2013 Shortlisted: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri #3

The LowlandRating: 4.5
The Lowland
A Novel by Jhumpa Lahiri
2013 /352 Pages

You say you want a revolution

It’s said that no good deed should ever go unpunished. It often feels as though even those who set out with only the purest and noblest of intentions in mind will ultimately be met with either a compromised failure or an unmitigated disaster at the conclusion of their journey. The real truth probably lies somewhere in between these two statements. A sense of disappointment arrives from the realization that the thing we seek to change is far too intrinsic to ever bend to our will. Then, as a direct result, a punishment is self-inflicted, a constant recurring reminder of a failure to understand and accept the truly limited nature of our role in the larger world.

The point is not that we can’t affect change and therefore shouldn’t try, but rather that rarely does the actual result of our efforts ever match up with the originally desired outcome. The two Indian brothers at the heart of Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest novel The Lowland, each struggle to affect change in a uniquely different way, but eventually both arrive at the same exact end point: failure.

The youngest of the pair by fifteen months, Udayan grows into an outspoken, headstrong, politically aware youth that revels in any opportunity to push at the boundaries imposed upon him by a society that he deems to be flawed. Fueled by his unwavering belief that he can help turn his homeland into a better place, he joins the ranks of a radical Mao inspired movement known as Naxalism and dedicates himself its cause completely.

Subhash on the other hand is much more level headed. He cares little for the issues that have his brother so enraged and rather than take up the cause alongside Udayan he decides to separate himself from the situation by pursuing a path of higher education. Transplanting himself to the United States, he begins a new life in Rhode Island where he works towards a degree in oceanography.

It’s while Subhash is away that the real problems for Udayan begin. Not only does his involvement with the revolution intensify, but bucking tradition, he denies his parents the right to choose a wife for him and secretly marries a student of philosophy named Gauri. His ultimate failure lies in his inability to see beyond the cause he so fervently supports. For this one-dimensional obsession to work family, friendship, and all that goes along with building a healthy, happy life must be relegated to the backseat. He believes he’s doing the “right” thing, but the real question is, for whom?

Subhash’s failure comes later on, when he grossly oversimplifies matters by believing that he can act as a replacement of sorts in order to fill a massive absence. The person that finally brings the brothers together again, is of course Guari. It’s her struggles to cope with both her own actions, and her husband’s, that has consequences extending far into the foreseeable future.

Subtly intoxicating, Lahiri’s novel is overflowing with complex, conflicted characters that glisten with the slight, undefinable nuances of life. Subhash, Udayan, Guari, and their supporting cast are all fully realized, richly developed human beings. Defined by their desires, crippled by their pasts, and driven by their guilt, each attempts to make amends in their own way, yet by setting out to doing so, each unwittingly crushes a small piece of the other in the process.

As it progresses and The Lowland spans over forty years of time and four generations, one thing becomes crystal clear: family life is undoubtedly a messy affair. As much as we push and pull and desire to escape from it, the truth is that we wouldn’t want it any other way. It provides with a place to run towards and place to run from all at the same time and it serves as constant, inescapable reminder of who we were, who we are, and who we long to be.

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