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The Lowland Reader’s Guide

By Jhumpa Lahiri

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

READERS GUIDE

The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Lowland by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri. Set in India and America, it is a beautifully crafted and heartbreaking portrait of three generations bound and fractured by the demands of love and loyalty.

Introduction

Subhash and Udayan, brothers born fifteen months apart, come of age in post-World War II Calcutta. The newly won independence from Britain and the partition establishing Pakistan as a separate country has left India struggling with political turmoil; the age-old problems of poverty and class divisions remain a source of social unrest and conflict. The brothers share the adventures and innocent rivalries of childhood, but when Udayan, the younger, more daring brother, joins a radical political group in college, the tie between them begins to unravel. Subhash chooses a different, safer path, leaving India to do postgraduate research in oceanography in Rhode Island.   As Subhash slowly adjusts to life in America, Udayan becomes ever more deeply involved with the revolutionary movement at home.  In a letter to Subhash, he writes of his marriage to Gauri and his hope that his brother will come home one day to meet her. But it is a shattering tragedy that eventually brings Subhash back to his childhood home and into a strange, life-changing relationship with the young woman who captured his brother’s heart.

With the art and insight that has made her one of today’s most admired young writers, Jhumpa Lahiri weaves an extraordinary tale of brotherly love, familial obligations and marital compromises, and the impact of history on individuals. As the lives of the characters unfold, The Lowland becomes a moving exploration of how the choices they make and the secrets they keep reverberate across place and time.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. “Udayan was the one brave enough to ask them for autographs…He was blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving certain colors. But Subhash strove to minimize his existence, as other animals merged with bark or blades of grass” (p. 11). How do the differences between the boys both strengthen and strain the tie between them?

2. Does Subhash’s decision to make it  “his mission to obey (his parents), given that it wasn’t possible to surprise or impress them. That was what Udayan did” (p. 11) follow a pattern common among siblings?  What part do their parents play in fostering the roles each boy assumes?

3. What does Udayan’s reaction to Subhash’s decision to go to America (p. 30) and Subhash’s admission that he wanted to leave Calcutta “not only for the sake of his education but also . . . to take a step Udayan never would” (p. 40) convey about the balance between admiration and envy, support and competition, that underlies their relationship?  Do you think that Udayan is manipulative, or does Subhash misread him (p. 31)?

4. What aspects of the immigrant experience are captured in Subhash’s first impressions of Rhode Island (p. 34)?  How do his feelings about school and about his roommate, Richard, bring to light both his pleasure and his uncertainties about his new independence? In what ways does Udayan’s letter add to his ambivalence about the choice he has made (p. 47)?

5. What does Subhash’s affair with Holly convey about his transition to life in America (pp. 65-83)? What does it reveal about his emotional ties to his old life and family? 

6. Why does the author describe the courtship and marriage of Udayan and Gauri from Gauri’s perspective (pp. 51-61)?  To what extent does Gauri’s independence, rare for women in India, influence their decision to marry?

7. How do the descriptions of Calcutta (pp. 88-90, 91-2) and Subhash’s first glimpse of his parents (p. 91) capture the complex feelings Subhash experiences on returning home? How do the brothers’ parents’ expectations and beliefs shape their treatment of Gauri?

8. What emotions lie behind his mother does his mother’s reaction to Gauri’s pregnancy (p. 114)? Is it understandable in light of Gauri’s behavior and manner?  Is Subhash right to believe that the only way to help the child is to take Gauri away (p. 115)? What other motivation might he have for marrying his brother’s widow?

9. From the start, Gauri and Subhash react differently to Bela and to parenthood. Gauri thinks,  “Bela was her child and Udayan’s; that Subhash, for all his helpfulness, for the role he’d deftly assumed, was simply playing a part. I’m her mother . . . I don’t have to try as hard” (p. 146).  Although Subhash has a close, loving relationship with his daughter, he is troubled by his marriage: “Almost five years ago they had begun their journey as husband and wife, but he was still waiting to arrive somewhere with her. A place where he would no longer question the result of what they’d done” (p. 159). What is the source of the underlying uneasiness of their marriage?  To what extent are they haunted by their attachments to Udayan? What other factors make Gauri feel resentful and trapped? Is Subhash partially responsible for her unhappiness?  How does Subhash’s insistence on hiding the truth from Bela influence Gauri’s behavior and the choices she makes?

10. How does the portrait of the brothers’ mother, Bijoli, enhance the novel’s exploration of the repercussions of the family tragedy (pp. 179-89)?  What effect does his visit to Calcutta and its many reminders of Udayan have on Subhash—as a son, a brother, and a father?

11. After Gauri the family, what does Bela rely on to make sense of the situation and to create a life for herself? Is her reclusiveness natural, given her family history, although much of it is unknown to her? In what ways do her decisions about her education and her work represent her need to separate and distinguish herself from her parents? 

12. Why, despite his pride in Bela and his confidence in her affection, does Subhash feel “threatened, convinced that . . . Udayan’s influence was greater” (p. 225)?  How might Bela’s life have been different had Udayan raised her?

13. The novel presents many kinds of parents—present and absent, supportive and reluctant. What questions does the novel raise about the challenges and real meaning of being a parent?

14. What do you find most striking or surprising about Gauri’s reflections on her life (p. 231-40)? “She had married Subhash, she had abandoned Bela. She had generated alternative versions of herself, she had insisted at brutal cost on these conversations. Layering her life only to strip it bare, only to be alone in the end” (p. 240). Is this an accurate and just self-assessment, or is Gauri too hard on herself—and if so, why?

15. Despite his accomplishments and relative contentment, Subhash remains in the grip of the deception that has dominated his life: “He was still too weak to tell Bela what she deserved to know. Still pretending to be her father . . . The need to tell her hung over him, terrified him. It was the greatest unfinished business of his life” (p. 251-52). Why does Bela’s pregnancy move him to reveal the truth? Were you surprised by Bela’s reaction? How does learning about Udayan and the story of her parents’ marriage?

16. The keeping of secrets plays a large part in the novel, from the facts of Bela’s parentage to Gauri’s long-hidden guilt about her role in Udayan’s fateful actions. To what extent are the continued deceptions fed by the love and sense of loyalty Gauri and Subhash feel toward Udayan even years after his death?  Do they also serve Gauri’s and Subhash’s self-interest?

17. The details of the family’s history emerge through various retellings set in different times and seen from different perspectives. Why do you think Lahiri chose to tell the story in this way? How does this method increase the power of the narrative? Do your opinions of and sympathies for the characters change as more information is revealed?

18. Before reading The Lowland, were you aware of the Naxalite movement? (The group remains active: on May 25, 2013, Naxalite insurgents attacked a convoy of Indian National Congress leaders, causing the deaths of at least twenty-seven people.) What insights does Lahiri offer into the development of radical political groups? What role does history play in the creation of the Naxalite movement and, by extension, other uprisings around the world?   What parallels do you see between the events described in the novel and recent activities in the Egypt and other countries torn by internal dissension and violence?

19. In an interview, Lahiri said, “As Udayan’s creator, I don’t condone what he does. On the other hand, I understand the frustration he feels, his sense of injustice, and his impulse to change society” (NewYorker.com, June 3, 2013) Does the novel help you see more clearly the reasons for destruction and deaths revolutionary forces perpetrate to attain their goals?  How do you feel about Udayan after reading the novel’s last chapter?

About this Author

Jhumpa Lahiri is the author of three previous works of fiction: Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake and, most recently, Unaccustomed Earth. A recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, a PEN/Hemingway Award, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2012.

www.jhumpalahiri.net
 
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