reviews and essays

At Home Abroad

Jhumpa Lahiri turns her gaze to history

By SALIL TRIPATHI | 1 November 2013

A HUSH FELL OVER the large dining room at the stately Guildhall in London when Robert Macfarlane, the British travel writer who chaired the jury for the Man Booker Prize this year, walked to the podium with the name of the winner known only to him and four other judges. This was the last year Britain’s most prestigious literary prize would go to a writer exclusively from the Commonwealth.

From next year, the doors would open to the United States—the only large English-speaking country whose authors don’t qualify for the prize. Writers from the Commonwealth would still be eligible, but opening the prize to Americans raises two risks—one, that American authors might win the prize easily; the other, that fiction from Commonwealth countries, which has to struggle hard to get noticed, and which has had a good run at the Booker, will now suffer. American prizes, such as the Pulitzer and the National Book Awards, are open only to Americans. Man Booker runs the risk of becoming the Commonwealth version of that very British institution, Wimbledon, where outsiders dominate.

To some critics, the barbarians were already at the gate. Three of the short-listed novelists this year have lived a large part of their lives in America, and their connection with the Commonwealth is not strong: NoViolet Bulawayo, born in Zimbabwe (no longer a Commonwealth member), lives in the United States, and Ruth Ozeki was born in Connecticut to Japanese and American parents, and has taken Canadian nationality. And then there is Jhumpa Lahiri, born to Indian parents in Britain, who moved to the United States at the age of two, and has recently moved to Italy.

Many critics have strong views about the Man Booker Prize opening its doors to American authors. “Well that’s the end of the Booker Prize, then,” wrote the novelist Philip Hensher in The Guardian, quoting a London literary agent. Hensher was a judge in 2001, long-listed the following year (for The Mulberry Empire) and short-listed in 2008 (for The Northern Clemency). He lamented: “It is hard to see how the American novel will fail to dominate. Not through excellence, necessarily, but simply through an economic super-power exerting its own literary tastes…” He added, with writers like Lahiri in his mind: “Curiously, all these novels, effectively written by American-based authors about exotic places, were unable to do so without placing the exotic places in the reassuring context of an American suburb. The novel written by an Indian, living in India, about India, without reference to his later life in Cincinnati was dead this year.”

In 2013 at least, the prize followed the expected script, and the winner was 28-year-old Eleanor Catton, the youngest writer to win the prize, for her 832-page novel about New Zealand’s gold rush, The Luminaries. As Catton made her way to the stage, I wondered what Lahiri might have felt. Writers of Indian origin have had a good run with the prize—winners include VS Naipaul (1971), Salman Rushdie (1981), Arundhati Roy (1997), Kiran Desai (2006), and Aravind Adiga (2008). Naipaul (1979), Anita Desai (1980, 1984 and 1999), Rushdie (1983, 1988 and 1995), Rohinton Mistry (1991, 1996 and 2002), Indra Sinha (2007), Amitav Ghosh (2008), and Jeet Thayil (2012) have been short-listed.

I asked a friend who was at the dinner to keep an eye on Lahiri. “Her face was impassive; she was inscrutable,” she reported. In London, at least, few had expected her to win. According to punters, a mere £24 had been placed on her novel, The Lowland, with odds of 9/1the lowest stakes ever placed on a contender.

Two weeks earlier, I had seen her twice in London, speaking to full-house audiences at promotional events at The Guardian newspaper and the South Bank Centre. There, she fielded questions politely, but revealed little of her personality. She looked as though she would rather be elsewhere. When the critic John Mullan, who chaired the discussion at The Guardian, asked her an intricate question about a particular story from her 2008 collection, Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri needed time to think of the answer; once, she stumbled remembering a character’s name. When a woman from the audience pointed out that women formed the majority of her audience that evening, and asked if that meant she wrote for a specific audience (such as women or immigrants), Lahiri looked pained. She smiled briefly, her lips arcing momentarily before returning to their horizontal repose, and said: “I don’t think of an audience. It is known that more women read in general. When I write I am alone at work and I’m not thinking of resurfacing; I do not know who is going to read what I write. Writing remains a private matter, like meditation.” She replied to questions she was not interested in with politeness and without enthusiasm. (Lahiri did not respond to several interview requests for this essay.)

Some critics, while they find her short fiction to be polished and accomplished, have uncharitably said she is the poster child of American creative writing classes—where students learn the craft of honing and sharpening the stories that will appeal to editors at magazines like The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Atlantic, all publications with decided and distinct tastes, and among the few major English language outlets in the world which regularly publish short stories in defiance of conventional commercial wisdom. Lahiri, who graduated from Boston University with a PhD in Renaissance Studies, also holds degrees in comparative literature and creative writing.

