Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Lowland: A Cross-Cultural Family Saga

Jhumpa Lahiri's first novel, The Namesake, deftly dealt with the issues facing recent Indian immigrants and their first-generation American offspring. Her second novel, The Lowland, though it starts out quite differently, turns out to be more of the same.

In the beginning, this novel seems to be rooted in India. We are introduced to Subhash and Udayan Mitra, inseparable brothers born fifteen months apart in 1960s Calcutta. Subhash is the follower, agreeable to his younger brother's schemes, and as they grow up, it becomes clear these two men will follow very different paths. Udayan becomes involved with the Naxalites, a newly formed communist and social activism movement, who turn to violence to achieve their ends. While his brother goes deeper into this movement in a misguided effort to sort out the country's woes, Subhash leaves Calcutta behind for Rhode Island to pursue a quiet scientific career. He leads a fairly solitary existence, learning to take care of himself in a foreign land and keeping his mind solely on his work. His brother's letters don't reveal the deep trouble he is getting into back home and Subhash remains oblivious. Until he gets a telegram with some news that will turn his quiet life upside down.

This novel is an intimate family saga, following the fortunes of multiple generations and revealing how life changes radically with a change in environment. The constrictions of Indian society versus the freedoms of America both have their pros and cons and the characters experience the best and worst of what both worlds have to offer. They made bold and weak choices, grasp for success and grapple with failures. There are some surprises but ultimately this is a story about a family that's just marginally more interesting than most. 

The Lowland is more impressive as a history lesson about a period of Indian politics I didn't know much about. But as a novel, this is not my favorite kind of storytelling. It tries to be grandiose without having much to say and the characters felt like tepid sketches that I didn't particularly care about. Lahiri's forte is the short story and I highly recommend Interpreter of Maladies or Unaccustomed Earth. I enjoy her short tales about vibrant characters from a variety of backgrounds who may only appear in a few pages but leave a lasting impression. In contrast, when I got to the end of The Lowland , I was just happy to leave these characters behind.

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