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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

National Book Award Finalist

Shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning, best-selling author of The Namesake comes an extraordinary new novel, set in both India and America, that expands the scope and range of one of our most dazzling storytellers: a tale of two brothers bound by tragedy, a fiercely brilliant woman haunted by her past, a country torn by revolution, and a love that lasts long past death.
 
Born just fifteen months apart, Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable brothers, one often mistaken for the other in the Calcutta neighborhood where they grow up.  But they are also opposites, with gravely different futures ahead. 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 goes 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.

Masterly suspenseful, sweeping, piercingly intimate, The Lowland is a work of great beauty and complex emotion; an engrossing family saga and a story steeped in history that spans generations and geographies with seamless authenticity. It is Jhumpa Lahiri at the height of her considerable powers.

Excerpt

Normally she stayed on the balcony, reading, or kept to an adjacent room as her brother and Udayan studied and smoked and drank cups of tea. Manash had befriended him at Calcutta University, where they were both graduate students in the physics department. Much of the time their books on the behaviors of liquids and gases would sit ignored as they talked about the repercussions of Naxalbari, and commented on the day’s events.

The discussions strayed to the insurgencies in Indochina and in Latin American countries. In the case of Cuba it wasn’t even a mass movement, Udayan pointed out. Just a small group, attacking the right targets.

All over the world students were gaining momentum, standing up to exploitative systems. It was another example of Newton’s second law of motion, he joked. Force equals mass times acceleration.

Manash was skeptical. What could they, urban students, claim to know about peasant life?

Nothing, Udayan said. We need to learn from them.

Through an open doorway she saw him. Tall but slight of build, twenty-three but looking a bit older. His clothing hung on him loosely. He wore kurtas but also European-style shirts, irreverently, the top portion unbuttoned, the bottom untucked, the sleeves rolled back past the elbow.

He sat in the room where they listened to the radio. On the bed that served as a sofa where, at night, Gauri slept. His arms were lean, his fingers too long for the small porcelain cups of tea her family served him, which he drained in just a few gulps. His hair was wavy, the brows thick, the eyes languid and dark.

His hands seemed an extension of his voice, always in motion, embellishing the things he said. Even as he argued he smiled easily. His upper teeth overlapped slightly, as if there were one too many of them. From the beginning, the attraction was there.

He never said anything to Gauri if she happened to brush by. Never glancing, never acknowledging that she was Manash’s younger sister, until the day the houseboy was out on an errand, and Manash asked Gauri if she minded making them some tea.

She could not find a tray to put the teacups on. She carried them in, nudging open the door to the room with her shoulder.
Looking up at her an instant longer than he needed to, Udayan took his cup from her hands.

The groove between his mouth and nose was deep. Clean-shaven. Still looking at her, he posed his first question.

Where do you study? he asked.

*
Because she went to Presidency, and Calcutta University was just next door, she searched for him on the quadrangle, and among the bookstalls, at the tables of the Coffee House if she went there with a group of friends. Something told her he did not go to his classes as regularly as she did. She began to watch for him from the generous balcony that wrapped around the two sides of her grandparents’ flat, overlooking the intersection where Cornwallis Street began. It became something for her to do.

Then one day she spotted him, amazed that she knew which of the hundreds of dark heads was his. He was standing on the opposite corner, buying a packet of cigarettes. Then he was crossing the street, a cotton book bag over his shoulder, glancing both ways, walking toward their flat.

She crouched below the filigree, under the clothes drying on the line, worried that he would look up and see her. Two minutes later she heard footsteps climbing the stairwell, and then the rattle of the iron knocker on the door of the flat. She heard the door being opened, the houseboy letting him in.

It was an afternoon everyone, including Manash, happened to be out, and she’d been reading, alone. She wondered if he’d turn back, given that Manash wasn’t there. Instead, a moment later, he stepped out onto the balcony.

No one else here? he asked.

She shook her head.

Will you talk to me, then?

The laundry was damp, some of her petticoats and blouses were clipped to the line. The material of the blouses was tailored to the shape of her upper torso, her breasts. He unclipped one of the blouses and put it further down the line to make room.

