Shortlist 2014: The Lowland

Read an extract from the 2014 Baileys Women's Prize shortlisted novel, The Lowland

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The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

East of the Tolly Club, after Deshapran Sashmal Road splits in two, there is a small mosque. A turn leads to a quiet enclave. A warren of narrow lanes and modest middle-class homes.

Once, within this enclave, there were two ponds, oblong, side by side. Behind them was a lowland spanning a few acres.

After the monsoon the ponds would rise so that the embankment built between them could not be seen. The lowland also filled with rain, three or four feet deep, the water remaining for a portion of the year.

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The flooded plain was thick with water hyacinth. The floating weed grew aggressively. Its leaves caused the surface to appear solid. Green in contrast to the blue of the sky.

Simple huts stood here and there along the periphery. The poor waded into forage for what was edible. In autumn egrets arrived, their white feathers darkened by the city’s soot, waiting motionless for their prey.

In the humid climate of Calcutta, evaporation was slow. But eventually the sun burned off most of the floodwater, exposing damp ground again.

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So many times Subhash and Udayan had walked along the lowland. It was a shortcut to a field on the outskirts of the neighbourhood, where they went to play football. Avoiding puddles, stepping over mats of hyacinth leaves that remained in place. Breathing the dank air.

Certain creatures laid eggs that were able to endure the dry season. Others survived by burying themselves in mud, simulating death, waiting for the return of rain.

They’d never set foot in the Tolly Club. Like most people in the vicinity, they’d passed by its wooden gate, its brick walls, hundreds of times.

Unity the mid-forties, from behind the wall, their father used to watch horses racing around the track. He’d watched from the street, standing among the bettors and other spectators unable to afford a ticket, or to enter the club’s grounds. But after the Second World War, around the time Subhash and Udayan were born, the height of the wall was raised, so the public could no longer see in. Bismillah, a neighbour, worked as a caddy at the club. He was a Muslim who had stayed on in Tollygunge after Partition. For a few paise he sold them golf balls that had been lost or abandoned on the course. Some were sliced like a gash in one’s skin, revealing a pink, rubbery interior.

At first they hit the dimpled balls back and forth with sticks. Then Bismillah also sold them a putting iron with a shaft that was slightly bent. A frustrated player had damaged it, striking against a tree.

Bismillah showed them how to lean forward, where to place their hands. Loosely determining the objective of the game, they dug holes in the dirt, and tried to coax the balls in. Though a different iron was needed to drive the ball greater distances, they used the putter anyway. But golf wasn’t like football or cricket. Not a sport the brothers could satisfactorily improvise.

Read an extract from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah here

Read an extract from Hannah Kent's Burial Rites here

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