The Lowland

The Lowland

by

Jhumpa Lahiri

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The Lowland Symbol Icon

The lowland, a flat plain between two ponds in the Calcutta neighborhood of Tollygunge, is a symbol of the distance, both emotional and physical, between Subhash and Udayan—themselves symbolized by the two ponds on either side. The brothers are closely linked to the lowland throughout their lives. As children, they traverse the lowland often on the way to the field beyond, where they play soccer with their friends. Overgrown with water hyacinth, the lowland eventually becomes the place where Udayan unsuccessfully attempts to hide from the police when they conduct a search for him. During the rainy season, the ponds overflow, flooding the lowland and rendering it invisible. As the novel progresses, the flooding and draining of the lowland becomes symbolic of the shifting emotional distance between the two brothers and the other tangential relationships in their lives.

When the brothers are young, the lowland is most often portrayed as dry—a flat plain they cross on their way to play soccer, explore their hometown, and get into mischief. As the brothers grow older, however, the lowland is more often depicted as a flooded, un-crossable marsh. Though it would seem that flooding would, symbolically, point to the joining of the two ponds and thus the closeness of the brothers, Lahiri actually uses the flooding of the lowland to denote an obfuscation of emotion, purpose, and direction. The lowland is flooded when Udayan dies, for example, and it’s as he attempts to hide in the water that he questions his involvement with the Naxalites and the worthiness of the revolution he has given his life to. The lowland becomes filled with trash and refuge in the years after Udayan’s death, further symbolizing the impossibility of connection between Udayan and Subhash now that death has severed their relationship. Still, Udayan and Subhash’s mother Bijoli visits Udayan’s grave marker in the lowland each day to try and clear the area out—to no avail. When Gauri returns to Calcutta towards the end of the novel, she finds that the land which once comprised the lowland has been built up into apartment buildings; the memory of any connection between Udayan and Subhash, or Gauri and either of the brothers, has been nearly complete obliterated.

The Lowland Quotes in The Lowland

The The Lowland quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Lowland. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Political and Personal Violence Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage edition of The Lowland published in 2014.
Part 5, Chapter 1 Quotes

She carries a large shallow basket meant to store extra coal. She walks over to the lowland, hoisting up her sari so that her calves are revealed, speckled like some egg-shells with a fine brown spray. She wades into a puddle and bends over, stirring things around with a stick. Then, using her hands, she starts picking items out of the murky green water. A little bit, a few minutes each day; this is her plan, to keep the area by Udayan’s stone uncluttered.

She piles refuse into the basket, empties the basket a little ways off, and then begins to fill it again. With bare hands she sorts through the empty bottles of Dettol, Sunsilk shampoo. Things rats don't eat, that crows don’t bother to carry away. Cigarette packets tossed in by passing strangers. A bloodied sanitary pad.

She knows she will never remove it all. But each day she goes out and fills up her basket, once, then a few times more. She does not care when some people tell her, when they stop to notice what she’s doing, that it is pointless. That it is disgusting and beneath her dignity. That it could cause her to contract some sort of disease. She's used to neighbors not knowing what to make of her. She's used to ignoring them.

Related Characters: Bijoli Mitra (speaker), Udayan Mitra
Related Symbols: The Lowland
Page Number: 228
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 7, Chapter 5 Quotes

I’ve known for years about Udayan, she went on. I know who I am.

Now it was Gauri unable to move, unable to speak. Unable to reconcile hearing Udayan's name, coming from Bela.

And it doesn't matter. Nothing excuses what you did, Bela said.

Bela's words were like bullets. Putting an end to Udayan, silencing Gauri now.

Nothing will ever excuse it. You're not my mother. You're nothing. Can you hear me? I want you to nod if you can hear me.

There was nothing inside her. Was this what Udayan felt, in the lowland when he stood to face them, as the whole neighborhood watched? There was no one to witness what was happening now Somehow, she nodded her head.

You're as dead to me as he is. The only difference is that you left me by choice.

She was right; there was nothing to clarify, nothing more to convey.

Related Characters: Bela Mitra (speaker), Gauri Mitra, Udayan Mitra
Related Symbols: The Lowland
Page Number: 383
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 7, Chapter 6 Quotes

The courtyard no longer existed. […] She walked past the house, across the lane, and over toward the two ponds. She had forgotten no detail. The color and shape of the ponds clear in her mind. But the details were no longer there. Both ponds were gone. New homes filled up an area that had once been watery open.

Walking a bit farther, she saw that the lowland was also gone. That sparsely populated tract was now indistinguishable from the rest of the neighborhood, and on it more homes had been built. Scooters parked in front of doorways, laundry hung out to dry.

She wondered if any of the people she passed remembered things as she did. […] Somewhere close to where she stood, Udayan had hidden in the water. He'd been taken to an empty field. Somewhere there was a tablet with his name on it, commemorating the brief life he'd led. Or perhaps this, too, had been removed. She was unprepared for the landscape to be so altered. For there to be no trace of that evening, forty autumns ago. […] 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.