He did this slowly, a mild tremor in his fingers forcing him to focus more than another person might on the task. Standing beside him, she was aware of his height, the slight stoop in his shoulders, the angle at which he held his face. He struck a match against the side of a box and lit a cigarette, cupping his whole hand over his mouth when he drew the cigarette to his lips. The houseboy brought out biscuits and tea.

They overlooked the intersection, from four flights above. They stood beside one another, both of them leaning into the railing. Together they took in the stone buildings, with their decrepit grandeur, that lined the streets. Their tired columns, their crumbling cornices, their sullied shades.

Her face was supported by the discreet barrier of her hand. his arm hung over the edge, the burning cigarette was in his fingers. The sleeves of his Punjabi were rolled up, exposing the veins running from his wrist to the crook of the elbow. They were prominent, the blood in them greenish gray, like a pointed archway below the skin.

There was something elemental about so many human beings in motion at once: walking, sitting in buses and trams, pulling or being pulled along in rickshaws. One the other side of the street were a few gold and silver shops all in a row, with mirrored walls and ceilings. Always crowded with families, endlessly reflected, placing orders for wedding jewels. There was the press where they took clothes to be ironed. The store where Gauri bought her ink, her notebooks. Narrow sweet shops, where trays of confections were studded with flies.

The paanwallah sat cross-legged at one corner, under a bare bulb, spreading white lime paste on stacks of betel leaves. A traffic constable stood at the center, in his helmet, on his little box. Blowing a whistle and waving his arms. The clamor of so many motors, of so many scooters and lorries and busses and cars, filled their ears.

I like this view, he said.
Jhumpa Lahiri

About Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri - The Lowland

Photo © Marco Delogu

Jhumpa Lahiri is the author of three previous works of fiction: Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake and, most recently, Unaccustomed Earth. A recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, a PEN/Hemingway Award, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2012.

www.jhumpalahiri.net

Praise

Praise

“A subtle but devastating tale of two brothers coming of age in 1960s Calcutta . . . The themes of this beautifully written novel may be grand—love, revolution, desertion—but it’s an intimate tale that offers no easy answers.” —Parade
 
“Compelling . . . beautiful. A family saga that finds its roots in a 1967 Calcutta rebellion [but] extends its reach to present-day Rhode Island. The long-awaited follow-up to her ravishing first novel, The Namesake, justifies its lengthy gestation. The story develops like a rip in a piece of fabric that keeps tearing: a gripping meditation on absence, alienation and loss . . . Exquisitely written and deeply moving.” —Sophie Harris, Time Out New York

“It’s been a few weeks since I finished The Lowland, and my head and heart are still with the book. The novel moves back and forth in time and takes on different points of view, which allow readers to see how anger and betrayal redound through the generations . . . The Lowland dwells in complex territory [and its] insights point toward an unspoken question: Is it irresponsible—or even criminal—to risk your life for a political cause that may not be realized in your lifetime? The Lowland is a stylistic achievement and marks a shift in Lahiri’s writing. As always, the novel is full of sharp insights about marriage and parenthood, politics and commitment. It is the kind of book that stays with you long after you finish it.” —Julie Hakim Azzam, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Lahiri’s new novel begins in the manner of Flaubert . . . It is her big novel: possessed of historical moment and reach. But for the most part, history is only the element in which the characters’ lives unfold, and this allows Lahiri to exercise her own special talent. She is capable of great elegance, and here, her subject is the failure of relationships between characters, and the ways in which people hold back from living their lives . . . Lahiri writes with great emotional precision [and] moves confidently between different periods in a manner reminiscent of James Salter’s Light Years. Her version of the epic is one in which the ordinary becomes illuminated. She seems to write of families, but actually writes of aloneness, of people avoiding those who are closest to them . . . Her voice [has] unusual, almost old-fashioned moral authority.” —Anjali Joseph, The Times Literary Supplement (UK)

