Lowland (Lahiri)

The Lowland 
Jhumpa Lahiri, 2013
Knopf Doubleday
pp. 432
ISBN-13:
978-0307278265


Summary
Two brothers bound by tragedy; a fiercely brilliant woman haunted by her past; a country torn by revolution: the Pulitzer Prize winner and #1 New York Times best-selling author gives us a powerful new novel—set in both India and America—that explores the price of idealism and a love that can last long past death.

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. But when Subhash learns what happened to his brother in the lowland outside their family's home, he comes back to India, hoping to pick up the pieces of a shattered family, and to heal the wounds Udayan left behind—including those seared in the heart of his brother's wife.

Suspenseful, sweeping, piercingly intimate, The Lowland expands the range of one of our most dazzling storytellers, seamlessly interweaving the historical and the personal across generations and geographies. This masterly novel of fate and will, exile and return, is a tour de force and an instant classic. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—July 11, 1967
Where—London, England, UK
Raised—Kingston, Rhode Island, USA
Education—B.A., Barnard College; 2 M.A's., M.F.A., and
   Ph.D., Boston University
Awards—Pulitizer Prize (see more below)
Currently—lives in Rome, Italy


Jhumpa Lahiri is an Indian American author. Lahiri's debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and her first novel, The Namesake (2003), was adapted into the popular film of the same name.She was born Nilanjana Sudeshna but goes by her nickname Jhumpa. Lahiri is a member of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama.

Biography
Lahiri was born in London, the daughter of Indian immigrants from the state of West Bengal. Her family moved to the United States when she was two; Lahiri considers herself an American, having said, "I wasn't born here, but I might as well have been." Lahiri grew up in Kingston, Rhode Island, where her father Amar Lahiri works as a librarian at the University of Rhode Island; he is the basis for the protagonist in "The Third and Final Continent," the closing story from Interpreter of Maladies. Lahiri's mother wanted her children to grow up knowing their Bengali heritage, and her family often visited relatives in Calcutta (now Kolkata).

When she began kindergarten in Kingston, Rhode Island, Lahiri's teacher decided to call her by her pet name, Jhumpa, because it was easier to pronounce than her "proper names". Lahiri recalled, "I always felt so embarrassed by my name.... You feel like you're causing someone pain just by being who you are." Lahiri's ambivalence over her identity was the inspiration for the ambivalence of Gogol, the protagonist of her novel The Namesake, over his unusual name. Lahiri graduated from South Kingstown High School and received her B.A. in English literature from Barnard College in 1989.

Lahiri then received multiple degrees from Boston University: an M.A. in English, M.F.A. in Creative Writing, M.A. in Comparative Literature, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies. She took a fellowship at Provincetown's Fine Arts Work Center, which lasted for the next two years (1997–1998). Lahiri has taught creative writing at Boston University and the Rhode Island School of Design.

In 2001, Lahiri married Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, a journalist who was then Deputy Editor and now Senior Editor of Time Latin America. The couple lives in Rome, Italy with their two children.

Literary career
Lahiri's early short stories faced rejection from publishers "for years." Her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, was finally released in 1999. The stories address sensitive dilemmas in the lives of Indians or Indian immigrants, with themes such as marital difficulties, miscarriages, and the disconnection between first and second generation United States immigrants. Lahiri later wrote,

When I first started writing I was not conscious that my subject was the Indian-American experience. What drew me to my craft was the desire to force the two worlds I occupied to mingle on the page as I was not brave enough, or mature enough, to allow in life.

The collection was praised by American critics, but received mixed reviews in India, where reviewers were alternately enthusiastic and upset Lahiri had "not paint[ed] Indians in a more positive light." However, according to Md. Ziaul Haque, a poet, columnist, scholar, researcher and a faculty member at Sylhet International University, Bangladesh,

But, it is really painful for any writer living far away in a new state, leaving his/her own homeland behind; the motherland, the environment, people, culture etc. constantly echo in the writer’s (and of course anybody else’s) mind. So, the manner of trying to imagine and describe about the motherland and its people deserves esteem. I think that we should coin a new term, i.e. “distant-author” and add it to Lahiri’s name since she, being a part of another country, has taken the help of "imagination" and depicted her India the way she has wanted to; the writer must have every possible right to paint the world the way he/she thinks appropriate.

Interpreter of Maladies sold 600,000 copies and received the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (only the seventh time a story collection had won the award).

