When Subhash and Udayan are children, the courtyard in front of their home is repaved. The boys are instructed to stay out of the courtyard while the cement dries, but the rebellious and intrepid Udayan runs barefoot through it anyway. His parents choose not to pave over the footprints he leaves behind, and their impressions remain in the courtyard throughout they boys’ adolescence and adulthood. For Subhash they serve as a physical symbol of how even his brother’s bad behavior is beloved and seen as inevitable; the more reserved and insecure brother, Subhash sees the footprints as a reminder of the ways in which he is inferior to—and often trailing in the wake of—his younger sibling.
As the boys grow older, they engage in an intense but unspoken struggle to best one another as they forge their own paths and grow more distant. As Udayan becomes a political radical, Subhash feels left behind. Subhash, then, pursues his own education to America, where he feels that he is at last taking a “step” his brother is unable or unwilling to. Years later, when word arrives in a letter that Udayan has gotten married, Subhash once again feels outpaced by his younger brother; when Subhash returns to Calcutta and decides to marry Gauri himself and take her back to America, he feels he is following in Udayan’s footsteps in a “perverse” but “ordained” way. The footprints in the courtyard, physical reminders of Udayan’s intrepid, devil-may-care nature, have, at this point in the narrative, taken on a metaphysical quality, and linger in the back of Subhash’s mind at all times. His brother’s footprints, even in death, cleave a path for Subhash that he follows both excitedly and reluctantly, just as he did when they were children.
Udayan’s Footprints Quotes in The Lowland
Should I stand guard on this side while you explore? Subhash asked him.
What fun would that be?
What do you see?
Come see for yourself.
Subhash nudged the kerosene tin closer to the wall. He stepped onto it, feeling the hollow structure wobble beneath him.
Let's go, Subhash.
Udayan readjusted himself, dropping down so that only his fingertips were visible. Then he released his hands and fell. Subhash could hear him breathing hard from the effort.
You're all right?
Of course. Now you.
Subhash gripped the wall with his hands, hugging it to his chest, scraping his knees. As usual he was uncertain whether he was more frustrated by Udayan's daring, or with himself for his lack of it. 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.
In the courtyard of their family's house was the most enduring legacy of Udayan s transgressions. A trail of his footprints, created the day the dirt surface was paved. A day they'd been instructed to remain indoors until it had set. […] Subhash had listened. He had watched through the window he had not gone out. But when their mother's back was turned, Udayan ran down the long wooden plank temporarily set up to get from the door to the street. Halfway across the plank he lost his balance, the evidence of his path forming impressions of the soles of his feet, tapering like an hourglass at the center, the pads of the toes disconnected.
The following day the mason was called back. By then the surface had dried, and the impressions left by Udayan's feet were permanent. The only way to repair the flaw was to apply another layer. Subhash wondered whether this time his brother had gone too far. But to the mason their father said, Leave it be. Not for the expense or effort involved, but because he believed it was wrong to erase steps that his son had taken. And so the imperfection became a mark of distinction about their home. Something visitors noticed, the first family anecdote that was told.
In her cramped bedroom, setting aside his guilt, he cultivated an ongoing defiance of his parents' expectations. He was aware that he could get away with it, that it was merely the shoals of physical distance that allowed his defiance to persist. He thought of Narasimhan as an ally now; Narasimhan and his American wife. Sometimes he imagined what it would be like to lead a similar life with Holly. To live the rest of his life in America, to disregard his parents, to make his own family with her.
At the same time he knew that it was impossible. That she was an American was the least of it. Her situation, her child, her age, the fact that she was technically another man's wife, all of it would be unthinkable to his parents, unacceptable. They would judge her for those things.
He didn't want to put Holly through that. And yet he continued to see her on Fridays, forging this new clandestine path.
Like the solution to an equation emerging bit by bit, Subhash began to perceive a turn things might take. He was already eager to leave Calcutta. There was nothing he could do for his parents. He was unable to console them. Though he'd returned to stand before them, in the end it had not mattered that he had come. But Gauri was different. Around her, he felt a shared awareness of the person they'd both loved. He thought of her remaining with his parents, living by their rules. His mother's coldness toward Gauri was insulting, but his father's passivity was just as cruel. And it wasn't simply cruelty. Their treatment of Gauri was deliberate, intended to drive her out. He thought of her becoming a mother, only to lose control of the child. He thought of the child being raised in a joyless house.
The only way to prevent it was to take Gauri away. It was all he could do to help her, the only alternative he could provide. And the only way to take her away was to marry her. To take his brother's place, to raise his child, to come to love Gauri as Udayan had. To follow him in a way that felt perverse, that felt ordained. That felt both right and wrong.
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.