“Stunning. . . Lahiri is an American realist in the manner of John Updike, Philip Roth, and Jonathan Franzen . . . Her magisterial canvases portray the elusive, vexed promises that comprise the mythos of the United States . . . In The Lowland, a multigenerational family story that unfolds in counterpoint between India and the United States, Lahiri emphasizes neither the immigrant’s cultural displacement nor a contest of values between old world and new. Rather, this exquisitely written novel defines the very condition of American life through an exploration of the impossible prospect of belonging . . . The Lowland [is written] with astonishing precision, moving far beyond the terrain of immigrant displacement to map patterns of unity and separation in the smallest moments of daily life [and] painstakingly delineating the defining trait of Americanness: an intricate, dynamic balance between flux and constancy, permanence and transience. The Lowland orchestrates this balance with a tragic lyricism, honoring the United States, and telling its myriad stories of insiders and outsiders alike.” —Urmila Seshagiri, Los Angeles Review of Books
 
“Exquisite . . . Lahiri emerged upon the literary scene like Athena from the head of Zeus: fully formed and glorious . . . She explores here what she has always explored best: the fragile inner workings of her characters . . . Their true, hidden natures shimmer vibrantly for us. Lahiri compels us to empathize with [them] as they muddle through life, maintaining secrets in some instances and revealing truths in others—all in the name of protecting whatever or whomever they hold most dear. A simple but profound question seems to hover in the air throughout The Lowland: What do you live for? . . . Lahiri continues to transfix us with her subtle explorations of what our sundry hearts want . . . An American master.” —Kevin Grauke, Philadelphia Inquirer
 
“Lahiri is one of our most beautiful chroniclers of the aching disjunctions of emigration and family. The Lowland features the same poised, haunting, exquisitely effective storytelling that earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 . . . [It] is a family drama about the abiding hold of the past on the present and future, and the dead on the living. It is also a plaintive story about undying love—romantic, brotherly, parental—in which time and the future are at once ‘sustenance’ and ‘predator’ . . . Lahiri shows compassion for all her characters; she writes with deep understanding of family dynamics . . . The Lowland spans decades but never feels rushed or spread thin. Lahiri entrances us with her strong, incantatory storyteller’s voice and vibrant images . . . The novel shimmers. A heartbreaking story of repressed emotions and the essential loneliness of the human condition.” —Heller McAlpin, San Francisco Chronicle

“Lyrical . . . buoyantly ambitious in both story and form. [A] rich landscape . . . surprising language and plotting . . . The memory of Udayan—his fierce politics and his terrible death—has corrosive aftereffects. The Lowland is a novel about the rashness of youth, as well as hesitation and regret.” —Maureen Corrigan, National Public Radio, “Fresh Air”
 
“Lahiri’s finest work so far, at once unsettling and generous, bow-string taut . . . shattering and satisfying in equal measure. I expect The Lowland will prove her most controversial book to date, for its plot grows out of [a] Maoist-inspired uprising in the late 1960s. Though Lahiri has put [the] politics in, she also wants us to concentrate on the spectators instead of the struggle around the gun. This book is a determinedly apolitical writer’s attempt to deal with an explosive subject. And though she deals more fully here than ever before with a specifically Indian subject, though the book both begins and ends in Calcutta and what happens there will forever mark its characters’ lives, The Lowland is written in an American vein; she seamlessly inserts new people—new manners, mores, material—into a traditional American form. What counts in The Lowland isn’t the fate of society but the individual life and the chance or pursuit of individual happiness; Turgenev among others would recognize the problem she defines. The prose . . . provides something like a continuous present, pointillist and monumental at once, as though carved . . . Uncompromising and yet clear—carries a note of accessible distinction.” —Michael Gorra, The New York Review of Books