The novelist Amit Chaudhuri teaches writing at the University of East Anglia (whose alumni include Ian McEwan, Tash Aw, Anjali Joseph, Mohammed Hanif, and Kazuo Ishiguro). He has also lectured on American campuses. Reflecting on these programmes and their relationship with magazines that publish fiction, Chaudhuri writes in his collection of essays Clearing A Space how writing becomes a collective effort at magazines like the New Yorker.

In The New Yorker, the policy was to keep the prose, and the prose fiction in particular, largely free of sub-clauses and syntactical complexity … The allegiance to the civilized tone and subject matter of ‘high’ culture in the New York Review and the New York Times – shunning, equally, vulgarity, radical politics, and excessive theorizing – was notable … This was a version of modernity; modernity as a protected space; and the enshrining of the liberal educated mind one associated with that moment in history. The auteur that organized and produced this modernity was not an author-figure, that locus of origination that postmodernists spent so much time dismantling, but a team of editors, a collective auteur that forfeited the myth of spontaneous creation for the right to control and manage material, to take out and put in … [Students of creative writing programmes were] being trained to spot the unnecessary word, their ear to hear the false note; and they were being taught to approach the art of prose writing with the attention and reverence due to a ‘high’ art form.

Magazines have limited space; economy is the key, and economy is one of the hallmarks of Lahiri’s style. She told the audience at The Guardian that she derives her inspiration from three writers: “William Trevor taught me how to write. He is unequalled. His language is full of compassion. He is careful, clean, precise, and yet has emotions. Mavis Gallant is a genius and a wild virtuoso. Gallant turns the classic formula on its head and does in a story what novelists try and fail over a bigger landscape. There are wild leaps and turns in her writing; she is complex and charged. And there is Flannery O’Connor, who I studied carefully. Her dialogue, gravity, action pace—all are perfect.”

Aamer Hussein, a writer of elegant short stories, who teaches and critiques literature told me that he finds Lahiri “readable but not memorable”. “When her first collection came out,” he said, “I remember an American academic commenting that her work was ‘never less than competent, and rarely more than competent.’ Later, in a radio programme I was on, an American editor said that while her fiction was technically conservative, it won the Pulitzer because it was covering entirely new ground—the migrant world of educated Indians in the States.” Other critics have said that more forcefully, placing upon her the responsibility of speaking “on behalf of” the minority woman, if such a generalisation is even possible.

I asked VV Ganeshananthan, the author of the novel Love Marriage (2008), about this. Ganeshananthan teaches writing at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and finds arguments against teaching writing “uninteresting and lacking nuance”. She added that she would not call Lahiri a ‘female writer,’ because “the reverse rarely happens (when a new male writer emerges), and I’m not sure either order illuminates much. I have decried the tendency some people have of reading fiction as though it is always intended to be representative of groups … A writer might elect the representation of a set of people as their project, but certainly, not all of us do, and those of us who are female and minorities are more likely to have that objective thrust upon us, regardless of what our aims actually are. This is flat out bad reading.”

LAHIRI IS ACUTELY AWARE of these debates and avoids them. She is particularly conscious of the Indian tendency to appropriate someone like her, and is emphatic about her Americanness. Lahiri told USA Today in 2003: “I wasn’t born here; I might as well have been.” (In 2000, she told me in an interview I did for Verve magazine, “I have never felt the need to search for my roots. I understood that my parents came from far away but I never felt alienated in America. I defend the US to my parents, I feel intensely American.”)

And Americans have embraced her in return. She has won awards there, her stories are taught at high school, and six out of the 17 stories in her two collections first appeared in the New Yorker. Her debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the following year. In 2003, she published her first novel, The Namesake, which Mira Nair made into a film in 2006. A highly promising novel, it felt contrived towards the end, as if Lahiri felt compelled to tie up the loose ends. The stories in her next collection, Unaccustomed Earth (2008), turned darker, a feat she achieved with deftness, masking the intensity with plain words that described the truth without explaining it. “I take the fame with a grain of salt,” she told me in 2000. “It is good that the New Yorker thinks well of me, as it makes selling the next story easier. But if they like you, it doesn’t mean you are always going to write great stuff.” (She is a regular at the annual festival the magazine holds in New York each fall, and among those she thanks at the end of The Lowland is her editor at the New Yorker, Cressida Leyshon.)

