- - Thursday, October 31, 2013

THE LOWLAND
By Jhumpa Lahiri
Knopf, $27.95, 340 pages

The worlds of the familiar, the exotic, the best of human nature and the most selfish inhabit Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel, “The Lowland.” The lowland in question is in a section of Calcutta called Tollygunde. When it rained, the lowland filled with three or four feet of water that remained for a portion of the year. “The flooded plain was thick with water hyacinth [which] grew aggressively. Its leaves caused the surface to appear solid. Green in contrast to the blue of the sky.” Water, sky and earth are integral parts of this remarkable, profound novel about the complex emotional adaptation to the ramifications of a tragedy.

Central to the story is the close childhood relationship between Subhash and his younger brother, Udayan, born in Tollygunde. The bond is broken when Udayan becomes enmeshed in the Naxalite revolutionary movement. (Naxalbari is a village in West Bengal that became famous for being the site of a left-wing peasants’ uprising in 1967.) Although Subhash “sat beside Udayan [in political meetings], he felt invisible. He wasn’t convinced that an imported ideology could solve India’s problems. He wondered if it was a lack of courage, or of imagination, that prevented him from believing in it.”

As Udayan fell deeper into communist ideology and the ensuing violence, Subhash chose to go to a university in Rhode Island to study marine chemistry. “He had stepped out of [Tollygunde] as he had stepped so many mornings out of dreams. The difference was so extreme that he could not accommodate the two places together in his mind. In this enormous new country, there seemed to be nowhere for the old to reside. There was nothing to link them; he was the sole link. Here, life ceased to obstruct or assault him. Here was a place where humanity was not always pushing, rushing, running as if with a fire at its back.”

Subhash returned to Calcutta after Udayan was shot by the police in the lowland in an execution-style killing. There, he met Guari, Udayan’s young, pregnant wife, whom he married and took back to Rhode Island, where he was now a professor while she continued her studies in philosophy.

“In childhood [Guari] had not known who she was, where or to whom she’d belonged. She had no memory of spending a moment ever, alone with her mother or father. Always at the end of a queue, in the shadow of others, she believed she was not significant enough to cast a shadow of her own .” Not until Udayan had regarded her “as if no other woman in the city existed” had she a sense of self. Now he was gone.

Once Bela was born, Subhash became a loving, tender father. When the little girl was 12, he took her to Calcutta to meet his parents. Upon their return, Guari was gone, never to return, nor to contact her daughter. She “entered a new dimension, a place where a fresh life was given to her. The three hours on her watch that separated her from Bela and Subhash were like a physical barrier, as massive as the mountains she’d flown over to get here. She’d done it, the worst thing that she could think of doing.” Guari taught philosophy in a small Southern California college town “flanked by biscuit-colored mountains on the other side of the freeway.”

The years passed. Bela grew up, becoming a footloose environmentalist. When she became pregnant, Subhash told her his brother was her real father, a revelation that stunned her. When Guari later returned to Rhode Island, an anguished Bela rejected her with cold fury.

Guari never recovered from the guilt of having married her husband’s brother, for deserting the place where her husband died, for her, albeit unwitting, participation in his crime and for her inability to love her child as she should. Subhash suffered the loss of his brother, his loveless marriage and the guilt for pretending to be Bela’s father. Bela could not forgive her mother’s desertion.

In the end, although Subhash and Bela encounter happiness, the price was high. Even Guari, who makes a final visit to Tollygunde, reaches a catharsis of sorts. “She was the sole accuser, the sole guardian of her guilt. Protected by Udayan, overlooked by the investigator, taken away by Subhash. Sentenced in the very act of being forgotten, punished by means of her release. Again she remembered what Bela had said to her. That her reappearance meant nothing. That she was as dead as Udayan. Standing there, unable to find him, she felt a new solidarity with him. The bond of not existing.”

Miss Lahiri’s tale of two places and one tormented family, unable to speak to one another of their mutual anguish, is a masterful accomplishment.

Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.