“Captivating, compelling . . . Lahiri came onto the literary scene like a blazing comet, [writing] brilliantly about the complex intergenerational relationships and connections in all families; about the internal turmoil for children of immigrants, trying to meet their own and their parents’ expectations; and the challenging search for identity, among parents as well as children. [In The Lowland], she adds political history and philosophy, even a dash of science, and they spice up her already heady concoction. Most importantly, she makes the characters live inside the reader’s head . . . maintaining an edge of mystery: Why did they take a certain path? How did they really react to a traumatic event? What have they kept hidden from everyone, even themselves? And how has a long-ago pain affected so many of their personal interactions? When the answers to these questions are fully revealed, they are often startling, heartrending, and illuminating, touching some inner core of human nature . . . Lahiri’s evocative descriptions of landscapes are memorable, [and] she can pinpoint the significance of a gesture so precisely that it makes you pause to savor it . . . Reading The Lowland is like listening to a lush and intense piece of classical music . . . Lahiri’s writings teach us how to live.” —Johnette Rodriguez, The Providence Phoenix

“Gorgeous . . . With a story spanning generations and continents, The Lowland is epic in scope, but, through sheer technical wizardry, Lahiri also creates a story shimmering with the interplay of time and memory. The intimate, close-up look at the characters in India, where small gestures reveal everything, gradually gives way to a wide-angled and panoramic view, as though the narrative camera zooms back to encompass the vast American backdrop while moving through time . . . Unexpected and ambitious, full of hope and longing. A novel to savor—beautiful, ambitious, complex.” —Jeanette Zwart, Shelf Awareness

“Graceful and steady . . . devastatingly precise . . . Lahiri [writes with] ruthless clarity . . . The Lowland continues Lahiri’s career-long study of the tendrils that grow up in canyons [between characters], that intertwine and bind people to one another through responsibility and dependency, love and guilt. [Lahiri is] anchored firmly as a great American writer.” —Jennifer Day, Chicago Tribune

“Powerful . . . Scene[s] stop you dead in your tracks and demand your all-consuming attention. Lahiri’s prose [is] the most beautiful ever to be put on paper; it memorably snakes and fumes the way smoke would if it were coming from your house on fire . . . The story, crossing an ocean but also a culture, is steeped in heavy emotions and washes out of the pages and into the lives of readers. And that is why it is the novel of the moment, of brotherhood in a western and eastern sense.” —Daniel Scheffler, Edge Atlanta

“We’ve been waiting five years since Lahiri’s last book—[and] The Lowland is worth the wait . . . Lahiri’s landscape has always been filled with characters who have multiple layers of experience, who hold their secrets deep inside, sometimes even from themselves . . . Lahiri’s women are fully realized, complex characters, with motivations and drives that often far exceed those of the men around them, regardless of the cost. One of the book’s many enjoyments is had in watching the story unfold. Certain core themes endure: What is our obligation to the past? What does it mean to reinvent oneself? Like many of us, Lahiri’s characters look back and consider what might have been.” —John Abrahams, Everyday eBook

“Formidable . . . Lahiri’s precise writing and clarity of expression cast [a] spell. She is an expert in writing about dislocation—the feeling of being simultaneously two places at once and not necessarily belonging to either . . . The Lowland examines at the nature of sacrifice and love, the price of personal freedom, and what really constitutes the greater good.” —Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor

“Exquisite, graceful . . . The Lowland has complicated the ancient story of sibling rivalry by infusing it with real affection, capturing the way two brothers need and rely on each other . . . Lahiri shifts nimbly between moments of mischief and happiness to scenes of dread and violence. Her prose, as always, is a miracle of delicate strength, like those threads of spider silk that, wound together, are somehow stronger than steel . . . Given the trauma Subhash and Gauri have experienced, their whispered lives are perfectly understandable, and Lahiri renders them in clear, restrained prose . . . Mesmerizing, devastating.” —Ron Charles, The Washington Post Book World

“Compelling . . . Tracking lives across four generations and two continents with crisp confidence, Lahiri has a marvelous eye for the pivotal detail . . . A novel about idealism, betrayal and the bonds of brotherhood. Four stars” —Helen Rogan, People (a People Pick)
 