As with other people of Indian origin who become famous—from Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, the American structural biologist who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry with two other scientists in 2009, to Nina Davuluri, who won the Miss America pageant this year—when Lahiri won the Pulitzer in 2000, there was a surge of nationalistic pride in India, as though India had a role in her success. Lahiri has never claimed her Indianness, however, and avoids conversations where others ask her about Indian fiction or writers. When Interpreter of Maladies was published, there were inevitable comparisons with the fiction of other Indian-American authors—particularly women—such as Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Arranged Marriage (1995) and Bharati Mukherjee’s The Middleman and Other Stories (1988, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in America). The Delhi-based novelist Samit Basu told me he admires Lahiri for staying far removed from the general dirt of literary one-upmanship. “I am occasionally amused by India’s determination to appropriate her as a daughter of the soil,” he said.

Lahiri has a fan following among Indian readers: a bookshelf of Indian fiction in most homes is likely to have at least one work of hers, besides Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Amitav Ghosh. While she appeals to Western readers keen to understand the Indian professionals who live among them, the response of Indian readers is varied. Paula Mariwala, a technocrat in Mumbai who runs a venture capital fund, told me she has been a fan of Lahiri’s short stories because “her lyrical, sensitive narrative takes you so deep into her characters that you almost want the novella to become a novel. Each story of hers has left me satisfied but longing for more.” With The Lowland, Mariwala said she felt “completely sucked into the idealistic Bengali world of Naxalite Tollygunge and the contemporary academic world of New England. The marshy lowland and the rich grass of the golf club never get out of sight even in placid, beautiful Providence.” Vidita Vaidya, a neuroscientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, said what struck her most about the novel was “how Lahiri makes you empathise with characters that are deeply flawed and utterly human. It was as though the violence that started restricted in location … spread tentacles out to touch the lives of all the people … even those unborn. She has such a way of pulling you into the daily lives of her characters and almost makes you wish they were alive enough that you could warn them about what is to come.”

Lahiri records the fine-grained details of daily life, but restricts her role to that of an observer, not an interpreter. Like other American masters before her, she refines her prose by discarding what she considers inessential, so that what remains shows her characters and their preoccupations as they are. She remains faithful to what is in sight, and does not endow characters with magical or supernatural powers that might allow for metaphoric extravagance or plots to take curious turns. Basu finds her writing to be “elegant, beautiful, and surprisingly easy to read”. The critic Sanjay Sipahimalani adds: “At a time when so much fiction is composed of striking, dark-hued colours that call attention to themselves, Lahiri’s delicate pastel shades are particularly notable. The emotions aren’t suppressed as much as they are subterranean, rising to the surface of her characters’ behaviour in inevitable yet unexpected ways. Allied to this is her mastery of telling detail, so necessary when it comes to creating and contrasting different worlds.”

In The Lowland there are far fewer adjectives and adverbs compared to her previous work; in fact, she uses few punctuation marks in conversations. There are almost no quotation marks to indicate direct speech, leaving it ambiguous in some instances whether sentences were said openly or remained in a character’s mind.

This skill—of sharpening the narrative with skill and economy—is critical for a writer of short fiction. Novels get more room to breathe. A common view about her writing is that she is better at crafting short stories than novels. Sipahimalani believes it is too early to pass such a judgment. “The Namesake was clearly a better novel than The Lowland, more organic and elegant, although in the latter there’s a pleasing attention to structure which shows that she has strived to look at the novel as a single unit, each part contributing to the whole.”

Lahiri’s stories are like miniature art, full of detailed observations that may seem insignificant until seen as part of the whole: US-bred Indian children resenting having to drink milk that has been boiled for them—the children bothered about the taste and preferring to drink straight from the carton, the grandmother keen to kill off germs; a mother admitting to herself that “Bengali had never been a language in which she felt like an adult,” since she only spoke it as a child; or, the Indian wife, new to New England, who is mildly hungry and buys a stick of cream cheese, not knowing what it is; she eats it expecting a familiar taste, like chocolate, but the new flavour at once surprises, pleases, and nourishes her, even while she remains mildly dissatisfied. Or the graduate student, seeing in the resplendent turning leaves of fall the “vivid hues of cayenne and turmeric and ginger pounded fresh every morning”. Quotidian experiences, perhaps, but resonant with meaning, and brought to life through her description.

“She is such a careful writer, and the impact of some of her stories have lingered over time,” the Delhi-based writer and critic Nilanjana Roy told me. “I find myself sometimes held at a safe distance, invited to examine where I might have preferred immersion. I like to return to her clear, cool, but predictable voice in between other, more dramatic, more intense writers. She understands what it is to be human—she is one of the finest writers on loneliness that I have come across.”

“But,” Roy asks, “does she have a sense of history?”

