When Subhash, wary of becoming involved in the political unrest in Calcutta, comes to the United States to study on the remote Rhode Island coast, he finds that he has left one miserable situation for another. Through Subhash’s struggle to adjust to life in the States—and, later on, through Gauri’s—Lahiri explores the anxieties of adapting to a new homeland while remaining conscious of and loyal to one’s heritage. As Subhash and Gauri both wrestle with feelings of dislocation and with the pressure—and desire—to assimilate, Lahiri uses their struggles to argue for the complexity of the concept of “home.” The novel ultimately argues that the relationship to one’s heritage and homeland is fluid, ever-changing, and unpredictable.
Upon his arrival in Rhode Island, Subhash is disheartened by how few Indians there are on his new campus. He is more shocked to learn that no one in his new home knows anything about what is going on in India. Yet Subhash works his way through his feelings of isolation and even leans into them—for example, by taking up a research position on a boat that goes out to sea for several months. In the process, he finds himself feeling grateful for his solitude and even relieved to be removed from the insular, family-oriented structure of his life in Tollygunge.
Subhash also stumbles into an affair with a married American woman, Holly, though he knows that their cultural differences will render anything long-term between them impossible. His affair with Holly ends after she, too, realizes that the differences between them are too much to surmount, and expresses her desire to make things work with her estranged husband. Subhash soon finds himself overwhelmed by memories of Calcutta. The changing fall leaves remind him of the colorful spices his mother ground each morning, and as the dates of the festival of Durga Pujo draw near, he grows homesick. Subhash’s intense longing for home in the wake of the end of his first real relationship—with someone of a very different cultural background—suggests that Subhash is torn between two worlds, and is pitching wildly between the desire to remove himself from his heritage and to return to a life steeped in tradition and familiarity.
At first, Gauri’s struggles to adapt to life in America echo Subhash’s initial sense of isolation. She spends her days holed up in Subhash’s apartment rather than exploring her new town or making friends. Gauri is so alone and sheltered that on a rare trip to the grocery store, she purchases a block of cream cheese—not knowing what it is—and eats it plain, in one sitting. This scene symbolically positions Gauri on a precipice—afraid of change and assimilation, but at the same time ravenous for something new and different. In time, Gauri begins to embrace life in the United States, evidenced by the fact that she cuts her hair into a blunt bob and begins wearing strictly Western clothing. She also starts taking a philosophy class, flirts with men, and starts sleeping with Subhash. When Gauri receives letters and newspapers from home sent by her brother Manash, she can only skim them, finding the references to Naxalite violence contained within their pages too much to bear.
As the years go by, Gauri thinks of Udayan less, pushing him from her mind to focus on her studies. Eventually she abandons Subhash and Bela to continue her studies on the West Coast. Her focus on philosophy symbolizes the sense of dislocation she continues to feel. When Udayan asked her, early on in their courtship, why she enjoyed studying, she answered simply that it helped her “understand things.” By the time she leaves for California, she has become completely enveloped by her chosen discipline, and eventually it is revealed that Gauri dove so deep into her studies “in deference to Udayan”—to be as devoted to something as he was to his own ideology. After years in academia, however, Gauri feels her ideology has become stale; she embarked on her studies to feel closer to Udayan, and thus to a part of her heritage, but has ultimately only become more disconnected from it.
When Gauri is approached by a student composing a book on the Naxalite rebellion, she at first denies having had any connection to the movement, and only agrees to anonymously contribute some information after a great deal of pressure. Gauri has tried to deny the part of her life tied to radical politics, because it stirs up memories of violence and loss. Gauri’s disconnection from this part of her life is another example of her estrangement from her cultural heritage, however complicated that heritage is, and her homeland.
Gauri does return to Calcutta one day following a fight with Bela. There, she confronts her repressed memories of aiding Udayan in his political actions, and, standing on the balcony of a guesthouse similar to the balcony in her grandparents’ old flat, considers taking her own life. Even back in her homeland, Gauri feels disconnected from her roots and ashamed of her past. Whereas Subhash was able to adjust to life after leaving his homeland, the traumatic split Gauri experienced has rendered her relationship to her heritage perhaps irrevocably fractured. Gauri does not kill herself, and instead simply returns to California—symbolically abandoning for a second time her connection to Calcutta and its difficult history.