“Thrilling . . . elegant . . . told in a vigorous, straightforward prose . . . The reader’s heart remains firmly drawn toward Subhash, a good man too often trapped by circumstance . . . The lowland in [the family’s] neighborhood serves as telling metaphor for the dark places that haunt our lives. In its quiet intensity, it reminds us of the triumphant fiction of Alice Munro and William Trevor.” —Dan Cryer, Newsday
 
“Potent, memorable . . . Lahiri has reached literary high ground . . . A story as rich as the titular terrain of the Calcutta neighborhood she profiles, where an early tragedy irrevocably fractures [a] family . . . The Lowland may sweep across generations and continents, through historical upheaval and contemporary angst, but its tone, its language, is subtle, whisper-like and confessional. It is at its most illuminating—at its peak—in its intimacy.” —Olivia Barker, USA Today
 
“A delicately harrowing family saga spanning more than 60 years. Its plot pivots on secrets and lies, and it is as much about parenting as politics . . . Lahiri has a devastatingly keen ear for the tensions and misunderstandings endemic in our closest relationships . . . Affecting.” —Hephzibah Anderson, Bloomberg News
 
“The Jhumpa Lahiri story keeps adding intriguing chapters . . . [In The Lowland], her evocation of New England and Calcutta is even more evocative and elegant than in her previous books. Her tone is dispassionate but warm, making the narrative of the turbulent lives of the main characters seem more like a tone poem than a symphony. When you can write prose like that it almost doesn’t matter what the subject matter is, but that Zen-like ability to observe without commenting is even more effective in the passages of life in India amid poverty and repression . . . [We are] fortunate: We have Lahiri to restore mystery, maximize surprise.” —Ed Siegel, The Artery
 
“Magnificent . . . Lahiri skillfully roots the story in people . . . There is a noticeable shift in the magnitude and ambition of [this] novel, [but] this broad change in location does not affect the heart of Lahiri’s talent: her ability to create dynamic characters with both small gestures and broad strokes . . . Lahiri’s careful prose and focus on character development assures that her pacing is never harried or awkward. All her characters are sympathetic but still have very real flaws that we recognize with exquisite intimacy . . . Though the novel powerfully stands alone, as a Lahiri disciple it seems [to me] as though her former tales were all leading up to this magnum opus . . . Both a soaring, cross-continental, cross-generational view of a shifting culture, and a quiet examination of the meaning of family.” —Natalie Gadbois, The Michigan Daily
 
“Lahiri tracks, with patience and tenacity, the emotional and geographical distances that time opens up between people, the things that get lost in those spaces, and the rare and surprising things that endure. In The Lowland, we are all emigrants, not from one country to another but from the present to the future. Lahiri’s prose style is legendarily smooth, unshowy, unvarying . . . The Lowland gains tremendous power as it goes on. Language takes on the role of time itself. The Lowland feels less like a story being told than a tide slowly going out, gradually, inevitably revealing the shape of what was there all along.” —Lev Grossman, Time
 
“Revealingly heartfelt . . . Poignant, deft . . . delves shrewdly into themes of dispossession and provisionality . . . The novel is fondly attentive to its natural settings . . . Lahiri movingly affirms the loyalty and selflessness of Subhash, who emerges as the novel’s hero. In an existence in which everything seems transitory and relative, he creates a fixed abode out of the stability of his love.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Amazing . . . The Lowland again reveals Lahiri’s mastery of language and her ability to create characters so real they draft you into their very minds and souls . . . One of the most complex themes of the novel is family: What makes a parent a parent? Lahiri advance[s] the setting to being so essential that it becomes a character in the book. William Faulkner was a master at making settings seem like real characters. This novel may very well demonstrate that Lahiri is as good or possibly better at this than Faulkner. She showers the reader with genuine sentiment without falling over the line into sentimentality. She is a rising star in the literary world. If you love good literature, The Lowland is a must read.” —Edmund August, Louisville Courier-Journal