THE QUESTION OF HISTORY IS CRITICAL, given the context of The Lowland. It is her most ambitious book, one in which she moves out of her comfort zone—the academic world of New England—and plunges into a controversial chapter of recent Indian history—the Naxalite Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Lahiri has broadened her canvas to a scale beyond anything she has attempted in her previous fiction. Rhode Island will figure, but we get there later; the novel begins in the land left behind—Bengal—during the turbulent decades when Naxalites destabilised the state. The pitch of her voice remains the same as in her previous work, the fiery intensity of the dramatic violence of that period quaintly anaesthetised by her urgent yet calm prose. The narrative cries out for broad, bold brush-strokes; Lahiri still operates with her thin brush, dipping it delicately in a subtle, pale colour, going over a devastating incident meticulously, keeping the agony and pain simmering, threatening to boil over.

This raises the important question: why has she chosen to step out of the world she knows? And will her next work take her back to the familiar terrain? Generalisations are difficult, if not impossible. Some writers find their niche and stick to it. Sipahimalani adds: “To say that she writes the same book over and over again is to be spectacularly misinformed. Most serious authors write to try and resolve or explore the same set of deep-seated issues.”

The hesitancy in grappling with history the way a Rushdie or Ghosh would suggest that her relationship with the exterior world will always be conducted at arm’s length. History may intrude into her fiction and her characters might get caught up in it, but so far Lahiri’s interest has remained in exploring the interior drama of the people caught in that vortex. Ganeshananthan, who considers Lahiri “a tremendous writer”, said: “As far as I’m concerned, her primary obligation is to the material that compels her.”

There is politics in Lahiri’s earlier works—but it is the politics of the mind, of a man choosing to leave one country for another; the politics children play with their parents, offering love in return for expected favours; and the games husbands and wives play. The writer and translator Anjum Katyal, co-director of the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival, says: “Lahiri is good at the delicate synapses between family members, [noting] the subtle, often unspoken shifts and balances that constitute a close relationship. She gets the ambivalences of being an immigrant well, with all the confusions of what constitutes home, identity, [and] belonging. She understands nostalgia.”

In The Lowland, however, Lahiri grapples with a politics and history smeared by blood, in a city whose graffiti-strewn walls salute Ho Chi Minh and Mao. This is an unaccustomed earth for her. Midnight’s children are now adults. They now believe in Mao and not Nehru, read the Chairman’s Little Red Book, and see in the uprising in Naxalbari the hope to bring about a revolution. There is the scholarly, fearful and obedient Subhash, who will follow the instructions of his parents, and even of his younger brother, the charismatic, roguish Udayan. Subhash leaves for America to study marine science, while Udayan—who could have been a talented engineer—opts for Naxalism, though hiding the true nature of what he does. He surprises his parents by fleeing and marrying a comrade’s sister, Gauri, shocking his parents who accept her only reluctantly. The newlyweds stay at the family home, and Udayan goes about as if he has mended his ways, while remaining a party-member. There are few jobs in Bengal for graduates, and Udayan earns money by tutoring schoolchildren at their homes.

Udayan’s marriage is a shock for Subhash too. Udayan writes teasing letters to Subhash, asking him to return: “The days are dull without you. And though I refuse to forgive you for not supporting a movement that will only improve the lives of millions of people, I hope you can forgive me for giving you a hard time. Will you hurry up with whatever it is you’re doing? An embrace from your brother.”

While Udayan’s parents believe that marriage has settled him and he has given up on his youthful rebelliousness, Udayan actually remains committed to the cause, a secret he shares only with Gauri. Inevitably, one day there is a police raid. In a dramatic scene, Udayan is made to surrender, and he is killed; his parents are neither able to understand, nor acknowledge, what went wrong. Gauri is heartbroken but remains quiet, aware of a dark secret. She is also carrying Udayan’s child. When Subhash returns for the funeral he discovers that Gauri is pregnant and finds out that his parents have never really liked her. He decides to marry her, almost as impulsively as Apu marries his friend Pulu’s cousin, Aparna, in Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar (1959).

While The Lowland is a saga, it retains the imprint of Lahiri’s miniaturist hand; while it deals with a family over generations, you don’t need a family tree to figure out who was who; and while it rests on the two parts of the world Lahiri knows—Bengal and New England—the American sections are more vivid.

Part of the reason the Indian sections aren’t gripping is that the story of the Naxalites is familiar to many readers in India. And if she is writing for the reader abroad, she doesn’t provide her characters with enough opportunities to demonstrate how vigorous the Indian rebellion was, compared to more familiar rebellions of that time, such as America’s own unruly campuses (the Kent State killings of 1970) and the Paris protests of 1968. Whether in India or elsewhere, the reader isn’t able to experience the Naxalite movement. We don’t smell the burning tyres, we don’t hear the glass being shattered as cabinets are overturned, nor do we taste the greasy samosas of the College Street Coffee House where so many plans were hatched. Lahiri introduces readers to Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal, the leading lights of the Naxalite movement. The two men were studious, almost devoid of charm. And yet they had a certain appeal, which inspired thousands to rally. In Lahiri’s rendering, though, they remain cardboard characters, so we never know why clever young men like Udayan would join the movement and risk their lives to follow them.

