Jhumpa Lahiri’s first book, a short story collection titled Interpreter of Maladies, seemed to come out of nowhere. My friend Steve’s mother gifted the book to him, and he, in turn, passed it along to me. In the year 2000, Interpreter of Maladies won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The BBC wrote that the win by the 32-year-old writer “surprised many in the US literary establishment.” Steve, his mother, and I were delighted to be early readers, but I can’t say that I saw the Pulitzer award coming.
Her appeal transcended gender, age, and ethnicity. Perhaps it was the clean, elegant prose. Maybe it was interest in the immigrant experience, specifically of those emigrating from the Indian subcontinent. More likely it was Lahiri’s brilliant mastery of the universal theme of communication and miscommunication that defines the human condition regardless of what language one speaks.
A lesser author might have basked in the applause from critics and lay readers. A more mercantile writer could have become a scriptwriter and elected to cash in on her fame by turning to Hollywood, Bollywood, or Kollywood. A less ambitious writer might have found comfort in a cushy academic position. For all I know, Jhumpa Lahiri contemplated and acted on all these impulses. Indeed, her second book, The Namesake, was turned into a film directed by Mira Nair, and she is a Director of Princeton University’s Program in Creative Writing.
While it may have been easy for Lahiri to rest on her laurels and settle in her well-earned place of comfort, in 2011 she moved to Italy with her family; she stopped reading in English and began an unlikely second literary career as an Italian writer, or rather as an Anglophone wunderkind who writes in Italian. As she wrote in her autobiographical In Other Words (written in Italian as In altre parole), “I have to accept that in Italian I’m partly deaf and blind.” For basketball fans, this self-imposed handicap is like Michael Jordan retiring from the NBA to play minor league baseball with one hand tied behind his back.
With Dove mi trovo, Lahiri has written an Italian novel at a major league level — perhaps all-star worthy.
In her subsequent publication of the novel in English as Whereabouts, it’s as if she is a multi-sport Olympian, winning Gold in the winter and Silver in the summer.
This is a novel comprised of interconnected flash fiction. Most of the 46 stories run two to five pages; the shortest one – “Nowhere” – fits a single paragraph, some 160 words, on a lonely leaf of paper. The longest one – “In the Country” – is not much longer, no more than 900 words strung across a handful of leaves. Together, Lahiri’s delicate threads are experienced as a memorable weave, as if one is spending a leisurely secular day in a literary version of the Vatican Gallery of Tapestries.
Individually, they are best described by a sentence in a chapter called “On The Couch”: “Every session was like the start of a novel abandoned after the first chapter.” That particular chapter is about a patient who makes little progress with a therapist but is taken by the ambiance of the apartment building where the sessions are held: “Maybe I chose that therapist simply because I loved arriving in that courtyard, riding up in that elevator, entering that room.”
It is likely that Whereabouts’ readers will leave the book feeling the same way as the patient. Lahiri writes with a mastery of description, mood, and feeling, but the plot takes us nowhere, and leaves the reader asking, “Where am I?” (which is the English translation of the novel’s Italian title, Dove mi trovo). Readers, like myself, who have visited Rome might enjoy reading the short stories and finding themselves in familiar Italian locales like an enchanting stationery store; those who have not been to Italy might relate with how I found myself intrigued by “At the Beautician,” learning about a service I have never used.
Given that Italian is Lahiri’s learned language, there is a tyro’s habit of appealingly simple sentences that sprint the reader along; also, as a newcomer to her adopted language, the author senses that the marathon of an Italian novel would be overwhelming, thus the short fiction. Or it could be that form follows function. Lahiri intends to convey the fleeting nature of life and its attendant loss – thus the fleet-footed sentences and the quickly-read two paragraphs of “In Spring.”
The anonymous middle-aged woman that we follow across the seasons of her year in Whereabouts’ anonymous, Italian city, with its trattorias, palazzos, and piazzas, suffers in spring.
“Every blow in my life took place in spring. Each lasting sting. That’s why I’m afflicted by the green of the trees, the first peaches in the market, the light flowing skirts that the women in my neighborhood start to wear. These things only remind me of loss, of betrayal, of disappointment.”
Several chapters later, in a story titled “In Winter,” there is a shift in feeling.
“The winter sunset seeps in through some cracks. It’s incredible, it feels as if we’re standing in a grotto, with light that darts though it like fish.”
From a distance, Italy, America, India, or any other place has an allure that is built on mythologies of exceptionalism and superficialities of tourist guides. Up close, the messiness of the human condition is universal. To belong, one must embrace the messiness, perhaps even be a part of it. One cannot be like the irritating worldly visitor in “At My House” who complains, “The amount of garbage is insane. The streets are complete chaos. How do people live here?” Citizens are hurt by unwelcome criticism of their home, their homeland. They, like Lahiri’s protective protagonist, will wonder, “What exactly did he learn about the world after living in all those different countries?”
For an immigrant exploring a new land, the relationship to the land is ambivalent and inverted. There is a promise of possibility as one leaves the familiar shore, but also the risk of sinking in the newness. The unvanquished immigrant walks tentatively and then with certainty on the streets, sidewalks, and quicksand of unaccustomed earth (Unaccustomed Earth was Lahiri’s second collection of stories).
As I wrote in my first India Currents contribution in June, 1990, “Desh is pardesh, and pardesh becomes desh. Desh, the Mother Land, no longer is all-embracing; and pardesh, the foreign land, becomes desh. Everything seems upside down. After a while, one falls into the new society’s rhythm, and a helpful routine is developed.”
With its universal music, its private musing, and its crossing of linguistic borders, Whereabouts rewards readers with the rhythm of Lahiri’s lived and imagined lands.
Dr. Raj Oza has written Globalization, Diaspora, and Work Transformation, Satyalogue // Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas, and P.S., Papa’s Stories. He can be reached at satyalogue.com or amazon.com/author/rajoza.
This article is for Emily, Raj’s daughter-in-law, who transcends American, Italian, and Indian cultural boundaries.