of his heartbroken pregnant young widow Gauri, Subhash offers to marry her and take her back with him to Boston. Gauri accepts in order to get away from the trauma and to give her unborn child a secure environment to grow up in, but can marriage and parenthood that comes from so much compulsion ever be a success?
Jhumpa Lahiri is an exquisite writer, the words flow from her pen like honey dripping from a comb. Her English is smooth and fresh, she can surprise you with the way she chooses to describe something mundane. She has an eye for details, and amazing observation skills.
But, Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest novel about the different faces of love and responsibility did not win her the Booker.
But, she ends up writing about the same tiny group of people she has always written about.
But, that group is unfortunately not remotely as interesting as Ms. Lahiri would like us to believe. They lead insipid lives and seem to be incapable of happiness.
But, despite having read more than 20 books that were “essential to my understanding of the Naxalite movement…“, Ms. Lahiri botches up her facts and is able to present what is at best a caricature of the times and the people. The Naxalite period is just meant to provide a convincing backdrop to her NRI love story.
But, while using an explosively turbulent political period as a backdrop, the novel remains innocent of any politics or ideology. An important character is involved in and dies for the Naxal movement, but this death has exactly the same impact on the story as it would have if it were caused by choking on a fish-bone.
But, Ms. Lahiri should really stick to short stories. Without a tight word limit, she falls all over the place, spending pages describing a bird’s call or the color of a sunset.
But, the story is incredibly meh.
Yeah, The Lowlands is supposed to be the book where Lahiri breaks out of her comfort zone, where she writes about things other than Bengalis wallowing in self pity in New Jersey or New Mexico, but 25% in, she loses her nerve and just sweeps her remaining central characters back to familiar territory, Boston to be precise. It’s like “Oh look, people have so many problems, like poverty, and social inequity, and crushing of rebellion, and shoot-at-sight orders against one’s son or husband, but you don’t want to hear all that, and I don’t want to tell it, so let’s talk about first world problems like … dissatisfaction in marriage! or infidelity! or the inability to bring up well adjusted kids! much more interesting and relevant, amirite?!”
Jhumpa Lahiri names her novel after the ditch outside Udayan’s house where he was shot, but the whole story seems to be a struggle to get as far from the lowlands as possible, rather than coming to terms with it. She chooses the bland over the edgy, chooses to make us watch her characters die of loneliness and (possibly) boredom, rather than of gunshots or tram accidents. Well, tell you what Jhumpa, this Bengali has had enough of whining, dull NRIs going on and on about their ridiculous first world problems. I don’t care if you channel Faulkner, I’m not going to buy another book by you unless you break out of that silo. Write about Americans, write about Indians, about Mexicans, Chinese, Eskimos, just please no more Bengali PhD students and their bored housewives and their spoilt kids in various university towns across America. Please.
-Amritorupa “die-spora” Kanjilal