The Lowland is the magnificent new novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, which has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize. It tells the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, who come of age in Calcutta in the late 1960s. ‘Subhash was thirteen, older by fifteen months. But he had no sense of himself without Udayan. From his earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there,’ writes Lahiri.
This was the beginning of a troubled period in West Bengal, as a radical communist movement known as the Naxalite cause swept through the region, inciting idealistic young men, in particular, to violence and acts of terror.
While Udayan becomes caught up in the cause and its promises of a just and empowered India, Subhash moves to Rhode Island, in America, to pursue a doctoral degree in chemical oceanography. This marks, as Lahiri says, a moment of crisis for the brothers, during which they are torn apart by elements that seem at once predestined and beyond their control.
The novel unfolds over the subsequent decades, its perspective shifting among Udayan’s loved ones, between the roiling streets of Calcutta and the windswept shores of Rhode Island, as they cope with the legacy of an awful tragedy. The story, based on a true incident, is heartbreaking but also hopeful. Lahiri writes effortlessly, with wisdom and grace.
She is the highly accomplished author of three previous works of fiction: Unaccustomed Earth, The Namesake and her first collection, Interpreter of Maladies, for which she won the Pulitzer prize. Of Bengali descent, Lahiri was born in London, grew up in Rhode Island and now lives in Rome, where she is enjoying an experimental phase of writing in Italian.
What compelled you to tell this story?
I learned of an execution that had taken place in Calcutta in the early 1970s, in the part of the city where my father was raised, where my paternal grandparents had lived and where I had spent a good deal of time as a child: Tollygunge, which is where the book opens.
Eventually, I began to hear allusions to an incident in which two brothers who lived very close by, who had become involved in the Naxalite movement, were killed during a raid by the paramilitary. I learned that they had taken refuge in a body of water, to protect themselves and hide from the police, and that they had been pulled out and shot in front of their family members, who had been lined up to witness the event.
As I began thinking about this, over the years, I felt very deeply that perhaps it would be something to write about fictionally. That was the seed, and it was very slow in developing.
I was just a child when all of this was going on, and my parents were not in India during that period. We were living [in America.] So, I grew up with this history, but in a very peripheral way. And I think part of my motivation to work with the material was to better understand something that was always back there, in the distant horizon, but never anything I knew or understood myself.
I think because I slowly grew aware that something terrible and violent had happened just steps from where my grandparents lived, from the house where I had spent lots of time, I felt connected to it even though I wasn’t really.
Did you feel connected to Calcutta, generally, while growing up in Rhode Island?
No, it was very odd. I came of age and was growing up in a world in which communication was still very limited. I was exposed to Calcutta, because we would go frequently and stay for extended periods. So, I knew it in that way[…] It felt very present when I was there, and absent when I wasn’t. And I felt that contrast very keenly as a child.
I do think that in spite of the world having gotten closer in some sense, because of the information that can be spread so rapidly, when you get right down to it, distance is physical and real. You can’t just know what’s happening, even in another part of your own country. So, I think we remain limited.
One thing that struck me about the story is how precisely you’ve captured the bond between the two brothers. Is the relationship between siblings one you know well?
I have a sister who’s quite a bit younger[…] so our experience of growing up wasn’t shared in the same way. I think what I was drawing on more in portraying these two brothers was my own experience of being a mother.
I have two children, a boy and a girl, who are two and a half years apart. They don’t have the same dynamic that these brothers have; that was something I invented for the sake of the drama. But it does interest me, as a parent observing my children, the degree to which my son and daughter are really sharing a life right now.
At eight and eleven years old, they have the same set of experiences and they do the same things. They’re separate people, but by and large their lives are communal. And when I think about how they are now, and then I fast forward in my mind years from now, I realize that, however close they remain emotionally, that physical closeness will go away. It changes and evolves as we grow up and become more individual.
So, I was interested in capturing that moment for siblings. That passage from feeling as if you’re practically one person to what inevitably happens.
What was it that first drew you to writing fiction?
It felt very natural to me, as a child, to start mimicking or copying the things I was reading. I would read books, and write my own versions of them. I started writing fiction very spontaneously this way[…] when I was about seven years old.
It took a while for me to get my bearings as a writer, on my own. I didn’t write stories or anything for most of my adolescence and early adulthood. I eventually went back, after college, and rediscovered my childhood passion.
What kept you going, while you were still finding your way as a writer?
I felt love for what I was doing. I felt that it was both a necessity and a passion. And it got to the point where I couldn’t really imagine not doing it.
And, of course, there is a sense of ‘Well, I’m doing this now and will it go anywhere, and will I manage to get a story published or not. And now I’ve published a story, will I manage to get a book published or not. And now I’ve published a book, will I manage to publish another book…’
It never ends, is what I’m saying. But if you continue to love it, and to need it, you will continue to do it. That’s what has always kept me grounded and kept me at it. Because it’s so easy not to do it. [Writing] has to come from a deep source of dedication.
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri is published by Bloomsbury. (£15.29)