In 2003, Lahiri published The Namesake, her first novel. The story spans over thirty years in the life of the Ganguli family. The Calcutta-born parents emigrated as young adults to the United States, where their children, Gogol and Sonia, grow up experiencing the constant generational and cultural gap with their parents. A film adaptation of The Namesake was released in 2007, directed by Mira Nair and starring Kal Penn as Gogol and Bollywood stars Tabu and Irrfan Khan as his parents. Lahiri herself made a cameo as "Aunt Jhumpa".

Lahiri's second collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, was released in 2008. Upon its publication, Unaccustomed Earth achieved the rare distinction of debuting at number 1 on the New York Times best seller list. The Times Book Review editor, Dwight Garner, wrote, "It’s hard to remember the last genuinely serious, well-written work of fiction — particularly a book of stories — that leapt straight to No. 1; it’s a powerful demonstration of Lahiri’s newfound commercial clout."

Her fourth book and second movel, The Lowland, was published in 2013, again to wide acclaim. The story of two Indian born brothers who take different paths in life, it was placed on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize.

Lahiri has also had a distinguished relationship with The New Yorker magazine in which she has published a number of her short stories, mostly fiction, and a few non-fiction including "The Long Way Home; Cooking Lessons," a story about the importance of food in Lahiri's relationship with her mother.

Since 2005, Lahiri has been a Vice President of the PEN American Center, an organization designed to promote friendship and intellectual cooperation among writers. In 2010, she was appointed a member of the Committee on the Arts and Humanities, along with five others.


Literary focus
Lahiri's writing is characterized by her "plain" language and her characters, often Indian immigrants to America who must navigate between the cultural values of their homeland and their adopted home. Lahiri's fiction is autobiographical and frequently draws upon her own experiences as well as those of her parents, friends, acquaintances, and others in the Bengali communities with which she is familiar. Lahiri examines her characters' struggles, anxieties, and biases to chronicle the nuances and details of immigrant psychology and behavior.

Unaccustomed Earth departs from this earlier original ethos as Lahiri's characters embark on new stages of development. These stories scrutinize the fate of the second and third generations. As succeeding generations become increasingly assimilated into American culture and are comfortable in constructing perspectives outside of their country of origin, Lahiri's fiction shifts to the needs of the individual. She shows how later generations depart from the constraints of their immigrant parents, who are often devoted to their community and their responsibility to other immigrants.

Television
Lahiri worked on the third season of the HBO television program In Treatment. That season featured a character named Sunil, a widower who moves to the United States from Bangladesh and struggles with grief and with culture shock. Although she is credited as a writer on these episodes, her role was more as a consultant on how a Bengali man might perceive Brooklyn.

Awards
• 1993 – TransAtlantic Award from the Henfield Foundation
• 1999 – O. Henry Award for short story "Interpreter of Maladies"
• 1999 – PEN/Hemingway Award (Best Fiction Debut of the Year) for "Interpreter of Maladies"
• 1999 – "Interpreter of Maladies" selected as one of Best American Short Stories
• 2000 – Addison Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters
• 2000 – "The Third and Final Continent" selected as one of Best American Short Stories
• 2000 – The New Yorker's Best Debut of the Year for "Interpreter of Maladies"
• 2000 – Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her debut "Interpreter of Maladies"
• 2002 – Guggenheim Fellowship
• 2002 – "Nobody's Business" selected as one of Best American Short Stories
• 2008 – Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award for "Unaccustomed Earth"
• 2009 – Asian American Literary Award for "Unaccustomed Earth"

(Author bio from Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/12/13.)



Book Reviews
A classic story of family and ideology at odds, love and risk closely twined.... Lahiri’s subject has always been the complex roots of families, cut and transplanted, trailing thwarted dreams and former selves.... The Lowland, her most ambitious work to date, marks the author’s shift in perspective toward that of a parent, with all its heightened vulnerability.... As the stripped-down sentences accrue with a kind of geologic inevitability, Lahiri renders the undertow of grief and loss.... Novels are often elegies for things that would otherwise be lost to time. Here, over the passing decades, a sacred marshland is sold to developers; a daughter loses a mother, then becomes one. An author, at the height of her artistry, spins the globe and comes full circle.
Megan O’Grady - Vogue


