"Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees [...]"
"Strange fruits" by Billie Holliday! The famous African-Americar singer once said it made her physiologically "sick", every time she had to perform it on NPR. It also happens to be the favorite song of one the main characters in the book (I won't give out any spoilers, don't worry!), so I thought we could begin on that note!
Actions, and inactions, that we choose to indulge in affect lives beyond our wildest imaginations, and what happens today, sometimes, continue to affect people who may be yet unborn. Beginning in the background of a tumultuous '60s India, Jhumpa Lahiri traces the course of two lives, at once intimately connected and yet separated by continents and oceans. In what is undoubtedly Lahiri's most devastatingly powerful narrative till date, the reader is invited to follow the lives of Udayan and Subhash, from the streets of Kolkata dipped in the bloody Naxalite Revolution to the equally upheaving counterculture current in the '60s Rhode Island. A master storyteller, Lahiri draws uncanny parallels between the Naxalite movement in Bengal and Kerala, an unfortunately violent leftist uprising, and the counterculture movement that tried to reshape American history in a very different and non-violent way. Lahiri's pen, both political and personal, and at once "dipped in red, white and blue" (as the NYT puts it, rather sycophantically) and yet screaming of her diasporic heritage, will shock readers with the artistic detail of her depiction of how two essentially stagnant societies, so very far apart from each other, react so very similarly, especially with their unfathomable fear of what they failed to understand and in the spontaneity of the resultant violence, to an entire generation that seemed to be asking all the right questions to all the wrong people. The radical atmosphere of the 60s serve as the unmistakeable background for Lahiri's semi-historical novel, but her keen observation of the magnitude of the effect that organised socio-political oppressions have on human lives, and how reactions to the past continue to haunt generations born long after a revolution has been relegated to mere footnotes in a history textbook, is both harrowingly beautiful and devastatingly unnerving. In fact, the insightful reader would be almost able to see a shadow of Noam Chomsky's (named in person in the narrative) toothy smile slowly forming as one progresses through the chapters, as Lahiri slowly but steadily deconstructs the notions of 'love', 'family', 'heritage', 'inheritance, 'migration', 'motherhood', 'nationality' and most importantly 'the normal and the acceptable'. The Lowland is, undoubtedly, one of the most insightful novels of recent years, and personally I will go so far as to put it on the same shelf as The God of Small Things and The Catcher in The Rye.