One traumatic event can have emotional consequences that ripple through generations and across continents, until the reason or even the memory of the event is forgotten.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Lowland” starts with the intense government repression that put down the Naxalite rebellion of 1968 and 1969 in Calcutta, India. It traces the effects of a police murder on the brother of the man who was killed, his parents, his wife, their daughter and their granddaughter.
Subhash and Udayan, brothers in a middle-class Calcutta family, are very different in personality, but emotionally close. Subhash is superficially traditional, but goes to the United States to study and finds a new life in the freer culture there, learning to cook for himself and to engage with women as equals. Udayan, a student radical, is moved by the poverty and exploitation he sees in his country, though at home he fills a traditional male role. He joins the Naxalites, an extreme Maoist group that is trying to spark a revolution in India. One of their tactics is assassinating policemen and other authority figures. Udayan is caught and summarily executed by the police while his parents and his pregnant wife Gauri watch.
The very traditional parents refuse to talk about the event; it remains inside them. They hate Gauri, who married their son without their permission. Subhash, who comes back from the United States as soon as he can, sees that his parents will do their best to drive Gauri away as soon as she’s had their grandchild. She’s already estranged from her own family; she has nowhere to go. Subhash offers to marry her, to take her to the United States and raise her child as his own.
Lahiri is well known from her previous fiction as a chronicler of the lives of immigrants. In this book, she explores the ways in which the past lives of those who come to the United States, especially those who are fleeing repression, can be hidden behind a wall of silence. Subhash is a kind but quiet man, absorbed in his work as a marine biologist. Gauri, who had helped Udayan in his plans without full knowledge of what they were, is overcome with grief and afraid to talk about what happened. She is relieved that the ongoing revolt and repression in India do not even get noted in U.S. newspapers or TV — it is as if they did not exist.
The marriage, of course, is a failure. Gauri, depressed, feels less and less attached to her daughter Bela, who reminds her of Udayan. She feels she has failed as a mother. Eventually she abandons Subhash and Bela, moving to California and having no contact with them. Subhash raises Bela by himself.
Lahiri’s characters, including Bela, are caught within the silence of a grief that is never talked about. Bela only knows that she has been abandoned by her mother; Subhash is never sure exactly what Udayan did or how he was murdered. Gauri feels implicated in Udayan’s acts and betrayed by him at the same time.
The silence of grief is hard to portray. Lahiri’s narrative voice is cool and unemotional, consistent with the emotional landscape of “The Lowland,” which is nominated for the National Book Award in Fiction. She lays out the incidents of the story without judgment but also without really illuminating her characters’ inner lives. In particular, the reader never really comes to understand Gauri. We know very little about her except that even as a child she had expected to live a life alone because she had hopes of having a career, rather than being a wife and mother. One might guess that the sense of betrayal she feels began before Udayan’s murder, as she found that a marriage for love had brought her into a traditional role in her in-laws’ household. Still, Gauri’s abandonment of Bela seems extreme and self-destructive.
We know Subhash better, and it’s easier to understand his decision to sacrifice his hopes of marital happiness to help Gauri, but even his character seems a bit thin: He always seems to only do what is necessary or what others want of him. As stereotypically male as this may be, Lahiri misses opportunities to explore the contradictions in his character that brought him from being a traditional Indian son to coming to terms with American culture. Only occasionally do these come out, as when someone asks him, early on in America, if he liked it here. “He wanted to tell her that he had been waiting all his life to find Rhode Island. That it was here, in this minute but majestic corner of the world, that he could breathe.”
Lahiri has a fine command of language and, despite its weaknesses, the book reads smoothly and engagingly to its final pages, which both hold out the possibility of resolution of the original trauma and reveal some of the secrets that were hidden by the silence of grief, the secrets that must surface before healing can occur.