The Lowland follows the Mitra family through four decades and as many generations, with the fraught relationship between brothers Subhash and Udayan forming the novel’s core. Subhash and Udayan repeatedly question what they owe one another, and, in turn, what they are owed. As they, along with Gauri and Bela, wrestle with their duties to one another, Lahiri explores the tension between competing notions of responsibility and desire, as well as the often selfish motives behind familial piety. Lahiri ultimately suggests that people may use the excuse of familial duty for their own ends, and thus creates a complex and nuanced set of characters whose dueling impulses often land them in difficult situations.
Subhash and Udayan are a year apart but look and behave like twins, and their codependence creates a sense of reluctant duty in their relationship. Their closeness is clear from a young age, as Subhash is held back from starting school and begins a year late because Udayan wants to be in class with his brother. As the two grow up, Udayan and Subhash explore their city and get into trouble together, with Udayan almost always taking the lead. For example, Subhash repeatedly follows Udayan on sneaky escapades into the Tolly Club, an exclusive country club.
Despite the imbalance in power between the brothers, they do look out for one another—most notably when Udayan flings himself in between Subhash and a police officer who beats him with a putting iron when the two young boys are discovered breaking into the Tolly Club one evening. Eventually, Subhash even helps Udayan go around Tollygunge slathering Communist slogans in red paint on the walls of the neighborhood. Subhash feels reluctance to do these things but fears “that he and Udayan would cease to be brothers, were Subhash to resist him.” So deeply dependent is Subhash on remaining close to his brother that he makes self-sacrificing decisions on Udayan’s behalf, establishing early on the shape their relationship will take and the patterns that will come to define it throughout their lives.
Subhash remains dedicated to his brother even after Udayan’s death. Upon traveling home to Subhash witnesses the pain of Udayan’s widow Gauri—who is pregnant with Udayan’s child, and who is being treated poorly by the Mitras in the hopes that they will be able to drive her out and remove her from the unborn child’s life. Subhash comes up with the idea to marry Gauri and to take her with him back to Rhode Island. His actions are primarily fueled by a sense of fraternal responsibility. Despite not cowing to Udayan’s accusations of betrayal at the time, Subhash feels that in leaving India and going to the United States, he did effectively abandon his brother. He believes that he was “unable in the end to protect” Udayan when, as children, they had always looked out for one another. It is this guilt—itself based in a sense of duty—that leads him to protect and care for Udayan’s wife and child.
While this appears to be a remarkable sacrifice, Subhash has his own reasons for shouldering such a burden. His admission of his attracted to Gauri, as well as the fact that he is tired of being cut off from his family and Indian culture in Rhode Island, muddles the selfless nobility of his actions. Furthermore, what is implied but never outright expressed in the novel is Subhash’s desire to become more like Udayan. Subhash always felt that Udayan was the family favorite, the adventurer, the trail-blazer. Subhash saw going to the United States as taking a step Udayan could never take, and now sees marrying Gauri—and, in turn, becoming a father—as yet another way in which he can, on some level, finally surpass his brother. Subhash thus integrates his own wishes as he weighs the possibility of marrying Gauri, demonstrating a distinct overlap of desire and duty.
Years later, Gauri’s relationship to her daughter Bela—or the lack thereof—further calls into question the idea of familial duty undertaken competition against, or in tandem with, personal desire. In the early, unhappy days of Gauri’s life in America, the only activity she will engage in is surreptitiously attending a philosophy class. Her work in philosophy eventually proves so impressive that her professor, Otto Weiss, offers to recommend her for a Ph.D. program when the time comes. Gauri’s desire to be a student once again, and to carve out a space for herself in this strange new country, soon subsumes not only her sense of duty to Subhash, which was tenuous to begin with, but even that toward her own daughter.
Gauri immerses herself in work on her dissertation, neglecting her duties both as a wife and a mother. Lahiri never executes narrative judgement against Gauri—Gauri knows that she is failing as a mother, and though she carries a good deal of guilt about that failure, she ultimately feels she never asked for the life she has been given in the United States. Soon, Gauri abandons her shaky ties to that life entirely.