Related Characters: Gauri Mitra (speaker), Udayan Mitra
Page Number: 391
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Lowland Symbol Timeline in The Lowland

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Lowland appears in The Lowland. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Chapter 1
Political and Personal Violence Theme Icon
Heritage and Homeland Theme Icon
...homes. Once, within the enclave, there had been two ponds, and between the ponds a lowland which took up a few acres. After the monsoons each year, the ponds would rise... (full context)
Part 3, Chapter 1
Political and Personal Violence Theme Icon
Presence in Absence Theme Icon
After lunch, Subhash takes a walk over to the lowland. He sees a small stone marker bearing Udayan’s name, and the years of his birth... (full context)
Duty and Desire Theme Icon
Presence in Absence Theme Icon
...quiet and withdrawn. Each evening, Bijoli gathers flowers from the courtyard and goes to the lowland, rinsing Udayan’s marker clean and laying flowers at its base. Subhash realizes that Udayan must... (full context)
Part 3, Chapter 2
Political and Personal Violence Theme Icon
Secrets and Conspiracies Theme Icon
...Policemen bring Gauri, Bijoli, and Udayan’s father out of the courtyard and towards the flooded lowland at gunpoint. At the lowland, an officer uses a megaphone to announce to the neighborhood... (full context)
Political and Personal Violence Theme Icon
Duty and Desire Theme Icon
Secrets and Conspiracies Theme Icon
...Udayan does not reveal himself. Moments later, Gauri can hear something emerging from the flooded lowland—it is Udayan. He lifts his hands above his head, following the officers’ orders, and is... (full context)
Political and Personal Violence Theme Icon
Presence in Absence Theme Icon
...starting up, and then see it driving over the grass at the edge of the lowland toward the empty field on the other side. Gauri and her in-laws climb to the... (full context)
Political and Personal Violence Theme Icon
Duty and Desire Theme Icon
Secrets and Conspiracies Theme Icon
Presence in Absence Theme Icon
...passes, Gauri feels as if she is holding her breath, like Udayan did in the lowland(full context)
Part 5, Chapter 1
Political and Personal Violence Theme Icon
Duty and Desire Theme Icon
Heritage and Homeland Theme Icon
Presence in Absence Theme Icon
Back in Calcutta, Subhash’s mother Bijoli looks out on the two ponds, and the lowland between them—the area is now completely clogged with trash. The refuse is being allowed to... (full context)
Political and Personal Violence Theme Icon
Duty and Desire Theme Icon
Heritage and Homeland Theme Icon
Presence in Absence Theme Icon
...the hour of Udayan’s death, Bijoli gathers flowers and walks to the edge of the lowland. An old woman now, Bijoli moves slowly and laboriously. At Udayan’s marker, she washes his... (full context)
Political and Personal Violence Theme Icon
Duty and Desire Theme Icon
Presence in Absence Theme Icon
One morning, Bijoli heads out to the lowland with a large shallow basket and begins piling trash and waste inside of it. She... (full context)
Part 5, Chapter 2
Secrets and Conspiracies Theme Icon
Presence in Absence Theme Icon
One afternoon, Bela asks Bijoli about her ritual of going out to the lowland each night. When Bijoli tells Bela that she goes down there to talk to Bela’s... (full context)
Part 5, Chapter 4
Duty and Desire Theme Icon
Heritage and Homeland Theme Icon
Presence in Absence Theme Icon
...were a young child. She tells him not to dirty his shoes playing in the lowland or stay out too late with Udayan and their friends. Subhash laments that he does... (full context)
Part 6, Chapter 4
Heritage and Homeland Theme Icon
...Bela was born. He thinks, too, of how the monsoon season in Tollygunge flooded the lowland, and wonders whether the rain falling each day now means something. (full context)
Part 7, Chapter 6
Heritage and Homeland Theme Icon
Presence in Absence Theme Icon
...it no longer exists. Gauri walks past the house, toward the two ponds and the lowland, only to find that both ponds are gone—new homes have been built over the lowland.... (full context)
Political and Personal Violence Theme Icon
Secrets and Conspiracies Theme Icon
Presence in Absence Theme Icon
...about her being “nothing.” Now, as she looks out on what used to be the lowland, she feels a new solidarity with Udayan—“the bond of not existing.” (full context)
Part 8, Chapter 1
Heritage and Homeland Theme Icon
Presence in Absence Theme Icon
...to think of “another stone in a distant country”—the tablet at the edge of the lowland which bears Udayan’s name. (full context)
Duty and Desire Theme Icon
Presence in Absence Theme Icon
Subhash feels Udayan beside him and remembers walking together across the lowland toward the Tolly Club, golf balls in their hands. The ground here too, Subhash notices,... (full context)
Part 8, Chapter 2
Political and Personal Violence Theme Icon
Secrets and Conspiracies Theme Icon
Udayan runs quickly through the yard out back towards the lowland and enters the flooded pool where the water hyacinth is thickest—where it might hide him... (full context)
Political and Personal Violence Theme Icon
Secrets and Conspiracies Theme Icon
...or face his family’s death. Udayan stands up in the weedy, shallow water of the lowland, still coughing. He feels unsteady and dizzy, and as he walks out of the water... (full context)
Political and Personal Violence Theme Icon
Duty and Desire Theme Icon
At the edge of the lowland, Udayan listens as his parents plead with the police, professing their son’s innocence, having no... (full context)