She’d begun to write her name, to spread the butter on her toast. Her legs were growing long, though her belly was still rounded. Her back was soft with hair, an elegant line of it running along the length of her spine. There was a perfect loop of it at the center, like the whorls of her fingertips, or in the bark of a tree. Whenever he traced it, as he washed Bela in the soapy tub before bed, the hairs rearranged themselves, and the pattern dissolved.
from ‘The Lowland’ by Jhumpa Lahiri
Why do we sometimes abandon authors whose work we’ve loved? Looking through my reading notebook, I see that I read The Interpreter of Maladies in 2005, but since then nothing by Jhumpa Lahiri. Her short essay on James Salter’s Light Years was what led me back to her, though actually The Lowland was already in a dusty stack of unread library books beside my bed. On Salter, she writes:
Reading Salter taught me to boil down my writing to its essence. To insist upon the right words, and to remember that less is more. He taught me that a plot can be at once a straight line and a collage, that tense and perspective are fluid things. That great art can be wrought from quotidian life. These teachings are ongoing.
So I read The Lowland with Salter in mind: thinking sentences, structure, and deft handling of the passage of time. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a book that spans seventy-odd years, four generations and three continents; the personal and the political and the tender, gristly point at which they meet. Epic as that sounds, the focus is always tight. Lahiri works through carefully rendered locations — the suburb of Tollygunge in Calcutta; Rhode Island in the States — and through a relatively small number of characters who we come to know intimately.
It’s the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, born in Calcutta in the 1940s. One moves to the States, one becomes involved in radical politics. There is emigration, marriage, death, birth, estrangement, aging. The overarching image of the lowland, an expanse of a few acres beside the brothers’ childhood home in Calcutta, is there right from the first page. Two ponds ‘oblong, side by side’ lie in the lowland; in the monsoon they flood and become one. The imagery of the two ponds — the two brothers — and the flooded lowland choked with water hyacinth repeats through the novel, and yet never seems over-played.
I started out skeptical. In the opening section the politics, the emergence of the Naxalite movement in the early 60s, seemed clumsily spliced between carefully constructed scenes of the brothers’ youth. Who was telling me about the politics in such a dry textbook way? To whom were these boyhood scenes memorable? The third person narration felt cold and impersonal. Then, as the book gains speed, Lahiri plays with a close third-person that moves between the characters in far more interesting and revealing ways.
My favourite sections of the novel were those in which Subhash and his wife Gauri are living in campus accommodation with their daughter, Bela, as a baby and then young child. Lahiri captures the enormity of new motherhood in a few devastating pages — ‘While pregnant she had felt capable. But now Gauri was aware of how the slightest oversight on her part could cause Bela to be destroyed.’. The description of four-year old Bela above — the spreading of butter on toast! such an overlooked but wonderful milestone — reminded me of my joy when T started to do this for herself.
Gauri’s relationship with Bela is complicated by the past and its reverberations in Gauri’s present, and Lahiri develops this in a nuanced way that, for me, was wholly believable. ‘With Bela, she was aware of time not passing; of the sky nevertheless darkening at the end of another day. She was aware of the perfect silence in the apartment, replete with the isolation she and Bela shared. When she was with Bela, even if they were not interacting, it was as if they were one person, bound fast by a dependence that restricted her mentally, physically. At times it terrified her that she felt so entwined and also so alone.’
Lahiri’s triumph is capturing the passage of time; showing the way ‘a life’ is not a single entity, not one life, but many. The separateness of sections of years — a childhood in India, the years spent raising a child — all eras that, at the time, felt without end, but can never be revisited. She teaches us again and again that life can cleave into before and after; that we have no idea where these hidden fissures lie.