The Lowland

The LowlandProduct Details

by Jhumpa Lahiri. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2013.

I didn’t intend to really write anything about Jhumpa Lahiri’s new book, The Lowland, since I’ve already read so many other reviews about it and wasn’t sure I’d have anything new or insightful to add to those discussions. Still, I thought I’d mention some bits that particularly stood out to me.

I found the first fifty pages or so disconcertingly slow. But after the main storyline shifts to America, I couldn’t stop (anyone else have Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby children’s books still virtually memorized? Ramona’s book report: “I can’t believe I read the whoooole thing”). Lahiri is excellent – as she is in her other books – when she describes American scenes and landscapes through a newcomer’s viewpoint, simultaneously evoking a sense of the foreign and the familiar. Main character Subhash and his wife Gauri move to Rhode Island, and the salt marshes and windy beaches and white clapboard churches are instantly recognizable to anyone who has been to New England. Yet the scenes are dramatically opposed to the crowds and humidity of their previous home near Calcutta, so the mentions of Rhode Island’s cold rain or eating beef stew seem new and refreshing.

Lahiri’s other books are also about Indian-American immigrant experience over several generations, and obviously some of these experiences are similar for all sorts of ethnic groups. Probably many of us, at various stages of removal from our immigrant ancestors, have heard or can relate to anecdotes such as this one:

“On the other side of the campus she entered a little grocery store next to the post office. Among the sticks of butter and cartons of eggs she found something called cream cheese, which came in a silver wrapping…she bought it, thinking it might be chocolate, breaking the five-dollar bill Subhash left for her each day…inside the wrapper was something dense, cold, slightly sour. She broke it into pieces and ate it on its own, standing in the parking lot of the grocery. Not knowing it was intended to be spread on a cracker or bread, savoring the unexpected taste and texture of it in her mouth, licking the paper clean.”

Lahiri’s portrayal of these day-to-day challenges and adventures, as well as the broader existential ones, is why I would love to see one of her books as a selection for a Jewish/synagogue book group. What would be the comparisons with various Jewish immigrant experiences? It would probably be a lot of fun to share those.  I think that the fact that Lahiri is not explicitly describing the Jewish-American experience would create a fresh environment for discussion, and  lend a new view on old – but still important and valuable – cliches.

As she does in The Namesake, Lahiri also emphasizes the cultural divides and expectations about marriage and academic or professional achievement, other areas that are probably similar across immigrant groups. It’s all a bit more (wonderfully) complicated, I think, in The Lowland than in The Namesake. Most of this complication comes from the characters’ various levels of involvement with the Naxalite uprising of 1967, which sounds something like the Indian version of SDS. Actually, another minor character makes this same association:

“She had an hour, she told Dipankar, before she needed to get back to campus. Tell me, what’s this book about?

-You were at Presidency in the late sixties, right?

He’d gotten a contract from an academic press, to write a history of students at the college when the Naxalite movement was at its height. The idea was to compare it to the SDS in America. He was hoping to write it as an oral history. He wanted to interview her.

Her eyelid twitched. It was a nervous tic…I wasn’t involved, she said. Her mouth felt dry…she was suddenly afraid that he knew something. That maybe her name was on a list. That an old file had been opened, an investigation of a long-ago occurrence under way.”

Interesting, I thought, as I finished the book, that a book about the dangers of those types of movements – as young impressionable students are drawn in and end up involved in criminal activity – would be such a hit here in the US. A few hours later, though, I realized it’s not entirely clear where the book/Lahiri comes down with the Naxalites. Does Lahiri end up making the reader feel sympathy for them? Where is the line of responsibility between the leaders of the movement and the college students who carried out their demands? Gauri, one of the main characters, becomes more and more intriguing as we learn more about her true feelings.

Earlier this year we saw this movie:

which just has in common with The Lowland the re-examination/re-evaluation of 60’s political movements. Like The Lowland, it doesn’t glorify the participants. Interested to see if this thread will continue and/or will be picked up in any other books or cultural venues.

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