In Other Words: Lessons for the Indian American Diaspora

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts, written originally in Italian, has gained significant notoriety. It’s an incredible feat for Lahiri, a non-native Italian speaker, to dazzle the literary world, yet again, with Dove Mi Trovo! It’s also a fitting time to acknowledge that Lahiri’s quest to find her voice as an Italian author started with In Other Words. A bilingual recount of her journey learning Italian, the language of her desire.

Published in 2015 as In Altre Parole, In Other Words (translated by Ann Goldstein a year later), unsurprisingly offers insightful musings and lessons for the Indian American diaspora in more ways than one. Like her other works it touches on notions of identity, belonging, and alienation. Only this time around explored introspectively through the lens of language. Personally, as a first-generation Indian American immigrant, who’s also a mother to two second-generation children, I have much to thank Lahiri for, as I apply her experience and learnings to my family and everyday life.

Language of Origin vs. Language of Acceptance

Lahiri provides an intriguing perspective into the mind of a section of the Indian American diaspora that maybe feeling an “intense pressure to be two things, loyal to the old world and fluent in the new, approved of on either side of the hyphen.” As an Indian American who lived most of her life in the United States, Lahiri talks about how she tried hard to strike that exhausting balance between Bengali, technically her mother tongue, and English, the language that defined her identity in America.

This candid reflection exemplifies a very real burden possibly felt by the Indian American diaspora living in America – both first-generation parents as well as their children. Where the latter strive to achieve that “fluency” on either side of the “hyphen”, to win their parents’ approval. Her recount implicitly appeals to first-generation immigrant parents (like me) to be cognizant of this and try not to weigh down their American-born children with too many such expectations.    

Language Is a Complex Lens

Lahiri tangibly illustrates the truly multi-dimensional nature of language, prodding readers to think about it. Through language, we make sense of our world and interact with it. It’s also how people perceive us because of our word choices and accent. Language is indeed a window to the core culture of a place.

Lahiri explicitly calls this out when describing her struggles in pronouncing and understanding the true meaning of Italian words and phrases. A seemingly simple word can easily be misused. It could pose to be too scholarly or too colloquial depending on the context. Moreover, pronunciation subtilities unwittingly sift native speakers from non-native speakers. It takes a certain perseverance and discipline to master such nuances. To that end, immersion is the best way forward in language mastery, and that’s exactly what Lahiri did.

Lahiri’s recount reminded me to follow through on this immersive ‘baptism by fire’ approach if I wanted my children to have a fair shot at gaining reasonable command over Hindi – the language I consider to be their mother tongue! While of course, not “burdening” them, which I know now can be hard on our American-born Indian American children. 

Skin Color Can Color Perceptions

What language do people choose to speak to us when they see the color of our skin? How do people speak to us when they see us? Such questions are pertinent to any diaspora living and bringing up children in a foreign country, including Indian Americans. Once again Lahiri sheds light on such inquiry.

At one point in the novel she describes how in everyday situations, like at a shop or bank, her husband was often thought to be Italian. Because of his Caucasian looks (compared to her Indian skin), locals chose to speak to Lahiri in English and complimented her husband on his spoken Italian. Even though she was the one with near-native grasp over the language, Lahiri was rarely given the benefit of the doubt when it came to her mastery over Italian. Infuriating as it was, as is evident, she accepted, persevered, and more than triumphed.

So, the next time someone politely asks us again to pronounce our name or what we just said; or well-meaningly speaks to us slowly, enunciating every syllable, we can draw from Lahiri’s experience to stay calm, smile, and carry on!

Language of Choice

For Lahiri, the weariness of having to constantly balance on either side of the “hyphen” made a completely foreign language like Italian enticing. A language of ‘non-belonging’, one of her choosing. In a paradoxical way, even though Italian was limiting, compared to her superior command over English (or even Bengali), it nonetheless afforded her the freedom to ‘just be’. By so doing, she makes a compelling case for an Indian American like her to have an affinity for a third language versus the languages on either side of the “hyphen”. And that pursuing a language of one’s choosing is acceptable and rather gratifying.

In Other Words

Learning a language especially in adulthood is challenging. But to become proficient enough to publish a novel in a foreign language takes it to a whole new level. Only an author as exceptional as Jhumpa Lahiri can turn a private journal about learning a foreign language into a poignant unputdownable linguistic autobiography. In Other Words is Lahiri’s brilliant and incisive narrative that makes the seemingly simple topic of learning a language intensely thought-provoking and captivating. It continues to offer stirring themes, lessons, and life experiences that resonate with the Indian American diaspora.


Nidhi Kirpal Jayadevan is an avid reader and a yoga enthusiast. Her life pre-kids was dedicated to the complex field of Communication Sciences. After choosing to be a full-time mother, reading and playing with her high-energy boys has been a fascinating journey. It has (re)kindled in her a sense of wonder in all things small. She constantly sees the world through little eyes, applying simple learnings to deepen life’s meaning for herself and her family.


 

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