When Bela is twelve, Subhash takes her to Calcutta with him for several weeks, and they return to an empty house; Gauri has left for California, leaving behind only a letter in which she half-heartedly apologizes to Subhash and tells him that she is leaving Bela to him. Gauri has followed her heart’s desire—to forge a career in academia—and abandoned her duty to her child. The societal expectations internalized by Subhash, and indeed for some time by Gauri herself, seemed to dictate that Gauri would capitulate to the role of wife and mother, sacrificing her own desires in favor of duty to her family. Instead, Gauri chooses, in the end, to carve out her own agency. Though the pain of her choice to leave Bela haunts her, Gauri is too grateful for her freedom to ever fully apologize for her choice, making her character a radical in many ways.
Lahiri’s exploration of the intersection between duty and desire reveals a nuanced view of humanity, and a subversive peek into the drives that motivate people to make certain choices and sacrifices. Throughout the novel, she calls into question the duty one has to oneself versus the duty one has to one’s family, ultimately suggesting that duty is a force that both strengthens familial bonds and circumscribes the independent agency borne of desire.
Duty and Desire ThemeTracker
Duty and Desire 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.
Subhash remembered climbing over the wall of the Tolly Club. This time, Subhash wasn’t afraid of being caught. Perhaps it was foolish of him, but something told him that such a thing could happen only once. And he was right, no one noticed what they did, no one punished them for it, and a few minutes later they were crossing the bridge again, quickly, smoking cigarettes to calm themselves down.
This time it was only Udayan who was giddy. Only Udayan who was proud of what they'd done. Subhash was angry with himself for going along with it. For still needing to prove he could. He was sick of the fear that always rose up in him: that he would cease to exist, and that he and Udayan would cease to be brothers, were Subhash to resist him.
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.
[Gauri] was failing at something every other woman on earth did without trying. That should not have proved a struggle. Even her own mother, who had not fully raised her, had loved her; of that there had been no doubt. But Gauri feared she had already descended to a place where it was no longer possible to swim up to Bela, to hold on to her.
Nor was her love for Udayan recognizable or intact. Anger was always mounted to it, zigzagging through her like some helplessly mating pair of insects. Anger at him for dying when he might have lived. For bringing her happiness, and then taking it away. For trusting her, only to betray her. For believing in sacrifice, only to be so selfish in the end.
She no longer searched for signs of him. The fleeting awareness that he might be in a room, looking over her shoulder as she worked at her desk, was no longer a comfort. Certain days it was possible not to think of him, to remember him. No aspect of him had traveled to America. Apart from Bela, he'd refused to join her here.
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.
In the house in Rhode Island, in her room, another remnant of her mother began to reveal itself: a shadow that briefly occupied a section of her wall, in one corner, reminding Bela of her mother's profile. It was an association she noticed only after her mother was gone, and was unable thereafter to dispel.
In this shadow she saw the impression of her mother's forehead, the slope of her nose. Her mouth and chin. Its source was unknown. Some section of branch, some overhang of the roof that refracted the light, she could not be sure.
Each day the image disappeared as the sun traveled around the house; each morning it returned to the place her mother had fled. She never saw it form or fade.
In this apparition, every morning, Bela recognized her mother, and felt visited by her. It was the sort of spontaneous association one might make while looking up at a passing cloud. But in this case never breaking apart, never changing into anything else.
[Gauri] knew that the errors she'd made during the first years of Bela’s life were not things she could go back and fix. Her attempts kept collapsing, because the foundation was not there. Over time this feeling ate away at her, exposing only her self-interest, her ineptitude. Her inability to abide herself.
She'd convinced herself that Subhash was her rival, and that she was in competition with him for Bela, a competition that felt insulting, unjust. But of course it had not been a competition, it had been her own squandering. Her own withdrawal, covert, ineluctable. With her own hand she'd painted herself into a corner, and then out of the picture altogether.
The coincidence coursed through [Subhash,] numbing, bewildering. A pregnant woman, a fatherless child. Arriving in Rhode Island, needing him. It was a reenactment of Bela’s origins. A version of what had brought Gauri to him, years ago.
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.