It’s easy enough to miss or disregard several faint Biblical echoes in Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2013 novel The Lowland. After all, this is a very modern story about Indians born in the mid-20th century, some of whom immigrate to the United States.
The novel centers on two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, born into a neighborhood on the edge of Calcutta in 1943. Because of their actions, one dies and one’s life is ruined. Yet, throughout much of the novel, theirs doesn’t seem to be the Cain and Abel story.
In the first half of the book, there is a mother who is about to give birth, and a quiet, stoic Joseph-like man who steps in to care for the Madonna and child. A similar scenario develops in the second half. Still, it’s not as if anyone’s talking about virgin birth.
There is the lowland itself, a depression in the landscape near their home where the brothers played together during their childhood, amid the water hyacinth and puddles still draining from the year’s monsoons.
It is a kind of Eden, part of the cycle of Nature, flooding and draining, flooding and draining. By the end of the novel, though, it is filled in and covered over with homes and concrete. Even so, it was never a garden of delights.
None of these echoes seem to be much until the final pages of The Lowland when it becomes clear that, at the center of its action — a narrative of seven lives, spanning two continents and seven decades — is original sin.
That sin is committed by the Adam and Eve of the story, Udayan and his young wife Gauri. It is a sin that leads to Udayan’s murder by police for anti-government activities, shot in the back at the edge of the lowland before the eyes of his parents and a pregnant Gauri,
It poisons Gauri’s life and the life of their daughter Bela. It poisons the life of Subhash, and the lives of his parents. And it threatens to poison the life of Bela’s daughter Meghna.
It is a sin, buried deep and secret, at the heart of The Lowland. Udayan dies young with his knowledge of the sin. It warps Gauri. It warps her second marriage — to Subhash.
Gauri, her daughter recalls at one point, “transmitted an unhappiness that was steady, an ambient signal that was fixed. It was transmitted without words. And yet Bela was aware of it, as one is aware of a mountain. Immovable, insurmountable.”
Bela and Subhash don’t know the true root of this unhappiness, even as they live and breathe the unnamed sorrow. Gauri keeps the moral stain hidden.
“A family of solitaries”
Because of that sin, Lahiri’s characters move through her novel as if through a fog of pain and confusion and isolation. So does the reader.
It is as if Subhash, Bela and the others wear, like sackcloth, a backpack filled with one huge stone. A stone they can’t see, can only endure. Enduring the weight and the unknowing. Only Gauri knows.
She married Subhash as a means of staying connected to Udayan. But even as she was going through with it she knew that it was useless, just as it was useless to save a single earing when the other of the pair was lost.
A useless life, a life as a single earing — that’s Gauri’s life, and that’s the core of this novel. As Subhash ruminates when both Gauri and Bela are gone and out of touch:
Then again, how could he expect Bela to be interested in marriage, given the example he and Gauri had given? They were a family of solitaries. They had collided and dispersed. This was her legacy.
With Udayan gone, only Gauri knows, and she isn’t talking. Shamed in her heart, she is withdrawn and does shameful things. She knows, and she carries the heaviest of weights. She knows how the sin has warped her life and how she has warped the lives of those she should love and care for.
And yet she is a victim, too. A victim of Udayan’s idealism. Just as he is a victim of his idealism. His willingness to put ideology above humanity.
And yet, at a moment of showdown, when, at the hands of a lesser novelist, Gauri would be portrayed as a witch of ugliness and evil — when she meets Meghda for the first time in the home she formerly shared with Subhash and Bela — the reader doesn’t see her that way.
She thought of the room that had once been her study. She wondered if it was Meghna’s room now. Back then she had only wanted to shut the door to it, to be apart from Subhash and Bela. She’d been incapable of cherishing what she had.
Vital and visceral
Lahiri tells this story with such compassion and understanding that each character is richly and vitally human. Through Lahiri, the reader lives Gauri’s long life, and lives the lives of Subhash and Bela, and feels their sadness and confusion.
This is not a book about Indians or Indian-Americans, nor is it a book about immigration.
This is a visceral human story that, for the reader, can be hard to take. But the reader is always able to set the book down and walk away.
For Gauri and the others in The Lowland, it is a tainted life they are forced to live.
Patrick T. Reardon