“Poignant . . . An ambitious undertaking, spanning decades and continents as the author tells the story of three generations of a family in Calcutta and Rhode Island. [There are] moments of brilliant clarity and precision, [and] a delicate interweaving of past and present throughout. Lahiri is concerned with what it means to sacrifice love and family for a higher social good, what it costs to insist on personal freedom . . . Lahiri has an uncanny ability to control and mold sentences and action, imbuing the characters with dignity and restraint. [She is] a writer of integrity and skill. There is an important truth here—that life often denies us understanding, and sometimes all there is to hold on to is our ability to endure.” —Ellah Allfrey, NPR
 
“Lahiri’s work resists pithy quotation, and until now, has avoided fireworks. But [her] first sentence works like a slow fuse. Divided consciousness has been her recurrent theme, [which] the transplanted Indian families in her earlier work know well. This time, she daringly redraws the map—[as] one of two close-knit brothers becomes a revolutionary while the other proceeds to the U.S.  Loyalties are tested, twisted to extremes that become clear only toward the end. Here worlds, new and old, contain terrors.” —Ann Hulbert, The Atlantic
 
“Astonishing . . . A masterful work that shines with brilliant language . . . Lahiri’s rich descriptions tell [a] wider story by shifting viewpoints between family members . . . She once again dazzles us with beautiful words that flow effortlessly, creating a narrative that takes hold and won’t let go . . . [The Lowland] raises questions of love, parenting and finding one’s way in the world. Lahiri puts her readers deep into the heart of this family . . . We are fortunate that she has shared her words with all of us, and with these words has created a masterpiece.” —Jim Carmin, Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
“Lahiri returns confidently to the themes that have earned her critical praise, an eager audience and a Pulitzer Prize: cultural dissonance between generations; the uneasiness of the recently emigrated; the unbreakable, unpredictable bonds of family. Lahiri has written elegantly and poignantly about Bengali families separated by distance and tradition [before], but in The Lowland she adds a historical dimension that creates a vital, intriguing backdrop . . . Her sublimely unfolding plot and her delicate revelations about the relationships between these characters are best savored with fresh eyes . . . Their story is unique, but it’s also universal, a reminder of the past’s pull on us all. The Lowland never loses sight of its very human tragedies and triumphs.” —Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald
 
“Masterful . . . Cumulatively, as each of her characters contends with his or her particular life, there is a quiet truth that seems more lifelike and devastating than any dramatic literary moment . . . What Lahiri shows best, with her steady prose, is the reckoning of life against a single personality . . . For those unfamiliar with her work, The Lowland is a fine introduction, exhibiting why she has won, among other awards, a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Devotees of the author will be thrilled with her new novel.” —Holly Silva, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
 
“Her most ambitious book . . . imagined with uncommon grace and generosity . . . The Lowland examines the hopelessness unleashed in a family when a favorite son chooses to become a terrorist. Lahiri expertly delves into the repercussions this causes in several generations. She demonstrates with every sentence that the Pulitzer Prize she won with her first book was no fluke. The beauty of this novel is in its everyday details, including Lahiri’s lush descriptions of landscapes . . . Her evocation of what it’s like to care for young children is spot-on, [and she’s] particularly deft at portraying the interplay of generations and the changes in individuals as they age.” —Jenny Shank, Dallas Morning News

“Provocative, intriguing . . . thrillingly nuanced. The intimate connection between siblings informs and impacts every other relationship in The Lowland . . . Using the turbulent lives of two brothers as her lens, Lahiri poses hard questions about the political and emotional ramifications of colonialism . . . Thronged with twists and turns, including a tragedy that forever upends the family, this book is Lahiri’s most ambitious work to date, brimming with pain and love and all of life’s profound beauty.” —Diane Mehta, O, The Oprah Magazine
 
“Lahiri is an elegant stylist, effortlessly placing the perfect words in the perfect order time and again so we’re transported seamlessly into another place. In The Lowland, it’s the 1960s, and violent revolution has come to Calcutta and America, with reverberations to be felt by generations to come. Every family story is somehow a war story; Lahiri has a talent for coolly illustrating this truth.” — Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair
 
