A Metaphor of the Times.-The Lowland

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There’s a certain pattern evident when you’ve read all that has been written by someone. This pattern becomes the “signature style” of that author. And like the damp air, this style breathes out silently all throughout the piece of writing, leaving behind a sense of presence that is otherwise ignored or remains unacknowledged.

This “present absence” is how Jhumpa Lahiri described her birthplace, Calcutta. And it is this presence of the ghost of the native land that haunts “The Lowland” throughout.

The setting of the novel shuttles between India and the USA, like all her earlier works, and this time I felt that there was a certain level of predictability. A level which could keep my interest high only till the first few chapters, or rather till the first half, after which I literally had to force-read it, just because I had to know what happens in the end. From reading her novels, sometimes I feel that she knows more about Rhode Island than the actual residents of the place.

Set amidst the contrasting political climates of the two most prestigious institutions of Bengal, i.e., Presidency University(college erstwhile) and Jadavpur University during the Naxalite Movement, that forever remains etched in the minds of those veterinarians who were college students back then and always risked being shot for being a Naxalite, even if they weren’t. This novel is something that holds a different kind of relevance in today’s politically charged Bengal. More specifically, this novel is about every passionate young student into “student politics” that make or break friendships and that eventually goes on to define their lives.

My grandfather was a police officer and my father still often recounts those days when my grandmother would get panicky everytime he’d be late, cause she feared that her husband might have been killed by the rebellious Naxalites.

The lowland becomes a symbol. Of the differences in opinion of the two brothers, of the father and younger son, of the regeneration in spite of a continuous feeling of something being amiss, and never remaining the same again. That’s not all. The book, like her earlier works, explores loneliness. At home and abroad.

And what it does to people and their relationships. The emptiness in the young widow’s life, in spite of the life growing inside her, coupled with the fact that she had to get married to her brother-in-law, just to take care of the growing foetus and give it a father’s identity, is relatable and focusses on the importance attached to a paternal identity, specially on an unborn child whose mother doesn’t wear the traditional symbols of a married woman anymore. Why? Because the husband, the child’s father, is dead. The mother delves deeper and deeper into the things she had always wanted to do, just to prevent herself from feeling that pain, that outrage, that vacuum which tries to pull her in and consume her in its dark, endless presence.

The unborn child grows up to be a daughter. And just when her foster father was beginning to think that her father’s presence wasn’t there anymore, the daughter grows up to become exactly like her father. Independent, intelligent, leading a bohemian lifestyle that is almost self-sacrificing, she reminds her uncle of the brother who was slipping away from their memories.

The old houses of North Calcutta along with their eternal charm gets shoved under the carpet, with America and its better facilities replacing it like a new canvas overlapping the older one. In the land where they call “home”, nobody questioned their identities, like the police had done with the dead brother. Nobody knows what happened, hell they don’t even know what the Naxalite Movement was and how many mothers lost their sons, or how many children were born without knowing who their father was.

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Perhaps we are too busy being suffocated. So much that we don’t even know what should be done to save ourselves and our future generations. Student politics wasn’t like this only back then. It still is. Fighting for a cause is still equal to fighting for our very lives. The risks involved are more than the fear of being thrown out of the group. It’s now a matter of families and how their lives get involved in the crossfire as well. Unfortunately, nowadays the political sphere is such, that the use of the weapon is much more convenient than the use of the intellect. Such is the sad state of affairs, that young students don’t think twice before getting into activities that don’t really concern them. Let alone concerning them, they have not the slightest idea about the cause to which they are supposedly ready to devote their lives. In a day and age where politics and propaganda have taken precedence over the actual welfare of a state, “The Lowland” holds a special significance in portrayal of the chain reaction that is set off when something goes horribly wrong in the championing of causes. Jhumpa Lahiri might write about NRI’s having roots in Bengal, but it’s the same roots that give her the strength to portray the growth or decline of her native society.

Believer. Reader. Brooder.