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.
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Description for Reading Group 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.
Discussion question for Reading Group Guide:
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 “Formidable . . . Lahiri’s precise writing and clarity of expression cast [a] spell. She is an expert in writing about dislocation—the feeling of being simultaneously two places at once and not necessarily belonging to either . . . The Lowland examines at the nature of sacrifice and love, the price of personal freedom, and what really constitutes the greater good.” —Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor
“Exquisite, graceful . . . The Lowland has complicated the ancient story of sibling rivalry by infusing it with real affection, capturing the way two brothers need and rely on each other . . . Lahiri shifts nimbly between moments of mischief and happiness to scenes of dread and violence. Her prose, as always, is a miracle of delicate strength, like those threads of spider silk that, wound together, are somehow stronger than steel . . . Given the trauma Subhash and Gauri have experienced, their whispered lives are perfectly understandable, and Lahiri renders them in clear, restrained prose . . . Mesmerizing, devastating.” —Ron Charles, The Washington Post Book World
“Compelling . . . Tracking lives across four generations and two continents with crisp confidence, Lahiri has a marvelous eye for the pivotal detail . . . A novel about idealism, betrayal and the bonds of brotherhood. Four stars” —Helen Rogan, People (a People Pick)
“Thrilling . . . elegant . . . told in a vigorous, straightforward prose . . . The reader’s heart remains firmly drawn toward Subhash, a good man too often trapped by circumstance . . . The lowland in [the family’s] neighborhood serves as telling metaphor for the dark places that haunt our lives. In its quiet intensity, it reminds us of the triumphant fiction of Alice Munro and William Trevor.” —Dan Cryer, Newsday
“Potent, memorable, poignant . . . Lahiri has reached literary high ground . . . A story as rich as the titular terrain of the Calcutta neighborhood she profiles, where an early tragedy irrevocably fractures [a] family . . . The Lowland may sweep across generations and continents, through historical upheaval and contemporary angst, but its tone, its language, is subtle, whisper-like and confessional. It is at its most illuminating—at its peak—in its intimacy.” —Olivia Barker, USA Today
“A delicately harrowing family saga spanning more than 60 years. Its plot pivots on secrets and lies, and it is as much about parenting as politics . . . Lahiri has a devastatingly keen ear for the tensions and misunderstandings endemic in our closest relationships . . . Affecting.” —Hephzibah Anderson, Bloomberg News
“The Jhumpa Lahiri story keeps adding intriguing chapters . . . [In The Lowland], her evocation of New England and Calcutta is even more evocative and elegant than in her previous books. Her tone is dispassionate but warm, making the narrative of the turbulent lives of the main characters seem more like a tone poem than a symphony. When you can write prose like that it almost doesn’t matter what the subject matter is, but that Zen-like ability to observe without commenting is even more effective in the passages of life in India amid poverty and repression . . . [We are] fortunate: We have Lahiri to restore mystery, maximize surprise.” —Ed Siegel, The Artery
“Magnificent . . . Lahiri skillfully roots the story in people . . . There is a noticeable shift in the magnitude and ambition of [this] novel, [but] this broad change in location does not affect the heart of Lahiri’s talent: her ability to create dynamic characters with both small gestures and broad strokes . . . Lahiri’s careful prose and focus on character development assures that h