The magnificent sweep of her new novel, The Lowland, positions Jhumpa Lahiri as a yardstick unto herself
The literary awards season is just warming up, with its distractions that reduce the relative merit of contending books and authors to the bookmakers’ odds, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel has already been in contention (for the Booker) even before publication. But may I suggest that when you pick up The Lowland, you shut out that din, and to get its measure, instead, place it alongside her previous books, two collections of short stories (Interpreter of Maladies, the staggeringly piercing Unaccustomed Earth) and the novel The Namesake, and weigh this question: isn’t she now in an orbit all her own, a writer who no longer needs the qualifying adjective Chekhovian to convey the power of her fiction, one who has joined a small cohort of living novelists and short story writers by nominating herself as a standard to evaluate others’ efforts?
It is arguable who is the central character of The Lowland, Subhash or his brother Udayan, separated by just 15 months but pulling together, twin-like, through all the paces of their growing up in Calcutta’s Tollygunge till the Naxalbari uprising in 1967 throws them into separate universes, one to chasing higher studies in the United States and Udayan to Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal’s call “to make a new sun and a new moon shine in the sky”? Gauri, once married to Udayan and, upon his encounter death, rescued by Subhash to the opportunities in American academia but determined to shut all contact with her intimate circle in order to lock away the terrible secret she harbours about her own contact with the young revolutionaries? Or Bela, the daughter she abandons but who will be the one to reconcile the separate tragedies that befell her family, the silences and estrangements following from Udayan’s death in full view of his Tollygunge home?
Or, to put it somewhat differently, where does the novel’s pivot lie? In Udayan’s death and the incident that took his life in a never-really-was revolution that he did not fully comprehend? In Gauri’s realisation that memory cannot be defeated? Or is this, in fact, an epic novel of tiny anchors that hold together its sprawl, of Subhash’s adjustments to his immigrant life and the circumstances of his nuclear family, of giving and giving, of providing and learning to let go, till he finds