Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Blood and politics

Lahiri novel a gripping tale of Bengali brothers caught between cultures

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It's well-known that, in the late 1960s, university students in the United States, France and Czechoslovakia actively protested against their governments.

Yet how many readers have heard of the 1967 Naxalite peasant rebellion supported by students from the top universities in southern India? Advocating for the rights of landless labourers and tribal people, the Naxalites were Marxist extremists who championed a revolution again India's government through violent means.

This political context serves as the linchpin of Indo-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri's impressive second novel, which has been shortlisted for this year's Booker Prize.

Set in Calcutta and Rhode Island over six decades, the story is a gripping tale of loss, yearning and discontinuity in the lives of two Bengali brothers and their family.

Raised in Rhode Island by Bengali immigrant parents, Lahiri often writes about characters caught between the two cultures of India and the United States. Her first short story collection, Intepreter of Maladies, which depicted this conflict, received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000.

Lahiri's 2003 debut novel, The Namesake, examines the same theme. Later adapted into a movie, it recounts the story of a Bengali boy named Gogol and his immigrant parents.

Compared with Lahiri's previous books, The Lowland is more sombre and tinged with moral ambiguity. Thematically and stylistically, her writing bears some resemblance to the work of Nigerian-American writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

At the outset of The Lowland, we meet the two brothers as children in Calcutta -- Subhash, the quiet, cautious one, and Udayan, the hotheaded risk-taker. Despite being older, Subhash always follows his brother's lead until they attend different universities in their city.

Udayan sympathizes with the Naxalites and commits subversive acts against the government, whereas Subhash eschews politics despite Udayan's attempts to involve him.

To escape his brother's influence, Subhash leaves for Rhode Island to obtain his PhD. Meanwhile, Udayan's political involvement escalates. He and his new bride, Gauri, move in with his parents.

Soon after, Udayan is executed by the police. Subhash returns to Calcutta to attend his brother's funeral. Though pregnant, Gauri is treated cruelly by Subhash's parents. He must then think of a way to rescue her sister-in-law from his parents' control.

Divided into eight parts, the narrative is told in the voices of Subhash, Udayan and Gauri in eloquent, unadorned prose. The story itself hopscotches back and forth through time and place, each chapter subdivided into brief, seamlessly blended segments.

Lahiri is at her best in describing Subhash's slow, ongoing adjustment to life in America. "He began his third autumn in Rhode Island, 1971. ... Once more the leaves lost their chlorophyll, replaced by the shades he had left behind: vivid hues of cayenne and turmeric and ginger pounded fresh every morning in the kitchen to season the food his mother prepared."

The novel's title refers to a pond behind the brothers' house, but the body of water also symbolizes trauma. During certain months, the lowland recedes, but in the monsoon season, it swells. There Udayan takes refuge one fateful day when the police come looking for him.

Throughout the novel, Lahiri subtly delineates the rich interior lives of the characters. A master storyteller, she unspools the plot slowly, adding many twist and turns along the way to draw maintain readers' attention.

Given the unstable political climate in many countries, The Lowland is a chillingly relevant story about the ripple effect of a violent act long after it occurs.

Bev Sandell Greenberg is a Winnipeg writer and editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2013 A1

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