Subhash learns that Udayan has been killed a quarter of the way into The Lowland. The novel, up to that point, has largely been about Subhash navigating his brother’s emotional absence; once Udayan is killed, however, the book becomes about Udayan’s physical absence not just from Subhash’s life, but also from his wife Gauri’s. Udayan becomes, in death, in many ways more present in the lives of those around him. Gauri, in turn, becomes a ghost in her own right after traveling to America, moving through the home she shares with Subhash coldly and glumly, taking up as little space in her new life as possible. Gauri is absent despite her presence; the mirror image of her dead husband. Through her exploration of what it means to be “present”—whether physically or psychologically—Lahiri suggests the immense weight and space that the absent take up in the lives of those left behind.
Subhash and Udayan are extremely close as young boys, and spend their childhoods following in one another’s footsteps—often literally. Udayan’s footprints, cemented forever in the concrete of their family home’s courtyard, are a symbol throughout the novel for Udayan’s constant presence in Subhash’s thoughts, as the older brother seeks to follow the younger wherever he goes. As the two grow up, though, and Udayan’s involvement in the CPI(ML) deepens, Subhash realizes that he cannot—and does not want to—follow his brother into this new realm. Subhash makes plans to study in America, hoping that some distance from his brother, and from the tumultuous political atmosphere, will allow him to carve his own path. Udayan warns Subhash that to leave India at such a fraught time is to abandon his country—what he is really saying, though, is that Subhash is abandoning Udayan, creating an absence in Udayan’s life with which he has never before had to reckon. After Subhash leaves for the States, he does feel his brother’s absence profoundly, but it is not until his death that Udayan, in his removal from the world, becomes a nearly overwhelming emotional presence in Subhash’s life.
After Udayan’s death, Subhash brings a pregnant Gauri back to America with him, and though it is just the two of them living in Subhash’s house, Udayan’s presence is everywhere. Subhash looks like his brother, and Gauri is spooked by how similar the two men’s voices are, again suggesting the notion of doubles and mirror images. Because of Udayan’s “presence” in Subhash, Gauri finds herself unable to overcome the void her first husband’s death has left in her life. Gauri and Subhash’s marriage never flourishes. Eventually even its basic functionality is torn asunder by Udayan’s presence, which has grown so powerful in his absence that it acts as a vacuum, pulling Gauri backwards in time even as the rest of her life marches on. Gauri’s dissatisfaction in her marriage and in her role as a mother—combined with the crushing weight of Udayan’s loss—pushes her to pursue a life in academia on the opposite coast, and she seeks to shed herself of all ties to Subhash, Bela, and, by proxy, Udayan and his memory. Despite her physical absence, however, as the years go by Gauri will herself become a stifling and oppressive presence in Subhash and Bela’s emotional and psychological worlds.
Bela is one of the novel’s most intriguing characters—a nomad who seeks to make herself as untethered and invisible as possible as a result of her tumultuous childhood. After Gauri leaves, Bela becomes a withdrawn and quiet child, where once she was expressive and gregarious. For years, she attempts to shrink herself both figuratively and literally—she becomes withdrawn from her father and her classmates, and she eats as little as possible. After many years under the care of a therapist, Bela begins to emerge from her cocoon, and becomes active and politically-minded, just like Udayan—so much so that Subhash himself is spooked by his brother’s presence in his daughter and becomes worried that Udayan is somehow claiming Bela as his own from beyond the grave.
Rather than make her mark on the world by placing herself in the path of violence or conflict though, as Udayan did, Bela becomes a radical in a quieter sense, studying agriculture and taking up an itinerant existence that allows her to travel to farms across the country and educate people about sustainability—while leaving behind as the only trace of her presence the things she has grown. As the novel surges forward into the 2010s, Bela notably has no virtual footprint. Gauri cannot find her in any internet searches and believes that her daughter has done this purposefully. Bela’s desire to be absent from Gauri’s life, as Gauri was absent from hers, is so profound that she has carefully orchestrated her own life to be as untraceable as possible. When Gauri visits Subhash’s house, intending to hand him signed divorce papers, she finds not Subhash but Bela and her own daughter Meghna inside. Bela and Gauri have a terrible fight in which Bela tells Gauri that she is not her mother—Gauri is, in fact, “nothing.” In this explosive scene, Bela wrestles with the duality of her mother’s absence and presence in her life. Gauri wanted to be nothing to Bela, but to Bela, Gauri was everything. Over the course of her life, Bela has attempted to exorcise, in a way, Gauri’s presence, and reduce Gauri to “nothing” in her own mind. This fight between the two women shows how absence, ironically, can result in an undeniable emotional or psychological presence.
The Lowland is about the things one leaves behind—the things which create presence in absence. As Lahiri’s characters knowingly and unknowingly create situations in which their absence will be felt for years and years after their departures—physical or emotional or both—from one another’s lives, they must also negotiate the taxing and almost uncanny nature of presence in absence, and the longstanding effects it has.
Presence in Absence ThemeTracker
Presence in Absence 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.
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.
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.
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.
Were her mother ever to stand before her, even if Bela could choose any language on earth in which to speak, she would have nothing to say.
But no, that's not true. She remains in constant communication with her. Everything in Bela's life has been a reaction. I am who I am, she would say, I live as I do because of you.
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.