Leave it to Lahiri to create yet another novel that’s as transporting and educational as it is beautiful and emotive. The Lowland explores the bonds of love, family, and obligation against backdrops from the radical Naxalite movement of 1960s Calcutta to the tidal shores of collegiate Rhode Island.... A writer of Lahiri’s caliber is always greeted with fanfare, but The Lowland is among the biggest events of the season.
Elle


Gorgeous.... The painful partitioning of a great country is echoed in the life of one family in Lahiri’s novel of love’s tragic missteps and the sustained devastation of personal independence. The Lowland’s beating heart is the relationship between two devoted brothers.... Lahiri’s beautifully wrought characters make decisions that isolate them inside their haunted thoughts.
Susanna Sonnenberg - More


(Starred review.) Haunting.... A novel that crosses generations, oceans, and the chasms within families.... Lahiri’s skill is reflected not only in her restrained and lyric prose, but also in her moving forward chronological time while simultaneously unfolding memory, which does not fade in spite of the years. A formidable and beautiful book.
Publishers Weekly


(Starred review.) Pulitzer Prize-winner Lahiri’s unparalleled ability to transform the smallest moments into whole lives pinnacles in this extraordinary story of two brothers coming of age in the political tumult of 1960s India.... Lahiri is remarkable, achieving multilayered meaning in a simple act.... [This is] is deservedly one of this year’s most anticipated books. Banal words of praise simply won’t do justice; perhaps what is needed is a three-word directive: just read it. —Terry Hong
Library Journal


(Starred review.) An absolute triumph. Lahiri uses a gorgeously rendered Calcutta landscape to profound effect.... As shocking complexities tragedies, and revelations multiply, Lahiri astutely examines the psychological nuances of conviction, guilt, grief, marriage, and parenthood, and delicately but firmly dissects the moral conundrums inherent in violent revolution. Renowned for her exquisite prose and penetrating insights, Lahiri attains new heights of artistry—flawless transparency, immersive intimacy with characters and place—in her spellbinding fourth book and second novel. A magnificent, universal, and indelible work of literature.... Lahiri’s standing increases with each book, and this is her most compelling yet. —Donna Seaman
Booklist


(Starred review.) A tale of two continents in an era of political tumult, rendered with devastating depth and clarity by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author. The narrative proceeds from the simplicity of a fairy tale into a complex novel of moral ambiguity and aftershocks, with revelations that continue through decades and generations until the very last page.... The story of two brothers in India who are exceptionally close to each other, and yet completely different, the novel spans more than four decades in the life of [their] family, shaped and shaken by the events that have brought them together and tear them apart.... Lahiri has earned renown for her short stories, [yet] this masterful novel deserves to attract an even wider readership.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. “Udayan was the one brave enough to ask them for autographs…He was blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving certain colors. But Subhash strove to minimize his existence, as other animals merged with bark or blades of grass” (p. 11). How do the differences between the boys both strengthen and strain the tie between them?

2. Does Subhash’s decision to make it “his mission to obey (his parents), given that it wasn’t possible to surprise or impress them. That was what Udayan did” (p. 11) follow a pattern common among siblings?  What part do their parents play in fostering the roles each boy assumes? 

3. What does Udayan’s reaction to Subhash’s decision to go to America (p. 30) and Subhash’s admission that he wanted to leave Calcutta “not only for the sake of his education but also . . . to take a step Udayan never would” (p. 40) convey about the balance between admiration and envy, support and competition, that underlies their relationship?  Do you think that Udayan is manipulative, or does Subhash misread him (p. 31)? 

4.  What aspects of the immigrant experience are captured in Subhash’s first impressions of Rhode Island (p. 34)?  How do his feelings about school and about his roommate, Richard, bring to light both his pleasure and his uncertainties about his new independence? In what ways does Udayan’s letter add to his ambivalence about the choice he has made (p. 47)? 

5. What does Subhash’s affair with Holly convey about his transition to life in America (pp. 65-83)? What does it reveal about his emotional ties to his old life and family?  

6. Why does the author describe the courtship and marriage of Udayan and Gauri from Gauri’s perspective (pp. 51-61)?  To what extent does Gauri’s independence, rare for women in India, influence their decision to marry? 

7. How do the descriptions of Calcutta (pp. 88-90, 91-2) and Subhash’s first glimpse of his parents (p. 91) capture the complex feelings Subhash experiences on returning home? How do the brothers’ parents’ expectations and beliefs shape their treatment of Gauri? 

