National Book Award Finalist and shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize
The Lowland is an engrossing family saga steeped in history: the story of two very different brothers bound by tragedy, a fiercely brilliant woman haunted by her past, a country torn apart by revolution, and a love that endures long past death. Moving from the 1960s to the present, and from India to America and across generations, this dazzling novel is Jhumpa Lahiri at the height of her considerable powers.
About the Author
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:1967
Place of Birth:London, England
Education:B.A., Barnard College; M.A., Ph.D., Boston University
Read an Excerpt
Normally she stayed on the balcony, reading, or kept to an adjacent room as her brother and Udayan studied and smoked and drank cups of tea. Manash had befriended him at Calcutta University, where they were both graduate students in the physics department. Much of the time their books on the behaviors of liquids and gases would sit ignored as they talked about the repercussions of Naxalbari, and commented on the day’s events.
The discussions strayed to the insurgencies in Indochina and in Latin American countries. In the case of Cuba it wasn’t even a mass movement, Udayan pointed out. Just a small group, attacking the right targets.
All over the world students were gaining momentum, standing up to exploitative systems. It was another example of Newton’s second law of motion, he joked. Force equals mass times acceleration.
Manash was skeptical. What could they, urban students, claim to know about peasant life?
Nothing, Udayan said. We need to learn from them.
Through an open doorway she saw him. Tall but slight of build, twenty-three but looking a bit older. His clothing hung on him loosely. He wore kurtas but also European-style shirts, irreverently, the top portion unbuttoned, the bottom untucked, the sleeves rolled back past the elbow.
He sat in the room where they listened to the radio. On the bed that served as a sofa where, at night, Gauri slept. His arms were lean, his fingers too long for the small porcelain cups of tea her family served him, which he drained in just a few gulps. His hair was wavy, the brows thick, the eyes languid and dark.
His hands seemed an extension of his voice, always in motion, embellishing the things he said. Even as he argued he smiled easily. His upper teeth overlapped slightly, as if there were one too many of them. From the beginning, the attraction was there.
He never said anything to Gauri if she happened to brush by. Never glancing, never acknowledging that she was Manash’s younger sister, until the day the houseboy was out on an errand, and Manash asked Gauri if she minded making them some tea.
She could not find a tray to put the teacups on. She carried them in, nudging open the door to the room with her shoulder.
Looking up at her an instant longer than he needed to, Udayan took his cup from her hands.
The groove between his mouth and nose was deep. Clean-shaven. Still looking at her, he posed his first question.
Where do you study? he asked.
Because she went to Presidency, and Calcutta University was just next door, she searched for him on the quadrangle, and among the bookstalls, at the tables of the Coffee House if she went there with a group of friends. Something told her he did not go to his classes as regularly as she did. She began to watch for him from the generous balcony that wrapped around the two sides of her grandparents’ flat, overlooking the intersection where Cornwallis Street began. It became something for her to do.
Then one day she spotted him, amazed that she knew which of the hundreds of dark heads was his. He was standing on the opposite corner, buying a packet of cigarettes. Then he was crossing the street, a cotton book bag over his shoulder, glancing both ways, walking toward their flat.
She crouched below the filigree, under the clothes drying on the line, worried that he would look up and see her. Two minutes later she heard footsteps climbing the stairwell, and then the rattle of the iron knocker on the door of the flat. She heard the door being opened, the houseboy letting him in.
It was an afternoon everyone, including Manash, happened to be out, and she’d been reading, alone. She wondered if he’d turn back, given that Manash wasn’t there. Instead, a moment later, he stepped out onto the balcony.
No one else here? he asked.
She shook her head.
Will you talk to me, then?
The laundry was damp, some of her petticoats and blouses were clipped to the line. The material of the blouses was tailored to the shape of her upper torso, her breasts. He unclipped one of the blouses and put it further down the line to make room.
He did this slowly, a mild tremor in his fingers forcing him to focus more than another person might on the task. Standing beside him, she was aware of his height, the slight stoop in his shoulders, the angle at which he held his face. He struck a match against the side of a box and lit a cigarette, cupping his whole hand over his mouth when he drew the cigarette to his lips. The houseboy brought out biscuits and tea.
They overlooked the intersection, from four flights above. They stood beside one another, both of them leaning into the railing. Together they took in the stone buildings, with their decrepit grandeur, that lined the streets. Their tired columns, their crumbling cornices, their sullied shades.
Her face was supported by the discreet barrier of her hand. his arm hung over the edge, the burning cigarette was in his fingers. The sleeves of his Punjabi were rolled up, exposing the veins running from his wrist to the crook of the elbow. They were prominent, the blood in them greenish gray, like a pointed archway below the skin.
There was something elemental about so many human beings in motion at once: walking, sitting in buses and trams, pulling or being pulled along in rickshaws. One the other side of the street were a few gold and silver shops all in a row, with mirrored walls and ceilings. Always crowded with families, endlessly reflected, placing orders for wedding jewels. There was the press where they took clothes to be ironed. The store where Gauri bought her ink, her notebooks. Narrow sweet shops, where trays of confections were studded with flies.
The paanwallah sat cross-legged at one corner, under a bare bulb, spreading white lime paste on stacks of betel leaves. A traffic constable stood at the center, in his helmet, on his little box. Blowing a whistle and waving his arms. The clamor of so many motors, of so many scooters and lorries and busses and cars, filled their ears.
I like this view, he said.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Lowland by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri. Set in India and America, it is a beautifully crafted and heartbreaking portrait of three generations bound and fractured by the demands of love and loyalty.
1. “Udayan was the one brave enough to ask them for autographs…He was blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving certain colors. But Subhash strove to minimize his existence, as other animals merged with bark or blades of grass” (p. 11). How do the differences between the boys both strengthen and strain the tie between them?
