On Saturday, September 21, the Nielsen Bookscan for India revealed a new leader on the fiction bestseller charts: Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland. A list normally dominated by mass market titles like Amish's Shiva trilogy and Chetan Bhagat's perennially popular campus-and-after novels, the chart is a tribute to the fact that the right author can still sell more books than anyone else in India - at least, in a given week - even when the book is a 'serious' one. The novel rose to No. 1 two weeks after its release on September 8.
Of course, the fact that The Lowland is on the shortlist for the Man Booker prize certainly helps sales in India. Ever since Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Arvind Adiga won the Man Booker (or the Booker, as it was called earlier), this is the one literary prize that India's readers have been keenly aware of. Last year, Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis saw a turnaround in its fortunes after it was shortlisted for the Man Booker, leaving the critics who had panned the book slightly red-faced.
Besides the Man Booker, Lahiri's The Lowland has also beens shortlisted for the US National Book Award. Lahiri is no stranger to literary prizes. Her first collection of stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, while her second, Unaccustomed Earth, bagged the Frank O' Connor short story prize.
The Lowland has been reviewed largely respectfully in India, where literary reputations run high. But the consensus in the country which claims Lahiri as a daughter of the soil - although she was born in the UK and lives largely in the US - is that the reviews are well deserved. The story of two brothers and a woman whose life intertwines with both of theirs, The Lowland is an intense and spare study in loneliness and melancholy, set against the backdrop of the violent Naxal movement in India and, later, desolate physical and emotional landscapes in the US.
In India, The Lowland has been published under the Vintage imprint by Penguin Random House, the company formed by the merger of Penguin Books and Random House.