Naxalbari is near Siliguri, where the poet and writer Sumana Roy lives. She teaches literature at the Jalpaiguri Government Engineering College. I asked her how Lahiri was read and understood in the novel’s natural habitat. Roy is teaching Jane Austen this semester and was talking to her class about Austen’s famous description of her writing: “What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of Variety and Glow? How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?” Hearing that, a student made the connection with Lahiri, who, in her way, was squeezing a massive epic (the Naxalite experience) into a compact narrative involving a family. Roy wrote to me: “I paraphrase the young boy’s remark: Jhumpa Lahiri writes not about Naxalbari but about the Naxalbaris inside us. Perhaps that is what it means to read Lahiri—to read War and Peace in ‘two inches of ivory’, for inside every human [there] is a war novel that only the most gifted writers can read.”

Other Indian writers have dealt with the Naxal period, the most notable being Mahasweta Devi in her novel, Hajar Churashir Ma (The Mother of Prisoner No.1084). Published two years after Charu Majumdar died in police custody, in 1972, Devi’s novel revolves around the couple Sujata and Dibyanath Chatterjee, and their college-going son Brati. Their world collapses when police inform his parents that Brati has been killed. Sujata wants to know what happened to her son, and she discovers how he became a number—prisoner No. 1084—and why he died in custody. Sujata tries to recreate Brati’s life by meeting his friends, including Nandini, a girlfriend about whom she knew nothing. As she learns about the Naxalite movement, she ends up believing in the struggle.

In his novel Purbo Poschim (‘East West’, 1989), the late Sunil Gangopadhyaya tells a story similar to The Lowland, about two college friends, politicised by the partition of India and other tumultuous events, including the Naxalite period and the Bangladesh war. Then there is Dilip Simeon’s Revolution Highway (2010), set in Delhi but drawing on the Naxalite story to create a vivid portrait of that time. Pranav and Mohan, its protagonists, study at Mission College in Delhi, and they are inspired by the Vietnam War, the American civil rights movement, the Prague Spring, the Palestinian Struggle, and Sartre’s conversion to Maoism. Films, too, have dealt with Naxalites—Sen’s Calcutta 71, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas’s Naxalites, and Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi. Lahiri offers a look at the time through the tragedy of one family, but the tone is sometimes so restrained that we almost don’t feel the pain. And while Gauri has suffered—her husband has died—her ingratitude towards Subhash can make a reader lose sympathy for her.

In the novel, Lahiri’s poise, elegance and insights are there all right; what’s missing is the courage to signal her wider ambition by plunging deeper into a history that she has embraced but not lived through.

LAHIRI SHOT TO FAME when Interpreter of Maladies, her debut collection, won the Pulitzer. The nine stories in the collection were not necessarily connected, although they mirrored her experiences in New England. She liberally drew on the milieu she was most familiar with—the first flush of intellectually inclined young men who arrived at great American universities in the 1960s. These men dutifully married women their parents had chosen for them. The women were bright and capable, but not yet beneficiaries of an American education, and by extension lacking the credentials which would allow them to work outside the home. They raised children who were expected to pursue professional careers, reinforcing the image of Indians as the model minority in America. Those wives were terribly lonely, lamenting what they had left behind, but managed stoically.

In that first collection, academics who had come to a campus at the start of the fall term are shocked by the chill in weather even when the sky is bright. They had to learn to cope with winter, bleeding the radiators, servicing the heaters, testing the lawn mowers, and they had to get used to wearing layers of warm clothing. They opened their doors to other Indians, trying to create their community in a small town, where the smell of the curry and the shared joy in films and religious festivals became the ties that bound them. In the story ‘When Mr Pirzada Came to Dine’, Lahiri writes about the birth of Bangladesh, seen through the eyes of Lilia, whose parents invite their neighbour, the improbably named Mr Pirzada, to dine each night. Mr Pirzada is an academic on a small grant from the Pakistani government, anxious about his family left behind. He carries two watches—one set to the time in the US, the other to the time in the place that will become Bangladesh. Lilia notices their similarities—taking off shoes as he enters the house, eating rice with his hands, dipping biscuits in sweet tea, but is aware of the difference—he is Muslim, and he wants to go back to his family, and to his country, not yet born. In ‘Sexy’ and ‘Mrs Sen’s’, Lahiri writes about children’s precociousness; ‘This Blessed House’, shows us an Indian couple excited by the Christian kitsch they discover in the house into which they have moved. In ‘The Treatment of Bibi Haldar,’ a story set in India, Lahiri shows, in her understated way, the pathos of a lonely, destitute woman’s life through a single sentence: “Apart from my X-rays, I have never been photographed.”

