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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Jhumpa Lahiri | The lives of others
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Jhumpa Lahiri | The lives of others

In an exclusive interview, Jhumpa Lahiri speaks about writing, translation and her current projecta non-fiction book in Italian

Jhumpa Lahiri at the Samode Haveli hotel in Jaipur. Photo: Vishal Bhatnagar/MintPremium
Jhumpa Lahiri at the Samode Haveli hotel in Jaipur. Photo: Vishal Bhatnagar/Mint

In one of her sessions at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), Jhumpa Lahiri described herself as “a writer without a real language". For an author whose first collection of stories won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it is an intriguing confession. How does it make you feel? I ask her when we meet on a freezing Sunday morning at the Samode Haveli, a boutique hotel in the heart of Jaipur, where she is staying with her husband and two children. “It is an oddly clarifying feeling," Lahiri says. “But, as with everything else in my life, it is also disconcerting."

Dressed sharply in a black coat and boots, Lahiri, 46, speaks softly, articulating her thoughts with intense concentration. Self-assured without being glib, there is a touch of diffidence about her. But she can also be positively disarming. On learning that I am Bengali, she slips in the odd phrase in Bangla, and breaks into a rare smile as she says it. “So many of my stories come to me from other people telling me their own stories," she says. After spending an hour talking to her, I am not surprised.

Participating in the JLF for the first time this year, Lahiri had made news the day before I met her. American literature, she had argued, was “massively overrated" compared to translations from other languages. Asked about her view on “the global novel", she had said the term was a useful label for commercial purposes. “As an aesthetic category, it is closer to universal." She mentioned Alice Munro (“a writer I adore") as someone who manages to break down the barrier between the local and the global. I ask her now about Ashapurna Devi, the Bengali writer whose stories Lahiri had translated in the 1990s as part of a workshop, and had, reportedly, learned a great deal from her craft.

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Lahiri’s husband and children. Photo: Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times

Ashapurna Devi wrote about women and men whose lives were claustrophobically restricted by social, economic and psychological conditions. “Her language felt pure, immediate and radically different from what I was reading in English at the time," Lahiri remembers. “But it was her understanding of human nature, along with her ability to peel away the layers within the family, that fascinated me most."

At the time, Lahiri was trying to write a little, though she wasn’t sure where it was going. “Gradually, I started becoming interested in the idea of family," she says. “Why is a family such a profound mystery? Yet, whether we choose to make one our own, very few people come into the world without a sense of family."

Ashapurna Devi’s stories, as Lahiri puts it, were full of “the stunning complexities, dysfunctions and dissimulations of family life", in spite of the love and the bond that existed among her characters. That and the city of Kolkata, from where her parents came, started deepening Lahiri’s awareness of the divide between the inner and outer lives of people.

“Kolkata is one of those places where it can be hard to be alone because you are constantly surrounded by people," says Lahiri. “In America, you open the door with your key, go into the house, and you are locked in this airtight thing. In Kolkata, not only there are more people, but the social boundaries are also more porous, which makes interior lives all the more precious and powerful." In Lahiri’s case, every visit to the city resulted in a further reckoning with who she was.

Born in London in 1967, Lahiri moved to the US with her parents when she was 2. “The house in Kolkata, the Lahiribari, represented an alternative reality to my parents," she says. It is the model for the dwelling in Tollygunge where the Mitra family lives in The Lowland. “When my parents’ marriage was being negotiated, it was decided they would stay in London for two years before they went back to Kolkata." But instead of returning, Lahiri’s father moved his wife and daughter to the US.

“My mother kept hoping we would go back to India," says Lahiri. “And it wasn’t until I was eight years old that my parents bought the house they still own. My mother says she realized that day they would never return to India." This decision, and the feeling of being out of place induced by it, became vital to Lahiri’s emotional history. The stories in Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and Unaccustomed Earth (2008), as well as The Namesake (2003), her first novel, are haunted by protagonists struggling to make peace with their complicated, and often conflicting, legacies.

“Now my parents are towards the end of their lives, and I don’t think my father, whose choice it was to move to the US, ever regrets making it," says Lahiri. “But I know it was not an easy choice."

Lahiri’s own battles were no less difficult.

“Language, identity, place, home: these are all of a piece—just different elements of belonging and not-belonging," says Lahiri. “The essential dilemma of my life is between my deep desire to belong and my suspicion of belonging." All her life, she has observed the effect of uprooting people who are profoundly rooted. “That’s my parents," she says, “They leave India, they feel ambivalent for the rest of their lives about the choices they have made, they are always looking over their shoulders, and feeling caught in a state of suspension. Those are the people who raised me."

Growing up in the US, a country that was never entirely hers, and yet unable to be fully at home in Kolkata, Lahiri felt a keen sense of the tension between languages. “I spoke Bengali absolutely without any exception until I was four years old," she says. “When I started going to school, I was terrified, partly because I could only speak one language." She picked up English quickly, though her parents, especially her mother, never liked her speaking it.

