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
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.
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.
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.