The novel The Namesake followed, a charming story about the Ganguli family, once again set in New England. Ashoke teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; his wife Ashima brings up their son and daughter. Ashoke and Ashima wait in vain for the astrologically sanctioned name for the first-born son to arrive from India—it doesn’t, so they name him Gogol, because years earlier, the night his train crashed killing many passengers, Ashoke’s life was saved because he was awake, reading Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’. Even as Ashoke learns to fit in, Ashima pines for what’s left behind. Being a foreigner is like “lifelong pregnancy—a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts,” Lahiri writes. Gogol acquires an American girlfriend, Maxine Ratliff, and he is delighted by the ease with which her family accepts him, celebrating Thanksgiving with them. The Ratliffs’ ease is because of their continuing relationship with the land—they belong here in a way that Gogol and his parents can only ever emulate.

Ashoke’s sudden death changes everything, drawing Gogol back to his old bonds. Unconvincingly, he ends his relationship with Maxine, and later, even less plausibly, enters a doomed marriage with the daughter of a Bengali family the Gangulis know. It seems as if Gogol is dragged into the relationship by forces he cannot control.

The short stories in Unaccustomed Earth are bleak. The outwardly flawless professional veneer of Lahiri’s characters cracks, revealing alcoholism, suicidal impulses, even mental illness. Again, the focus is on the loneliness of women, like the 38-year-old Ruma, who has moved to Seattle with her husband and son, and is pregnant again. She is hosting her widowed father who is visiting her from the east coast, where he has, oddly, found his post-bereavement liberation in the form of companionship with a Bengali woman from Long Island. Ruma, secure in her family, is the one who is caged, unsure of what she wants. In another story, ‘Hell-Heaven’, Lahiri writes about an arranged marriage seen through the eyes of the couple’s daughter, and her regret at having treated her lonely mother so badly. The last three stories, which form a trilogy, follow Kaushik and Hema, who have been fated to be linked since childhood. Kaushik’s family moves to Bombay. In the grand scheme of things, Hema and Kaushik could be lovers; but what we remember, ultimately, are the scenes of solitude, of families attempting to stay together, where love is no longer spontaneous.

Lahiri’s simplicity does not make her stories slight; she knows how to make light of something that is otherwise heavy. Speaking of weight and lightness, Milan Kundera asked, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “The heaviest of burdens is simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half-real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?” Lahiri uses her light touch to make the heaviness bearable; her characters wear heaviness as if it is an extra layer of warm clothing necessary in the New England winter, so that they can continue walking, their mood lifted by the persistent snow, which falls ever so lightly.

Critics will place her in different canons, boxes, and pantheons—as an immigrant writer, a woman writer, even a Brooklyn writer—if only to make it easier to teach her. Her style is lucid, her tone empathetic, her humour gentle—and her place in the world is secure.

With The Lowland, Lahiri has reached an interesting threshold—a broader canvas coinciding with her move to Italy. That move, apparently not permanent, becomes part of the story of Lahiri’s evolution. In a recent interview in the New Yorker she said she is in “a crazy, reckless phase” where she is learning to write “in an imperfect way”, in Italian. If indeed Lahiri begins to write in Italian, and manages to make it sound as effortless as is her writing in English, what sort of a writer would she be?

Her second migration—from the US to Europe this time—recalls her father’s experience of migration, and how she describes it in ‘The Third and Final Continent’: “I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”

To see the magic and mystery in the ordinary is a gift. Lahiri knows how to unwrap that gift and share it. That gift does not smell of curry and pickles, nor does it stand out because of the red sari or the size of a bindi, but it appeals because of the familiar hybridity exile imposes. Here, the sandwiches aren’t made of peanut butter and jelly, but on rye bread with green chutney; the mishti doi is made with yogurt and condensed milk, and the flag in the porch is red, white and blue. The migrant is no longer in exile; she is at home, abroad.

A HUSH FELL OVER the large dining room at the stately Guildhall in London when Robert Macfarlane, the British travel writer who chaired the jury for the Man Booker Prize this year, walked to the podium with the name of the winner known only to him and four other judges. This was the last year Britain’s most prestigious literary prize would go to a writer exclusively from the Commonwealth.