“For her, the language I spoke was the most basic way for me to be either Bengali or not-Bengali," Lahiri says, “I was always aware of what the language I was using meant in terms of my bond with my parents—how it defined the lines of affection between us. When I spoke English, I felt I wasn’t completely their child any more, but the child of another language."

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‘The Lowland’ was in the 2013 Man Booker Prize shortlist. Photo: AFP

“Because of the way I look, when I walk into a store, Italians speak to me in English: May I ’elp you?" she says, putting on an accent. But to American tourists, she looks more Italian than American. If they ever stop her on the streets to ask for directions, they try their broken Italian on her. “I usually play along and answer back in Italian," Lahiri says. “But if I am feeling mischievous, I startle them by asking, ‘Would you like me to speak English?’ It’s completely crazy!"

Seeing her mother missing Kolkata and suffer all her life, Lahiri decided, early on, not to belong to any one place. The resolve has been hugely liberating, though she does envy her parents for having a centre of gravity somewhere in the world—something she doesn’t have. “I have my husband and children near me in Rome, and I feel this is where we are temporarily belonging," she says. “But personally, all my life, I have felt the absence of a sense of history."

In The Lowland, Lahiri tries to recover a history that was not physically her own; and yet, it was always a part of her consciousness. “America has a history—one that is young—but it was not what my parents felt remotely connected to," she says. “One of the first things I remember my parents and their friends talking about in America was the Naxal movement in the 1970s." Once the worst part of the period was over, she would hear them talk about people they knew who were involved with the atrocities. Around this time, Lahiri heard from her father the story of two brothers, in the neighbourhood of her paternal family home in Kolkata’s Tollygunge, being rounded up on suspicion of treason, and one of them being killed by the police in broad daylight.

“The incident filled me with almost a sense of shame," says Lahiri. “I felt, God, I’m both so protected and ignorant. I could have been raised in that house, had my father chosen to stay in Kolkata. I had visited it so many times. I had looked out of the window and seen the very spot where it all happened."

The tragedy had a resonance with her not simply because of its gruesomeness, but rather, for its spectacular nature: the way the murdered man’s family had been lined up and forced to watch it unfold. “My parents weren’t in Kolkata when it happened," she says. “They had heard about the incident from other people. Later, I made them repeat it to me several times."

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Naxal leader Kanu Sanyal’s suicide features in ‘The Lowland’. Photo: Hindustan Times

“It was only after the book was three-quarters cooked that I went to Kolkata to speak to people there," Lahiri says. “For years, I’ve been filling up notebooks with dates, facts and observations, doing character-building exercises, but nothing was penetrating until I understood the protagonists." Suddenly, as she started speaking to those who had witnessed or participated in the movement, the novel started coming to life.

A year after her visit to Kolkata, Kanu Sanyal, an iconic Naxal leader, killed himself. For the purposes of Lahiri’s story, the event seemed to bring in the right kind of closure. “I wanted to show that although the movement itself may have been brief, its impact on the lives of the characters, especially on Gauri, had been far-reaching," says Lahiri. “I obviously wanted to do justice to the political dimensions of the plot. But for me, The Lowland, in the end, is the story of what happens to a family after they are exposed to shocking violence."

The project Lahiri is currently working on—a book of essays, and one story, written in Italian—is more directly personal. “It’s an experiment in a kind of linguistic autobiography," she says. Her love for the language began 20 years ago, when she visited the country for the first time. On her return to the US, Lahiri started taking Italian lessons, and eventually got a PhD in Renaissance Studies, with a thesis on the use of Italian architecture in Jacobean drama.

“I wrote about the role of the palazzo, or the Italian palace, in the works of playwrights like Thomas Middleton and Thomas Marston," she says. “To the English, the Italian style of building was confusing—it was attractive and alluring but also threatening, very catholic, corrupt and sensual. It was, oddly, like a version of India to them."

Italy, Lahiri says, has completed a triangle in her life. “Having been raised in America and after coming to India for all these years, I can now see beyond the two antipodes of my life and, oddly, feel very much at home in Rome for now," she says. “Italy is literally, geographically, in the middle, between India and the US. It is also culturally situated somewhere between these two societies." She doesn’t know if writing in Italian is just a phase or whether it will lead to a permanent rejection of English, as Samuel Beckett did when he moved over to French.

“I happen to have lived in three countries so far. But even if I were to live in three other places, and work hard to get to know their languages, the assumption will always be that I don’t know them," says Lahiri. “Apart from my personal connection with the people I love, language is the most precious thing I have. And yet, I always somehow feel at fault."

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Published: 25 Jan 2014, 12:10 AM IST
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