Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland is, at its heart, an exploration of violence. The 1960s India of the novel’s opening pages is not even two decades removed from the violence of Partition, the 1947 division of British India into India and Pakistan, and it is against this backdrop that brothers Subhash and Udayan Mitra grow up. Though nearly inseparable early in life, Subhash feels a rift deepening between himself and his brother as Udayan’s politics become increasingly radicalized in response to their homeland’s unrest. Broader strife in India continues to be mirrored by familial divisions and tragedies throughout the novel—moments that, in turn, often fuel further unrest. By exploring the ways in which political and personal violence feed each other, Lahiri suggests the ultimate inseparability of the two; the personal is always political, and vice versa.
The novel opens in Tollygunge, a neighborhood of the West Bengal city of Calcutta. As Subhash and Udayan play in the streets of their neighborhood and learn about its history in school, a portrait of a place already torn asunder by political violence begins to emerge. Less than twenty years earlier, Partition had created desperate refugee crises as Hindus living in Pakistan fled over the border to India, and Muslims living in India fled to Pakistan. An act of political violence—the careless splitting of one nation into two, and the creation of a political and religious line of demarcation—quickly transformed into countless acts of personal violence, as Muslims and Hindus murdered one another. Though the boys are, relatively speaking, sheltered and privileged, and do not witness any acts of such violence in their youth, the presence of a refugee crisis and the ubiquitous reminders of the violence of Partition establishes an atmosphere of volatility, instability, and resentment that will develop as the novel progresses.
Udayan and Subhash’s paths begin to diverge as they come of age, with their differing responses to the unrest around them fostering a sense of resentment between the pair. As Udayan becomes disillusioned by the plight of Indian peasants and subsequently swept up in the movement emerging around the illegal eviction of sharecroppers in the poor West Bengal village of Naxalbari, he finds himself in league with the radical, nationalistic Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), who see violence as a means of resistance and, they hope, of change. The CPI(ML) takes up the burgeoning peasant revolt against landowners in Naxalbari as their banner cause, and as Udayan joins his party members on a tour of the countryside, he witnesses the extreme poverty and injustice plaguing his fellow countrymen. As a result of his emotional connection to the peasants and sharecroppers he meets, his anarchic, anti-imperialist politics develop, and he becomes a member of the Naxalite movement—a notoriously vicious insurgency whose reverberations are still felt throughout India today. Thus, Udayan’s personal investment in the lives of others drives him toward political violence.
As Udayan’s political involvement becomes more and more radical, his personal life, too, becomes tinged with violence—not physical, but a kind of emotional violence that will sow its seeds in the whole of the Mitra family and have reverberations throughout generations. When Udayan is killed by paramilitary forces who were searching for him in the wake of his involvement with several acts of violence in Calcutta—the detonation of a pipe bomb and the murder of a policeman, most prominently—the political violence Udayan engaged in as part of his pursuit of a revolution is transfigured. Udayan’s death—itself an act of political violence, as the paramilitary forces are going around the city arresting and executing young men suspected of involvement in the Naxalite movement—is reflective of the feverish but ultimately failed rebellion. Udayan’s death occurs when he is in his mid-twenties and cuts him off in his prime—just as the Naxalite movement was stomped out at the height of its proliferation throughout West Bengal.
After hearing news of his brother’s death, Subhash returns to Calcutta to find the city transformed by the violence of the Naxalites. Acts of terror have resulted in widespread loss of life and a general atmosphere of fear and unease. The political violence that has gripped the city is rooted in personal resentments—most notably, aggression and anger directed at wealthier, landowning classes. Subhash has, during his time studying in America, been largely ignorant of the extent of the unrest in Calcutta, and as he returns home and confronts it at last he is able to see the intersection of personal and political anger.
While mourning his brother, Subhash comes to realize that Udayan’s widow, Gauri, is pregnant. After Subhash witnesses Gauri being interrogated by police forces about her sympathies to Udayan’s cause and her involvement with the CPI(ML), Subhash realizes that the surest way of keeping Gauri—and her unborn child—safe is to marry her and take her to America, where hardly anyone has heard of the Naxalites at all. Back in the United States, Gauri and Subhash uneasily embark upon their marriage. Subhash does not understand the full extent of how traumatized Gauri is not just by her having witnessed Udayan’s death, but by her own involvement in the Party actions which resulted in it. As the narrative unfolds, Lahiri reveals that in the months before Udayan’s death, Gauri was helping him to covertly deliver notes and letters around Calcutta—effectively spying on behalf of the party. Udayan had procured Gauri a job that allowed her to observe the routine of a local policeman Udayan’s group wanted “out of the way.” After both the policeman and Udayan were killed, Gauri at last understood the extent of her role in the murder, and it is for this reason that she harbors so much guilt, unease, and unrest.
These emotions, born of Gauri’s involvement in political violence, morph into personal violence as Gauri tries—and fails—to adjust to “normal” family life in America. Gauri closes herself off from the small community in Subhash’s Rhode Island college town, and, even after the birth of her daughter Bela, behaves coldly and apathetically not just towards Subhash but towards “their” child, too. When Bela is twelve, Gauri abruptly departs for California, leaving behind only a coarse note. This deeply personal act of violence—a cleaving split which symbolically mirrors the violent political splits of Partition and of the splintering Communist Party of India—stems from Gauri’s guilt over her own contribution to the political violence in Calcutta, and her inability to stop grieving for Udayan over a decade after his loss.
The personal and the political collide again and again throughout the pages of The Lowland. Violence begets violence, and when radical politics and ideologies are involved, the fallout of such intense conflicts almost always comes back around to the interpersonal relationships belonging to the humans behind them. In showing how an atmosphere of political violence can engender equal emotional violence between people, Lahiri uses The Lowland to demonstrate the circular nature of violence itself.
Political and Personal Violence ThemeTracker
Political and Personal Violence 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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.
She was establishing her existence apart from him. This was the real shock. He thought he would be the one to protect her, to reassure her. But he felt cast aside, indicted along with Gauri. He was afraid to exert his authority, his confidence as a father shaken now that he was alone.
[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.
[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.
[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.