2. Does Subhash’s decision to make it “his mission to obey (his parents), given that it wasn’t possible to surprise or impress them. That was what Udayan did” (p. 11) follow a pattern common among siblings? What part do their parents play in fostering the roles each boy assumes?
3. What does Udayan’s reaction to Subhash’s decision to go to America (p. 30) and Subhash’s admission that he wanted to leave Calcutta “not only for the sake of his education but also . . . to take a step Udayan never would” (p. 40) convey about the balance between admiration and envy, support and competition, that underlies their relationship? Do you think that Udayan is manipulative, or does Subhash misread him (p. 31)?
4. What aspects of the immigrant experience are captured in Subhash’s first impressions of Rhode Island (p. 34)? How do his feelings about school and about his roommate, Richard, bring to light both his pleasure and his uncertainties about his new independence? In what ways does Udayan’s letter add to his ambivalence about the choice he has made (p. 47)?
5. What does Subhash’s affair with Holly convey about his transition to life in America (pp. 65-83)? What does it reveal about his emotional ties to his old life and family?
6. Why does the author describe the courtship and marriage of Udayan and Gauri from Gauri’s perspective (pp. 51-61)? To what extent does Gauri’s independence, rare for women in India, influence their decision to marry?
7. How do the descriptions of Calcutta (pp. 88-90, 91-2) and Subhash’s first glimpse of his parents (p. 91) capture the complex feelings Subhash experiences on returning home? How do the brothers’ parents’ expectations and beliefs shape their treatment of Gauri?
8. What emotions lie behind his mother does his mother’s reaction to Gauri’s pregnancy (p. 114)? Is it understandable in light of Gauri’s behavior and manner? Is Subhash right to believe that the only way to help the child is to take Gauri away (p. 115)? What other motivation might he have for marrying his brother’s widow?
9. From the start, Gauri and Subhash react differently to Bela and to parenthood. Gauri thinks, “Bela was her child and Udayan’s; that Subhash, for all his helpfulness, for the role he’d deftly assumed, was simply playing a part. I’m her mother . . . I don’t have to try as hard” (p. 146). Although Subhash has a close, loving relationship with his daughter, he is troubled by his marriage: “Almost five years ago they had begun their journey as husband and wife, but he was still waiting to arrive somewhere with her. A place where he would no longer question the result of what they’d done” (p. 159). What is the source of the underlying uneasiness of their marriage? To what extent are they haunted by their attachments to Udayan? What other factors make Gauri feel resentful and trapped? Is Subhash partially responsible for her unhappiness? How does Subhash’s insistence on hiding the truth from Bela influence Gauri’s behavior and the choices she makes?
10. How does the portrait of the brothers’ mother, Bijoli, enhance the novel’s exploration of the repercussions of the family tragedy (pp. 179-89)? What effect does his visit to Calcutta and its many reminders of Udayan have on Subhash—as a son, a brother, and a father?
11. After Gauri the family, what does Bela rely on to make sense of the situation and to create a life for herself? Is her reclusiveness natural, given her family history, although much of it is unknown to her? In what ways do her decisions about her education and her work represent her need to separate and distinguish herself from her parents?
12. Why, despite his pride in Bela and his confidence in her affection, does Subhash feel “threatened, convinced that . . . Udayan’s influence was greater” (p. 225)? How might Bela’s life have been different had Udayan raised her?
13. The novel presents many kinds of parents—present and absent, supportive and reluctant. What questions does the novel raise about the challenges and real meaning of being a parent?
14. What do you find most striking or surprising about Gauri’s reflections on her life (p. 231-40)? “She had married Subhash, she had abandoned Bela. She had generated alternative versions of herself, she had insisted at brutal cost on these conversations. Layering her life only to strip it bare, only to be alone in the end” (p. 240). Is this an accurate and just self-assessment, or is Gauri too hard on herself—and if so, why?
15. Despite his accomplishments and relative contentment, Subhash remains in the grip of the deception that has dominated his life: “He was still too weak to tell Bela what she deserved to know. Still pretending to be her father . . . The need to tell her hung over him, terrified him. It was the greatest unfinished business of his life” (p. 251-52). Why does Bela’s pregnancy move him to reveal the truth? Were you surprised by Bela’s reaction? How does learning about Udayan and the story of her parents’ marriage?
16. The keeping of secrets plays a large part in the novel, from the facts of Bela’s parentage to Gauri’s long-hidden guilt about her role in Udayan’s fateful actions. To what extent are the continued deceptions fed by the love and sense of loyalty Gauri and Subhash feel toward Udayan even years after his death? Do they also serve Gauri’s and Subhash’s self-interest?
17. The details of the family’s history emerge through various retellings set in different times and seen from different perspectives. Why do you think Lahiri chose to tell the story in this way? How does this method increase the power of the narrative? Do your opinions of and sympathies for the characters change as more information is revealed?
18. Before reading The Lowland, were you aware of the Naxalite movement? (The group remains active: on May 25, 2013, Naxalite insurgents attacked a convoy of Indian National Congress leaders, causing the deaths of at least twenty-seven people.) What insights does Lahiri offer into the development of radical political groups? What role does history play in the creation of the Naxalite movement and, by extension, other uprisings around the world? What parallels do you see between the events described in the novel and recent activities in the Egypt and other countries torn by internal dissension and violence?
19. In an interview, Lahiri said, “As Udayan’s creator, I don’t condone what he does. On the other hand, I understand the frustration he feels, his sense of injustice, and his impulse to change society” (NewYorker.com, June 3, 2013) Does the novel help you see more clearly the reasons for destruction and deaths revolutionary forces perpetrate to attain their goals? How do you feel about Udayan after reading the novel’s last chapter?