From next year, the doors would open to the United States—the only large English-speaking country whose authors don’t qualify for the prize. Writers from the Commonwealth would still be eligible, but opening the prize to Americans raises two risks—one, that American authors might win the prize easily; the other, that fiction from Commonwealth countries, which has to struggle hard to get noticed, and which has had a good run at the Booker, will now suffer. American prizes, such as the Pulitzer and the National Book Awards, are open only to Americans. Man Booker runs the risk of becoming the Commonwealth version of that very British institution, Wimbledon, where outsiders dominate.

To some critics, the barbarians were already at the gate. Three of the short-listed novelists this year have lived a large part of their lives in America, and their connection with the Commonwealth is not strong: NoViolet Bulawayo, born in Zimbabwe (no longer a Commonwealth member), lives in the United States, and Ruth Ozeki was born in Connecticut to Japanese and American parents, and has taken Canadian nationality. And then there is Jhumpa Lahiri, born to Indian parents in Britain, who moved to the United States at the age of two, and has recently moved to Italy.

Many critics have strong views about the Man Booker Prize opening its doors to American authors. “Well that’s the end of the Booker Prize, then,” wrote the novelist Philip Hensher in The Guardian, quoting a London literary agent. Hensher was a judge in 2001, long-listed the following year (for The Mulberry Empire) and short-listed in 2008 (for The Northern Clemency). He lamented: “It is hard to see how the American novel will fail to dominate. Not through excellence, necessarily, but simply through an economic super-power exerting its own literary tastes…” He added, with writers like Lahiri in his mind: “Curiously, all these novels, effectively written by American-based authors about exotic places, were unable to do so without placing the exotic places in the reassuring context of an American suburb. The novel written by an Indian, living in India, about India, without reference to his later life in Cincinnati was dead this year.”

In 2013 at least, the prize followed the expected script, and the winner was 28-year-old Eleanor Catton, the youngest writer to win the prize, for her 832-page novel about New Zealand’s gold rush, The Luminaries. As Catton made her way to the stage, I wondered what Lahiri might have felt. Writers of Indian origin have had a good run with the prize—winners include VS Naipaul (1971), Salman Rushdie (1981), Arundhati Roy (1997), Kiran Desai (2006), and Aravind Adiga (2008). Naipaul (1979), Anita Desai (1980, 1984 and 1999), Rushdie (1983, 1988 and 1995), Rohinton Mistry (1991, 1996 and 2002), Indra Sinha (2007), Amitav Ghosh (2008), and Jeet Thayil (2012) have been short-listed.

I asked a friend who was at the dinner to keep an eye on Lahiri. “Her face was impassive; she was inscrutable,” she reported. In London, at least, few had expected her to win. According to punters, a mere £24 had been placed on her novel, The Lowland, with odds of 9/1the lowest stakes ever placed on a contender.

Two weeks earlier, I had seen her twice in London, speaking to full-house audiences at promotional events at The Guardian newspaper and the South Bank Centre. There, she fielded questions politely, but revealed little of her personality. She looked as though she would rather be elsewhere. When the critic John Mullan, who chaired the discussion at The Guardian, asked her an intricate question about a particular story from her 2008 collection, Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri needed time to think of the answer; once, she stumbled remembering a character’s name. When a woman from the audience pointed out that women formed the majority of her audience that evening, and asked if that meant she wrote for a specific audience (such as women or immigrants), Lahiri looked pained. She smiled briefly, her lips arcing momentarily before returning to their horizontal repose, and said: “I don’t think of an audience. It is known that more women read in general. When I write I am alone at work and I’m not thinking of resurfacing; I do not know who is going to read what I write. Writing remains a private matter, like meditation.” She replied to questions she was not interested in with politeness and without enthusiasm. (Lahiri did not respond to several interview requests for this essay.)

Some critics, while they find her short fiction to be polished and accomplished, have uncharitably said she is the poster child of American creative writing classes—where students learn the craft of honing and sharpening the stories that will appeal to editors at magazines like The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Atlantic, all publications with decided and distinct tastes, and among the few major English language outlets in the world which regularly publish short stories in defiance of conventional commercial wisdom. Lahiri, who graduated from Boston University with a PhD in Renaissance Studies, also holds degrees in comparative literature and creative writing.

The novelist Amit Chaudhuri teaches writing at the University of East Anglia (whose alumni include Ian McEwan, Tash Aw, Anjali Joseph, Mohammed Hanif, and Kazuo Ishiguro). He has also lectured on American campuses. Reflecting on these programmes and their relationship with magazines that publish fiction, Chaudhuri writes in his collection of essays Clearing A Space how writing becomes a collective effort at magazines like the New Yorker.

