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Novel set in Rhode Island and Calcutta (two worlds collide)

20th November 2013

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, novel set in Rhode Island and Calcutta.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013

1408828111.01.ZTZZZZZZJhumpa Lahiri was born in London to Bengali parents, and grew up in Rhode Island. She appreciates the conflicts between being Indian and spending her formative years in the freedom of the States…

Her story is an epic one, and well worthy of its Booker prize nomination 2013. Two very close brothers – Subhash and Udayan – are born into the middle class Calcutta of 50 years ago. The early part of the book describes their childhood amongst the sounds and smells of the city… it is truly evocative of the chaos that is a part of everyday life. As they grow older Udayan is radicalised, and becomes part of the Naxalite uprising in West Bengal in 1967. I don’t think it is in any way a spoiler to say that he is arrested and brutally killed by the police in front of his parents and pregnant wife. Meanwhile Subhash has headed to college in Rhode Island – a location as contrasting to Calcutta as it is possible to imagine. He returns to India and then again, this time with Gauri – Udayan’s wife – to the States to continue his studies and then edge down the path to being a fully fledged academic. The descriptions of Rhode Island (a part of the world I know quite well) are particularly well written.

Gauri tires of her Rhode Island life and heads off to California where she embarks on a very successful academic career of her own – leaving Subhash and her daughter behind on the East Coast to grow up and grow old.

These are the bare bones of the book. The story and the locations are ‘real’, but the main strength is Ms Lahiri’s quite effortless and understated prose. Great dramas of life are reported in a matter of fact way while she concentrates on the detail of the relationships between the characters and how they are impacted by the clash of cultures. Parents to children, siblings to each other, husbands to wives – all are there and beautifully analysed. And Calcutta is quite definitely a character in the book – from the early days of Subhash and Udayan’s youth through to the much modernised and changed city of ‘today’.

Tony for the TripFiction Team

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