Interpreting the malady that is Jhumpa Lahiri

first_imgIt’s always exciting when an Indian author is considered for a prestigious award abroad. Even if that author is Jhumpa Lahiri, who would have spent little more than a few holidays in the country of her parents’ birth. But my relationship with Lahiri has been a difficult one – both as a reader and a journalist. And so it was with mixed feelings that I received the news of her having been long-listed for the Booker Prize for her yet to be released novel The Lowland. Also Read – ‘Playing Jojo was emotionally exhausting’I was in college when Lahiri’s first collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, was released and won the Pulitzer award. It became something of a necessity to celebrate her work, much as a doting parent celebrates the first recitation or painting by a favourite child. My literature professor certainly believed I should like the book. And I still considered myself too young to be a sound critic of literature and confess what I really thought of it. Oh it’s not as if I didn’t think it was beautifully written. But I had a problem of principle with the subjects, or rather her representation of the Indian community, abroad and in India. It was, I felt, too stereotypical, too forced. I could tell her that you didn’t have to grow up in the US to know little of Indian history.  Also Read – Leslie doing new comedy special with NetflixEven students studying in one part of India, have little clue about the history and culture of another part. I could tell her of cousins who have grown up abroad and seemed totally rooted there, and no we didn’t make them repeat the names of their American classmates as part of any game played in candle light as one of Shoba’s relatives does in one of the stories. I could tell her that children born in the eighties and nineties in India, would as often shy away from watching their parents snap endless number of green chilies with their rice and dal meal and go for a pizza themselves, much like their counterparts in the West.  And if you studied in a good English medium school in India, you had no trouble understanding Hollywood movies… the list of things I could tell her was endless.And herein lies my second peeve point – this time as a journalist, which is the wall that she builds around herself. I have repeatedly heard a senior colleague’s account of Lahiri’s closely guarded wedding in Calcutta in 2001. The family had done its best to respect Lahiri’s wish that it be a private affair, even going to the extent of setting dogs at the paparazzi members gathered outside the venue. But the venue, menu and all details of the wedding were an open secret with some friend or family member eager enough to inform, albeit, on condition of anonymity. I had a first hand feel of it, when the author returned to Calcutta for her daughter’s first rice ceremony. This time it was an eager aunt who was ready to spill the beans, even though the author and her family remained elusive. Of this I was certain, however, that it was not shyness that held back Lahiri from interacting with the media, from being more open, as her family had claimed during her wedding. The distance she maintained was calculated and by making herself inaccessible in general, she kept alive an interest about her, that ensured more than normal coverage on those rare occasions when she did subject herself to be interviewed – during the promotion of the movie Namesake, based on her novel of the same name or before the release of her second collection of short stories Unaccustomed Earth. Perhaps it was necessary. As a later day author explained to me, ‘To write a good book is not enough, you have to sell it.’ Some might go on a publicity spree, some price their books a certain way. Lahiri, chose distance. And I can’t say it’s not a classy way of selling yourself.Meanwhile, somewhere down the years, the reader in me had lost interest in her work. I had read The Namesake and again been troubled by the recurring theme of discomfort with one’s identity, of not being able to either accept or let go of one’s roots. I didn’t read Unaccustomed Earth. And it was with mixed feelings that I picked up The Interpreter of Maladies again after learning that Lahiri is being considered for the Booker. Imagine my surprise therefore, when I could identify with the screaming silence between the estranged couple in A Temporary Matter, empathise with Miranda’s aching desires in Sexy, understand Mrs Das’s need to unburden herself to a tour guide in The Interpreter of Maladies… Perhaps over the years, I have matured enough to tune out the forced Indianness of the stories and learnt to appreciate the play of emotions and relationships. I am now looking forward to reading Unaccustomed Earthand The Lowland. My only wish, as a now sincere reader, is that she would set her characters free, relieve them of their burden of assumed identity and let them be global citizens with universal feelings.last_img

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