This isn't a good novel - it's a great novel.
The Lowland revisits some of the ground of Jhumpa Lahiri's excellent The Namesake (the film is good too). It's about Calcuttans who head to the US and immerse themselves in the academic world.
But this has a much stronger feel of Calcutta, and a much more powerful story line - about Naxalism, the narodnik-style Maoist-tinged revolutionary movement which gripped many of Calcutta's middle class youngsters in the late 60s and early 70s. Naxalism and the response to it brought the city to its knees, and destroyed a generation - killed, or badly damaged one way or another. The Lowland is a searing, tragic, troubling story - wonderfully told.
Jhumpa Lahiri's novel is shortlisted for the Booker, but not greatly fancied by the cognoscenti. By my reading, she must be in with a good chance.
Naxalism has had other powerful literary chroniclers, other great novels which have sought to explain its attraction, and the whirlwind reaped by those who were won over to it. Among them are the books below: Mahasweta Devi's Mother of 1084 - bleak, unsettling, unforgettable - was first published in Bengali in 1974 and Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay's Waiting for Rain appeared, again initially in Bengali, in 1985.
I've also been reading another fine book set in Calcutta - just published, it's the debut novel of a friend and colleague, Sanjay Dasgupta.
Other Lives, Other Fragments is an ambitious tale - a tragic family story which is woven alongside the most cathartic events in India's modern history: the terrible Bengal famine of the early 1940s; the acute Hindu-Muslim violence in Calcutta in 1946, and the upheavals which surrounded Partition a year later; the continuing turbulence in divided Bengal; the ripping apart of Pakistan in 1971 and birth of Bangladesh; the anti-Sikh pogroms in Delhi following Indira Gandhi's assassination; and such powerful themes as the increasing criminalisation of politics and the rise of Hindu nationalism. There's no Naxalism, but just about every other violent aspect of India's modern political landscape is there.
That's quite a lot to pack in to a novel - but it comes off well. And yes, umbrellas are very important to the plot. But I am not saying more - read it for yourself.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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