“Striking . . . honest and insightful . . . A compassionate tale of family, betrayal, and political ideology. . . The fraternal relationship and the relationship to the land drives the novel to its climax [with] vivid prose . . . At the heart of it, amidst the political turmoil and historical narrative, The Lowland is a story of the difficulties of marriage and parenthood—territory Lahiri approaches with new insights and an inimitable vigor.” —Tausif Noor, New York Daily News
“Provocative, intriguing . . . thrillingly nuanced. The intimate connection between siblings informs and impacts every other relationship in The Lowland . . . Using the turbulent lives of two brothers as her lens, Lahiri poses hard questions about the political and emotional ramifications of colonialism . . . Thronged with twists and turns, including a tragedy that forever upends the family, this book is Lahiri’s most ambitious work to date, brimming with pain and love and all of life’s profound beauty.” —Diane Mehta, O, The Oprah Magazine
 
“Lahiri is an elegant stylist, effortlessly placing the perfect words in the perfect order time and again so we’re transported seamlessly into another place. In The Lowland, it’s the 1960s, and violent revolution has come to Calcutta and America, with reverberations to be felt by generations to come. Every family story is somehow a war story; Lahiri has a talent for coolly illustrating this truth.” — Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair
 
“Striking . . . honest and insightful . . . A compassionate tale of family, betrayal, and political ideology. . . The fraternal relationship and the relationship to the land drives the novel to its climax [with] vivid prose . . . At the heart of it, amidst the political turmoil and historical narrative, The Lowland is a story of the difficulties of marriage and parenthood—territory Lahiri approaches with new insights and an inimitable vigor.” —Tausif Noor, New York Daily News

“When you hear a novel features a ‘twist,’ you might imagine a big reveal. Jhumpa Lahiri is a master of dramatic turns, but not in the conventional sense. She lets tension build slowly until something snaps. What she twists is you . . . In The Lowland, pressure grows [and] every character’s actions are up for debate. The Lowland is about how history is just the same mistakes, made by different generations. But it’s also about how time can trick you into believing that change is possible. Lahiri plays with that [idea] brilliantly, devoting pages to fleeting moments, only to deliver the book’s most life-shattering event in a telegram just seven words long. The Lowland offers new revelations right up to the last page. Some say that a twist is most effective when the reader figures it out a split second before the author reveals it. But Lahiri shows that a twist can be even more devastating when you’ve been afraid that it might happen all along. Grade: A.” —Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly

“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
 
“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

“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)

“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
 
“I wait for Lahiri’s books as if they’re rare comets and hold them in my hands like my firstborn.” —Megan Angelo, Glamour

“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 (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 (boxed 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)
 
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Lowland by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri. Set in India and America, it is a beautifully crafted and heartbreaking portrait of three generations bound and fractured by the demands of love and loyalty.

About the Guide

Subhash and Udayan, brothers born fifteen months apart, come of age in post-World War II Calcutta. The newly won independence from Britain and the partition establishing Pakistan as a separate country has left India struggling with political turmoil; the age-old problems of poverty and class divisions remain a source of social unrest and conflict. The brothers share the adventures and innocent rivalries of childhood, but when Udayan, the younger, more daring brother, joins a radical political group in college, the tie between them begins to unravel. Subhash chooses a different, safer path, leaving India to do postgraduate research in oceanography in Rhode Island.   As Subhash slowly adjusts to life in America, Udayan becomes ever more deeply involved with the revolutionary movement at home.  In a letter to Subhash, he writes of his marriage to Gauri and his hope that his brother will come home one day to meet her. But it is a shattering tragedy that eventually brings Subhash back to his childhood home and into a strange, life-changing relationship with the young woman who captured his brother’s heart.

With the art and insight that has made her one of today’s most admired young writers, Jhumpa Lahiri weaves an extraordinary tale of brotherly love, familial obligations and marital compromises, and the impact of history on individuals. As the lives of the characters unfold, The Lowland becomes a moving exploration of how the choices they make and the secrets they keep reverberate across place and time. 

About the Author

Jhumpa Lahiri is the author of Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, and Unaccustomed Earth. She received the Pulitzer Prize, a PEN/Hemingway Award, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2012. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. 

Discussion Guides

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 The Lowland, 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?


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