“The Lowland” reminds readers of the inescapable nature of the past

Dylan Davidson

There is nowhere we can go without bringing the past along with us. 

In Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel “The Lowland,” the Pulitzer-winning author explores the complex lives of four generations of an Indian family — a story that spans six decades. At the center of the narrative are Subhash and Udayan Mitra, two brothers born 15 months apart, coming of age amidst the violent political upheaval of India in the 1960s.

In their youth, the brothers are inseparable and indistinguishable from one another. But Udayan’s brashness and Subhash’s reservedness set them on radically different paths: Subhash travels to Rhode Island to pursue a doctorate degree, while Udayan becomes involved in the Naxalite movement, a Maoist group dedicated to violent revolution.

The two brothers are irrevocably connected to the geography of their past, Lahiri saying, “There were two ponds, oblong, side by side. Beside them was a lowland spanning a few acres.” It is in this fecund landscape that Subhash and Udayan spent the formative years of their lives. And no matter how far the story strays, it always returns to the lowland — to the place where the brothers are indelibly rooted.

Subhash receives occasional letters from his brother, one in which Udayan tells his brother that he has met a girl and married her against their parents’ will. One day, though, all Subhash receives is a curt telegram from his parents:

“Udayan killed. Come back if you can.”

It is unclear whether Udayan died a hero or a terrorist. The only person who seems to know is his widow, Gauri, left pregnant and alone. Pitying her, Subhash offers to bring her to America to help raise her child. They get married, not out of love, but out of practicality. All of this happens in the first third of the novel.

What ensues is a gradual unraveling of the past. The years are marked by landmarks, big and small: Vietnam, Richard Nixon, high speed rails, email. Against the backdrop of the 20th century, the lives of Subhash and his family unfold, moments of joy interspersed with staggering tragedy. 

Lahiri’s novel is more than a piece of immigrant fiction, a label she’s been given since the publication of “Interpreter of Maladies” in 1999. “The Lowland” is about something more universal. It is a languid, contemplative assertion of the inescapable nature of the past. The past doesn’t follow us: It’s a part of us.

Early in the novel, Udayan disobeys his parents and runs across the still-wet concrete of their new driveway. Just as the young Udayan’s footprints are left on the place where he lives — they remain there, decades later, near the novel’s conclusion — so do his actions reverberate through the lives of everyone he touches. The same is true for everyone.

Lahiri guides us through the intertwined lives of the story’s characters with efficient, gleaming prose. Their ambitions, their fears and their heartbreaks are gently and devastatingly revealed to us throughout the novel’s 340 pages. “The Lowland” has been nominated for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award, a rare distinction that is well-deserved. The Booker winner will be announced Tuesday, and the National Book Award finalists will be announced Wednesday.