Class Conflict in The Lowland
Over the four generations of family covered in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Lowland, the most compelling central conflict is that of social and economic class, providing the motivation for Udayan to become a Naxalite revolutionary as well as helping to drive the wedge between Bela and her father and providing Gauri with the means to stage her own devastatingly quiet rebellion. Although there are emotional and personal reasons that these characters experience the world the way that they do, the overarching theme from the 1940s to the 1990s is that of inequality and injustice in both India and America, as seen in large-scale political movements like the Naxalites as well as smaller, grassroots efforts like community gardening and rejection of American middle-class norms by Bela.
The lowland itself is the product of the breaking of the traditional Indian system through which some injustice and inequality could be mitigated in a premodern society. The area of the mangrove swamp was cleared for the family of Tipu Sultan, a Muslim revolutionary who attempted to use his princely position to overthrow the British in 1857 and return to the old ways of Raj culture. The British defeated him, and the Mutiny of 1857 overall, and banished his wife and children to the swamp, which they built up as a palace. At independence, Tipu Sultan’s son, Golam Mohammad tried to leverage his social status to protect Muslims in the area from Hindu persecution, exercising that benevolent end of privilege on behalf of the common people, but eventually left (Lahiri 13).
From the beginning of the novel, we see the promise of Indian independence and prosperity after the partition and withdrawal of the British. Subhash and Udayan’s father is a civil servant, a long-time employee of the Indian railway system who, like many men of his generation, hit the glass ceiling of what the British would allow Indian subjects to do. He regretted all his life that he was not able to go to college, and was locked into a job which, although secure and providing a comfortable pension, stifled his intelligence and marginalized him both mentally and geographically, to the outskirts of the British dominated golf course. Because of this experience, he made sure that his two sons had tutors and earned entry to prep schools and colleges available in the 1960s to indigenous Indian students. “Their father had started working at nineteen to help support his family. Not having a college degree was his sole regret. As word spread of his sons’ success, he said he could no longer step outside the house without being stopped and congratulated” (Lahiri 16). In the new world of Indian-ruled and independent India, bright boys were no longer restricted by the colonial occupier to clerical tasks, but could study physics and chemical engineering to build their country’s future and rise into the middle class.
Whether or not this promise of mobility and prosperity was true...