8. What emotions lie behind his mother does his mother’s reaction to Gauri’s pregnancy (p. 114)? Is it understandable in light of Gauri’s behavior and manner?  Is Subhash right to believe that the only way to help the child is to take Gauri away (p. 115)? What other motivation might he have for marrying his brother’s widow? 

9. From the start, Gauri and Subhash react differently to Bela and to parenthood. Gauri thinks,  “Bela was her child and Udayan’s; that Subhash, for all his helpfulness, for the role he’d deftly assumed, was simply playing a part. I’m her mother . . . I don’t have to try as hard” (p. 146).  Although Subhash has a close, loving relationship with his daughter, he is troubled by his marriage: “Almost five years ago they had begun their journey as husband and wife, but he was still waiting to arrive somewhere with her. A place where he would no longer question the result of what they’d done” (p. 159). What is the source of the underlying uneasiness of their marriage?  To what extent are they haunted by their attachments to Udayan? What other factors make Gauri feel resentful and trapped? Is Subhash partially responsible for her unhappiness?  How does Subhash’s insistence on hiding the truth from Bela influence Gauri’s behavior and the choices she makes?

10. How does the portrait of the brothers’ mother, Bijoli, enhance the novel’s exploration of the repercussions of the family tragedy (pp. 179-89)?  What effect does his visit to Calcutta and its many reminders of Udayan have on Subhash—as a son, a brother, and a father? 

11.  After Gauri the family, what does Bela rely on to make sense of the situation and to create a life for herself? Is her reclusiveness natural, given her family history, although much of it is unknown to her? In what ways do her decisions about her education and her work represent her need to separate and distinguish herself from her parents?  

12. Why, despite his pride in Bela and his confidence in her affection, does Subhash feel “threatened, convinced that . . . Udayan’s influence was greater” (p. 225)?  How might Bela’s life have been different had Udayan raised her?

13.  The novel presents many kinds of parents—present and absent, supportive and reluctant. What questions does the novel raise about the challenges and real meaning of being a parent?

14. What do you find most striking or surprising about Gauri’s reflections on her life (p. 231-40)? “She had married Subhash, she had abandoned Bela. She had generated alternative versions of herself, she had insisted at brutal cost on these conversations. Layering her life only to strip it bare, only to be alone in the end” (p. 240). Is this an accurate and just self-assessment, or is Gauri too hard on herself—and if so, why?

15. Despite his accomplishments and relative contentment, Subhash remains in the grip of the deception that has dominated his life: “He was still too weak to tell Bela what she deserved to know. Still pretending to be her father . . . The need to tell her hung over him, terrified him. It was the greatest unfinished business of his life” (p. 251-52). Why does Bela’s pregnancy move him to reveal the truth? Were you surprised by Bela’s reaction? How does learning about Udayan and the story of her parents’ marriage 

16. The keeping of secrets plays a large part in the novel, from the facts of Bela’s parentage to Gauri’s long-hidden guilt about her role in Udayan’s fateful actions. To what extent are the continued deceptions fed by the love and sense of loyalty Gauri and Subhash feel toward Udayan even years after his death?  Do they also serve Gauri’s and Subhash’s self-interest?

17. The details of the family’s history emerge through various retellings set in different times and seen from different perspectives. Why do you think Lahiri chose to tell the story in this way? How does this method increase the power of the narrative? Do your opinions of and sympathies for the characters change as more information is revealed? 

18. Before reading TheLowland, were you aware of the Naxalite movement? (The group remains active: on May 25, 2013, Naxalite insurgents attacked a convoy of Indian National Congress leaders, causing the deaths of at least twenty-seven people.) What insights does Lahiri offer into the development of radical political groups? What role does history play in the creation of the Naxalite movement and, by extension, other uprisings around the world?   What parallels do you see between the events described in the novel and recent activities in the Egypt and other countries torn by internal dissension and violence? 

19. In an interview, Lahiri said, “As Udayan’s creator, I don’t condone what he does. On the other hand, I understand the frustration he feels, his sense of injustice, and his impulse to change society” (NewYorker.com, June 3, 2013) Does the novel help you see more clearly the reasons for destruction and deaths revolutionary forces perpetrate to attain their goals?  How do you feel about Udayan after reading the novel’s last chapter?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

top of page (summary)

Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2014