Jhumpa Lahiri first came to the story that would become her second novel some 15 years ago. Somewhere along the way, she says, she was told about an execution that had happened, just steps from her paternal grandparents’ house in Calcutta’s Tollygunge: two boys killed by the paramilitary during a combing raid in the early 1970s, the height of the Naxalite rebellion and the government backlash against it. The boys’ families had been lined up to watch, she remembers hearing.
Although Lahiri and her own family were living in the United States by that time, the story, in its familiar setting, affected her deeply. “I had a reaction to it that was more than just the obvious feelings one might have, because I had spent so much time in the neighborhood as a child,” she says. “I was very shaken by it, and at the same time, I felt that it was something utterly foreign to me, this history and the politics that had led to this.” Eventually, Lahiri began channeling her curiosity into words, describing a scene in which one or two young men were killed in front of their families. But, not feeling ready to make anything else of it, she soon set the piece aside to work on other things. “I think I instinctively felt that this material was beyond me,” she explains of that time, a year or so before her first book was published. “I felt young as a writer and as a person when I first started writing that scene.”
Ten years later, with three books, a Pulitzer Prize and a Hollywood film behind her, Lahiri turned back to a story that had never given up its hold. The result is her novel The Lowland, a saga of two brothers, born just 15 months apart in the years of India’s partition. Growing up in Calcutta in the 1960s—in that same neighborhood Lahiri visited as a child—willful Udayan becomes involved with the Naxalites, a Maoist revolutionary group that increasingly turns to violence to achieve its ends. His older brother, Subhash, meanwhile, quietly pursues his studies to the United States, making a new home for himself in an unnamed Rhode Island town.
It is here that Subhash receives word of Udayan’s death in the lowland near their parents’ home, an event that will become the novel’s traumatic heart. Because while it spans four generations and about 70 years, The Lowland never stops circling that moment in the titular depression between the Tollygunge ponds. As time unfolds, sometimes relentlessly, the memory continues to curdle the present, determining Subhash’s future as surely as it did Udayan’s.
This is the first time Lahiri has addressed politics and historical events so directly in her work, though she doesn’t quite see it that way herself. “In a sense, I feel that all of my works have been about a certain historical event,” she says, “that is, the Indian diaspora and the arrival of Indian immigrants in the United States.” Still, the particular exigencies of this project seem somewhat different given that the Naxalites, still active and as recently as this past May are responsible for an attack on a political rally resulting in 29 deaths, are a group that provokes strong and various reactions. Their methods are those of militancy and terror, and yet the group’s historical alliance with India’s poor and working classes, and the brutal crackdown against them in the ’70s, might complicate one’s sympathies some. Just so, idealism and a belief in social justice seem to temper Udayan’s misguided political choice.
Lahiri does not presume to judge her characters—her project is more one of exploration than analysis—and working with them, she says, the question of how her readers might react to the novel’s turbulent politics wasn’t really on her mind. “I’m drawn to my characters for whatever reason,” she explains. “I don’t know exactly why, and I don’t need to know exactly why. I don’t feel emotionally connected to my characters when I’m working with them. I feel maybe more scientific—I’m really trying to understand why they’re behaving as they are.” In this, history and an investigation of the political are more tools to Lahiri than anything else, not goals. What interested her instead, she says, were history’s emotional repercussions on the characters themselves—the dilemmas of their actions, writ large across time. “I didn’t presume to write any sort of accurate portrayal of what happened,” Lahiri says. “I felt that the way in which I presented the history was in service to the story and not the other way around.”
In part, this is a response to the nature of the historical period itself—or maybe to history. In researching the novel, Lahiri turned not just to contemporary accounts and other written sources, but to people in India who had lived through the events of the ’70s. The experience taught her that events often happen in more than one way. “The basic facts are more or less agreed upon, but one realizes that history itself is an act of storytelling, and depending on how many people are telling the story, you’re going to get variation, and it’s hard to really know what happens,” she says. “One can’t assume that everything one reads is a fact.”
Not surprisingly, given the multiplicity of voices informing the work, the novel moves nimbly among points of view—all but Udayan’s, at least until the end—and back and forth in time as it tries to negotiate its central wound. While Subhash, even as a child caught sneaking into the verdant post-colonial world of the all-white Tolly Club, takes the punishment that should have been Udayan’s, it’s Gauri who bears the largest burden of guilt. Left alone and pregnant after her husband’s death, Gauri takes solace in ideas, reading about Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and the philosophy of circular time. Returning to the United States with Subhash, she eventually turns away both from him and from the daughter who forms her only physical link to the past, retreating into the abstractions of her work. Her daughter, Bela, is left rootless and wandering, until motherhood grounds her in turn.
The remorseless flow of time in the novel can seem to leave the characters behind as it moves. So much happens, across so much distance and through so many voices, that the plot occasionally takes on the nature of a recital. Adding to this is Lahiri’s unalloyed prose—more free of ornament than ever—and the novel’s lack of quotation marks, so that even dialogue passes in a clean, unbroken whoosh. But the sentences’ bare bones provide support for a lyricism that when it arises, does so with a motion that’s limpidly pure.
This, Lahiri says, was her primary goal. “I wanted it to sound a bit different,” she says of the novel. “I wanted it to be a bit more pared down.” And although she says she didn’t think consciously about subject as she sat down to write—be it politics or the thematic resonance of a character’s profession—or about the way the book would be received, this act of paring down seems true to Lahiri’s project as a whole. Because while she is often typecast as the scribe of Bengali-American experience, Lahiri’s subject is more vast, reaching beyond the boundaries of nation, family or even time. As she herself puts it, “From the beginning, I’ve been writing about loss.”
Jenny Hendrix is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Believer, Slate, the New York Times Book Review, and the New Republic, among other publications.