Through her characters’ struggles to adjust to life in a new country, Lahiri shows how the concept of a faraway homeland is at once burdensome and liberating. For Subhash, the longing for his homeland is complicated by his desire to prove himself by striking out on his own; for Gauri, her attempts to sever herself from all she left behind have resulted in a denial, in many ways, of her heritage, her culture, and the woman she was back in Calcutta. As Lahiri tracks the fluid relationship of her protagonists to their pasts, she exposes the complicated nature of cultural identity, and examines the losses inherent to leaving one’s homeland behind.
Heritage and Homeland ThemeTracker
Heritage and Homeland Quotes in The Lowland
Now if they happened to pass the Tolly Club together on their way to or from the tram depot, Udayan called it an affront. People still filled slums all over the city, children were born and raised on the streets. Why were a hundred acres walled off for the enjoyment of a few? Subhash remembered the imported trees, the jackals, the bird cries. The golf balls heavy in their pockets, the undulating green of the course. He remembered Udayan going over the wall first, challenging him to follow. Crouching on the ground the last evening they were there, trying to shield him. But Udayan said that golf was the pastime of the comprador bourgeoisie. He said the Tolly Club was proof that India was still a semicolonial country behaving as if the British had never left. He pointed out that Che, who had worked as a caddy on a golf course in Argentina, had come to the same conclusion. That after the Cuban revolution getting rid of the golf courses was one of the first things Castro had done.
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.
On the dressing table was a pair of scissors that he normally kept in the kitchen drawer, along with clumps of her hair. In one corner of the floor, all of her saris, and her petticoats and blouses, were lying in ribbons and scraps of various shapes and sizes, as if an animal had shredded the fabric with its teeth and claws. He opened her drawers and saw they were empty. She had destroyed everything.
A few minutes later he heard her key in the lock. Her hair hung bluntly along her jawbone, dramatically altering her face. She was wearing slacks and a gray sweater. […] Why did you cut off your hair? I was tired of it. And your clothes? I was tired of those, too.
He watched as she went into the bedroom, not apologizing for the spectacular mess she'd made, just putting away the new clothes she'd bought, then throwing the old things into garbage bags. For the first time, he was angry at her. But he didn’t dare tell her that what she'd done was wasteful, or that he found it disturbing.
Every night, at Bela's insistence, he lay with her until she fell asleep. It was a reminder of their connection to each other, a connection at once false and true. And so night after night, after helping her brush her teeth and changing her into her pajamas, he switched off the light and lay beside her. […] Some nights he, too, fell asleep briefly beside Bela. Carefully he removed her hands from the collar of his shirt, and adjusted the blanket on top of her. Her head was thrust back on the pillow, in a combined posture of pride and surrender. He'd experienced such closeness with only one other person. With Udayan. Each night, extracting himself from her, for a moment his heart stopped, wondering what she would say, the day she learned the truth about him.
[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.
For breakfast [Bela] was given bread toasted over an open flame, sweetened yogurt, a small banana with green skin. Her grandmother reminded Deepa, before she set out for the market, not to buy a certain type of fish, saying that the bones would be too troublesome.
Watching Bela try to pick up rice and lentils with her fingers, her grandmother told Deepa to fetch a spoon. When Deepa poured Bela some water from the urn that stood on a little stool, in the corner of the room, her grandmother reproached her.
Not that water. Give her the boiled water. She's not made to survive here.
[Subhas] learned to accept [Bela] for who she was, to embrace the turn she'd taken. At times Bela's second birth felt more miraculous than the first. It was a miracle to him that she had discovered meaning in her life. That she could be resilient, in the face of what Gauri had done. That in time she had renewed, if not fully restored, her affection for him.
And yet sometimes he felt threatened, convinced that it was Udayan's inspiration; that Udayan's influence was greater. Gauri had left them, and by now Subhash trusted her to stay away. But there were times Subhash believed that Udayan would come back, claiming his place, claiming Bela from the grave as his own.
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.
[Gauri’s] impressions were flickering, from a lifetime ago. But they were vivid inside Dipankar. All the names, the events of those years, were at his fingertips. […] Dipankar had studied the movement's self-defeating tactics, its lack of coordination, its unrealistic ideology. He'd understood, without ever having been a part of things, far better than Gauri, why, it had surged and failed.
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.