The Lowland is concerned with the secrets people keep and the deception they engage in as they pursue ideological and personal goals; as they navigate not only politics, revolution, and terrorism, but also marriage, parenthood, and self-delusion. Udayan’s role in a political conspiracy is thrown up against Subhash and Gauri’s plot in the wake of Udayan’s death: when Subhash brings Gauri back to America and promises to raise her and Udayan’s unborn child as his own, without revealing to Bela the truth of her parentage, the two of them are becoming complicit in a secret that will forever shape all of their lives. As Lahiri explores the various conspiracies of the Mitra clan, she argues that the secrecy and subterfuge necessary to carry out and contain such schemes can destroy the lives of so-called conspirators—regardless of whether the conspiracy at hand is politically or personally motivated.
Udayan is a conspirator in the most literal sense. A hotheaded revolutionary, Udayan is swept up in a political movement he feels is vital to India’s future. The aftershocks of Partition are still being felt, and the specter of colonialism looms over the country. Udayan joins the CPI(ML), and eventually the Naxalites, in hopes of bettering his country through the Communist ideology he feels has brought nationalistic pride and agency to countries such as China and Cuba.
Udayan’s involvement is relatively successful at first—he helps organize a strike at a local university, paints Communist slogans on walls around town, and even gets to meet with the group’s esoteric leader, Kanu Sanyal. However, when Udayan—who has a hyperthyroidism-related tremor—blows off the fingers of his right hand while trying to set off a pipe bomb, his involvement in the Naxalite’s conspiracies take a dark turn. Udayan’s hand becomes a symbol throughout the second half of the novel of the self-destructive nature not only of violence, but of conspiracy, secrecy, and deceit.
Udayan’s participation in one conspiracy—the pipe bomb—maims him physically, while his participation in another—the killing of a local policeman—causes him emotional pain, guilt, and remorse. Eventually it is revealed that Udayan was instrumental in the plot to kill the policeman, who was “in the way” of his group’s goals. Udayan had Gauri observe the policeman and confirm his off day, and then, with the intel gathered, work as a somewhat-bewildered lookout while another of his comrades stabbed the officer to death. All of this occurred before Udayan set off the pipe bomb, revealing the emotional toll Udayan’s involvement in such conspiracies has been taking on him for a long time. Udayan is ultimately traced to his home by paramilitary forces seeking to apprehend young Naxalite men. He attempts to hide in the lowland behind the house but is discovered and then shot in front of his family. Udayan’s roles in Naxalite conspiracies and acts of terror are eventually his end—but his death is just the beginning of his family’s suffering.
In response to Udayan’s death as a result of his role in one kind of conspiracy, Subhash and Gauri concoct a “conspiracy” of their own. They will abscond to America, where the pregnant Gauri will be free from the disdain of Udayan’s parents, from the officers who question her repeatedly about her ties to the Party, and from the isolation of being a single mother. Gauri and Subhash conspire to raise Udayan’s unborn child as if she were Subhash’s. At the start of their plan, they are each in their own way slightly desperate—Subhash for company and consolation, Gauri for passage from India—and so the conspiracy is one of necessity more than desire.
Any good conspiracy needs committed conspirators, though, and as Gauri’s unhappiness grows over the years, her commitment to the plot weakens. Gauri ultimately leaves, telling Subhash that how he wants to handle raising “their” daughter Bela, and whether he wants to inform her of her true parentage, is up to him. Gauri does so knowing that she is bringing their careful plan tumbling down and possibly shattering Bela’s world.
Ultimately, Subhash does tell Bela the truth about her parentage. When she comes home to reveal that she is pregnant, and intends to raise the child on her own, Subhash sees how his deliberate withholding of a major fact of Bela’s origins has impacted her life. In adulthood, she is making a decision that mirrors the way she herself came into the world, though she is ignorant of the fact that her life has been so difficult largely because of the conspiracy intended to keep her safe and allow her to live a “normal” existence. In finally revealing the truth, Subhash shows how he is different from Udayan—Udayan’s commitment to the conspiracies of his Party brought his life to an end, but Subhash knows when the lies have become too much to bear. Though Bela initially reacts poorly, she eventually tells Subhash that knowing what he did for her before she was even born—knowing what he risked to give her a life away from the danger of Calcutta—has made her love him even more.
In showing the enduring ramifications of the conspiracies people choose to engage in, Lahiri calls into question the choices that make up a life, and the secrets that must be kept to sustain them. Udayan’s involvement with the Naxalites ends his own life and sends his family into a veritable tailspin as they struggle to fill the void he has left behind. Subhash and Gauri’s attempt to do just that becomes a veritable conspiracy of its own, and the upkeep of the façade they create eventually drains their marriage beyond repair, resulting in devastating consequences for Bela, the child they have altered their lives to protect. The secrets the Mitras keep from one another radically change the shapes of all their lives, and the destructive forces of those secrets result in pain, estrangement, and mistrust echoing through the generations of their family.
Secrets and Conspiracies ThemeTracker
Secrets and Conspiracies 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.
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.
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.
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.