Reading Group Center

Armchair Adventurer: Political Unrest Overtakes Calcutta in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland

Armchair_AdventurerJhumpa Lahiri is perhaps best known for her stories of Indian immigrants in the U.S.—stories set in Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island, where the spirit of the homeland is always present. Now, with The Lowland, Lahiri has broken new ground by turning to India’s Calcutta and its outskirts. The novel chronicles the lives of two very different brothers in post-Independence India, in which the personal and political become fatefully entwined. “At heart [The Lowland] remains a family story, and that’s how it was conceived,” explains Lahiri in an interview for NPR. “But I did want to acknowledge, address, understand the historical and political context, and so for me that was a new step to take.” In the book, while quiet and diligent Subhash devotes himself to his studies, his brother, Udayan, gets swept up by the revolutionary Naxalite movement, a radical political party following the teaching of Mao. Though the two are initially inseparable, they eventually grow apart as Subhash doesn’t share his younger brother’s political zeal.

To understand Udayan’s motives for getting involved in the Naxalite cause, we turn to the annals of mid-twentieth-century Indian history. In 1947, the partition of British India led to the creation of two sovereign states, Pakistan, from which Bangladesh later split, and India. A great number of Muslims left India for mostly Muslim Pakistan, and Hindus migrated from Pakistan to India. With so many dislocated and the caste system still in place, economic stagnation and poverty took hold of the region—and the political chaos that followed shook the young country for decades to come and continues to have lasting impact.

The Naxalite movement emerged as a radical offshoot of the Indian communist party. It was named after the northern West Bengali village where a violent conflict between peasants and wealthy landowners took place in 1967, referred to as the Naxalbari Riot. At the helm were two dissidents of the main communist party who believed that India’s rural population should fight their rich oppressors demand ownership rights through militant measures.

When the leftist government didn’t support the Naxalbari rioters and washed its hands of them, it paved the way for the formation of a new communist guerrilla group in West Bengal that spurned Mahatma Gandhi’s politics of nonviolence. Lahiri describes the birth of the movement in The Lowland:  “On Lenin’s birthday, April 22, 1969, a third communist party was launched in Calcutta. The members of the movement called themselves Naxalites, in honor of what happened in Naxalbari. . . . On May Day, a massive procession filled the streets. Ten thousand people marched the center of the city” (p. 39). Thirsting for improvement of conditions for the country’s poorest, many Calcutta college students joined the march and the Naxalite ranks. When the party leaders declared an “annihilation line,” an ideology dictating that Naxalite supporters should assassinate individual “class” enemies, many of whom were state officials, the conflict reached a fever pitch. The government responded in turn, taking up brutal measures to quash the insurgents. In 1971, President Indira Gandhi (Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter and no relation to the Mahatma) unleashed the Indian army on the Naxalites, resulting in the death or imprisonment of thousands. The movement lost its popularity after the early 70s, but offshoots in India’s heartland continue to function to this day.

This is the charged historical backdrop against which Lahiri has constructed The Lowland’s masterful narrative. Her characters’ disparate responses to the political unrest in their homeland irrevocably change their lives, leaving an indelible mark on their family and rippling across generations and continents.