Geography is destiny in Jhumpa Lahiri's new novel, The Lowland. Her title refers to a marshy stretch of land between two ponds in a Calcutta neighborhood where two very close brothers grow up. In monsoon season, the marsh floods and the ponds combine; in summer, the floodwater evaporates. You don't need your decoder ring to figure out that the two ponds symbolize the two brothers — at times separate; at other times inseparable. But there's still more meaning lurking in this rich landscape. Lahiri's narrator goes on to tell us: "Certain creatures laid eggs that were able to endure the dry season. Others survived by burying themselves in mud, simulating death, waiting for the return of rain."
For most of Lahiri's novel, we're stuck in the mud with the cautious older brother whose name is Subhash. Consequently, there's a quality of stillness to The Lowland that, especially in its opening sections, almost verges on the stagnant — or would, were it not for Lahiri's always surprising language and plotting. The Lowland is something of a departure for Lahiri, whose other work often explores the struggles of Indian immigrant families. The Lowland, instead, opens in Calcutta in the 1950s and '60s, and keeps returning there even as the main story moves ahead in time.
As a college student in the late '60s, Subhash's younger, more daredevil brother, Udayan, becomes involved in the Maoist "Naxalite" political movement, set on bettering the living conditions of India's poor through violent uprising. Subhash, in contrast, dutifully dedicates himself to personal, rather than collective, improvement: He earns a scholarship to study science in America and moves to Rhode Island. For a couple of lonely years in a student boarding house, he learns to live without the voices of his family. But when Udayan is executed by the police in that very same marsh between the ponds, Subhash races back to Calcutta. He goes to comfort his parents; but, as it turns out, he also rescues his murdered brother's pregnant wife, Gauri, from her own diminished future as a widowed (and unwelcome) daughter-in-law.
The Lowland is buoyantly ambitious in both its story (I've only summarized the first quarter of the novel here) and its form. Subhash, his parents, Gauri and the daughter she eventually bears are all reticent people — at one point, Subhash thinks of them as "a family of solitaries" — so it's necessary for our narrator to constantly eavesdrop on their various thoughts and relay them to us. For instance, Subhash proposes to Gauri by stressing the practicalities of their union: He woos her by saying in America she could pursue her studies in philosophy. But his unspoken words are those of a lovesick poet: "[Subhash] had tried to deny the attraction he felt for Gauri. But it was like the light of the fireflies that swam up to the house at night, random points that surrounded him, that glowed and then receded without a trail." Hastily enough, the two do wind up marrying and raising Gauri's daughter in America, but the memory of Udayan — his fierce politics and his terrible death — has corrosive aftereffects.
The Lowland is a novel about the rashness of youth, as well as the hesitation and regret that can make a long life not worth living. Toward the end of The Lowland, a metaphorical monsoon finally hits, rousing Subhash out of his lifelong timidity, that mud hiding place Lahiri describes in her lyrical opening. Part of the beauty of this novel is that it's far from a foregone conclusion whether this hard rain will give Subhash new life, or drown him.
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