In The New Yorker, the policy was to keep the prose, and the prose fiction in particular, largely free of sub-clauses and syntactical complexity … The allegiance to the civilized tone and subject matter of ‘high’ culture in the New York Review and the New York Times – shunning, equally, vulgarity, radical politics, and excessive theorizing – was notable … This was a version of modernity; modernity as a protected space; and the enshrining of the liberal educated mind one associated with that moment in history. The auteur that organized and produced this modernity was not an author-figure, that locus of origination that postmodernists spent so much time dismantling, but a team of editors, a collective auteur that forfeited the myth of spontaneous creation for the right to control and manage material, to take out and put in … [Students of creative writing programmes were] being trained to spot the unnecessary word, their ear to hear the false note; and they were being taught to approach the art of prose writing with the attention and reverence due to a ‘high’ art form.

Magazines have limited space; economy is the key, and economy is one of the hallmarks of Lahiri’s style. She told the audience at The Guardian that she derives her inspiration from three writers: “William Trevor taught me how to write. He is unequalled. His language is full of compassion. He is careful, clean, precise, and yet has emotions. Mavis Gallant is a genius and a wild virtuoso. Gallant turns the classic formula on its head and does in a story what novelists try and fail over a bigger landscape. There are wild leaps and turns in her writing; she is complex and charged. And there is Flannery O’Connor, who I studied carefully. Her dialogue, gravity, action pace—all are perfect.”

Aamer Hussein, a writer of elegant short stories, who teaches and critiques literature told me that he finds Lahiri “readable but not memorable”. “When her first collection came out,” he said, “I remember an American academic commenting that her work was ‘never less than competent, and rarely more than competent.’ Later, in a radio programme I was on, an American editor said that while her fiction was technically conservative, it won the Pulitzer because it was covering entirely new ground—the migrant world of educated Indians in the States.” Other critics have said that more forcefully, placing upon her the responsibility of speaking “on behalf of” the minority woman, if such a generalisation is even possible.

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Salil Tripathi lives in London, and is a contributing editor at The Caravan and Mint. He is the chair of the writers-in-prison committee of PEN International. An award-winning journalist, he has written extensively for over a quarter century for the Wall Street Journal, the Far Eastern Economic Reviewthe New StatesmanIndia Today, and other publications. As a correspondent in Singapore and Hong Kong, he covered the Asian economic crisis. He is the author of Offence: The Hindu Case (Seagull, 2009), The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy (Aleph, 2014; Yale, 2016), and Detours: Songs of the Open Road (Tranquebar, 2015). He is currently working on a book about Gujaratis. 

READER'S COMMENTS

13 thoughts on “At Home Abroad”

You are right and I thought that’s the point I was trying to make.

Lahiri does try to disown, as Shalil Tripathi says in the essay, any Indian connection as a writer publicly and claims to be an all-American writer and an all-American girl.

This claim of Lahiri as a person may be accurate, but her distancing herself from any Indian root she has sounds a bit hollow, given that her genre seems quite clearly to be straddled the two continents and two countries, India and the United States. Every single work she has produced bear that character.

I respect Lahiri’s personal boundary she apparently wishes for others to see, that she is not Indian, has no strong Indian roots. That’s all fine; that’s her choice.

But for her to claim the same thing as a writer is a bit hollow. Indian terrain, especially Bengali culture, is inescapable from her work.

Literature is about many things. Emotions, intellect, styles, art, philosophy, creativity of thought processes and ethnicity. Jhumpa Lahiri’s work covers the Bengali diaspora in the USA. It is a historical and social documentation of their thoughts, challenges and dreams (broken or achieved). To deny this would be to deny her core identity. As an Indian & Bengali living in India but having many close relatives in the USA, I’ve been amazed at how accurate her characterizations are, how vibrant their portraits, how real their behaviour. This is her ultimate legacy.
And yes, she does a short story better than a novel. “The Lowland” had a great concept as my younger son (now in the USA) stated — the 2 extremes of middle class Bengali life in the sixties. The migrant to the USA doing research. The Naxalite opting out of society. Jhumpa Lahiri got the subject dead right but the novel fails to connect unlike her short stories, particularly those in “Unaccustomed Earth”. Give her marks for trying and allow her to be herself, her real self which is a child of Bengali migrants. We need this literature for our future generations to know what life was now.

Definately Lahiri has moved out of her comfort zone in The Lowland, and we should appreciate her effort. Lately writers like Mahasweta Devi and Arundhati Roy have been raising voice and concern and are blamed to be taking stance soft on Naxalism, that has been spreading at a serious speed in last decade or so. Lowland presents a very subtle critique of violence and its results on human predicament. Till now lahiri was primarily known as a writer of Diaspora and transcultural sensiblities but now a new feather will be added to her cap. Especially with her postcolonial historiography and enmeshing of characters in the historical buildup of naxalbari…she matures as a masterwriter

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