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Monday, October 22, 2012

Jhumpa Lahiri

(Click here for the Romanian version)

Firstly I saw the movie made by Mira Nair, The Namesake. Then I found in bookshops the novel written by Jhumpa Lahiri. It was her second book, coming after a collection of short stories with an intriguing title, Interpreter of Maladies.

A very few words about who Jhumpa Lahiri is: born in London, where her parents had come from Calcutta, they moved to the US when she was three years old. She is now in her forties and lives in New York: a Brooklyn neighborhood (Fort Greene) that has been home for some famous writers, Whitman and Capote among them. Steinbeck also lived there for a time, and Amitav Ghosh (of Bengali origin, like Jhumpa Lahiri) is one of the current residents.

The biographic details of Jhumpa Lahiri belong to the universe of her personages: second generation of Indian-Americans, all of them university graduates living on the East Coast, fully belonging to the Western world, with a twist given by the birthplace of their parents - an identity of origin coming intrusively every now and then, to balance in unexpected ways the new identity they have built for themselves.

You'd say it is the experience of all immigrants, though a nuance needs to be added: Indian culture is radically different from ours, in all respects - religion, traditions, alphabet, family relations, cuisine, clothing, everything. And in the same time nowhere else is the English culture more present.

At the beginning I viewed the stories of Jhumpa Lahiri as a preparatory stage for the novel. It's much more than that. It is the same universe, but, while the novel  offers a long single journey through it, a collection of stories brings multiple short journeys, different views, different perspectives: each story adds a new nuance, completely independent from the others. Story after story, case studies of these Indian-Americans, their relations with other people their age, of Indian origin or not, with the generation of their parents, with people they meet while vacationing in India.

All of them live in Boston (where Jhumpa Lahiri took her academic degrees), cross the Public Garden and the Common any given day, go along Commonwealth Mall, or Boylston Street, or Washington Street (there is a great sense of immediacy in the way these stories are told). They live their American lives while the Indian world keeps on coming to mirror itself in the American world, present and past mirroring one another, country of adoption and country of origin.

Namesake, the movie, manages this play of mirrors through visual poetry: a superb meditation in images, with the views of the American city fading back and forth in the views of Calcutta.

Director Mira Nair is an image gourmet, while Jhumpa Lahiri is a gourmet of words, with sudden revelations of astounding semantic constructions. Take for instance  a boy named Gogol - it came to her mind unexpectedly, long time ago... was she just reading a story of the Russian? Had she observed someone just passing the street and was she trying to find some keyword for him?  Did the association strike her by pure chance? Firstly as an amusing, impossible invention, then nurtured by her imagination? Who knows? It emerged suddenly and it remained to obsess her for ten or twenty years, till the novel was born, The Namesake.

An Indian family in Boston, second generation. She is working at a publishing house. he is preparing a PhD at Harvard. She is realizing that they entered a family crisis and should separate. How to say this to him? And he is actually the one who's telling the story to us: becoming himself aware of their crisis, while being afraid of separation, trying to understand what she is trying to tell him, eventually getting what she has in mind. Her inner world revealed in his.

Another Indian-American family, again second generation, again the husband in the academia world. The crisis came long time ago, and remained there with them. For her, the husband became just a stranger, along with their kids. The only child she loves was made with another man: an affair of several years ago. The husband is completely unaware of the crisis, of the affair, of anything. They are now in a trip to India. A local driver is hired. He  works also as translator for a physician whose patients speak different local idioms. A translator, an interpreter of maladies. Her soul sends reverberations to him, and he's trying to interpret them. Did she fall in love for him, as he believes? No, it's not. It's that she cannot keep her secrets for herself anymore, she needs to confess, to be listened. To be mirrored in an interpreter of maladies.

Another family, first generation this time - he is teaching at Harvard, she stays at home. Their little daughter is telling us the story. For several months they have a guest at dinner almost every evening, a gentleman from Bangladesh. The guest is very polite, and has a very special way to discuss with kids, somehow formally, while definitely warmly. His family remained in Bangladesh where the situation is very tensioned right now - they just split from Pakistan, everything is in turmoil. The daughter is too small to comprehend the political drama, but she feels the guest is troubled by something. Eventually he returns to his country and after some time they get a postal card from him: a thank you note with the photo of his wife and kids. And the little daughter understands now his troubles: he was missing his kids the same way she is now missing him.

An American child with an Indian nurse - her husband is teaching at Harvard, she's missing India - her soul mirrored in the soul of the American child. I was reading this story one evening, meanwhile midnight had come, and I could not leave the book. Nothing was happening in the story, but it was like a spell. Just atmosphere, nothing else, woven in wizardry. I was thinking at Hou Hsiao-Hsien's movies. Well, there are differences, though. Hou is as minimalist as it can be, Lahiri is not. What she has is a formidable gift of communicating the immediacy, of pulling out the sense from the apparent banality. Maybe Josef Sudek, the Czech photographer, would be a better term of comparison.

An American woman has an Indian lover. This is fine, only the man is married, thus their relationship will slowly fade. She doesn't know his wife, and is trying to imagine what's in her mind. A co-worker of her, an Indian-American, has a cousin whose husband has left for an American woman.  The cousin is suffering, while determined to forgive if he comes back.

Meanwhile a third book came from Jhumpa Lahiri, again a collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth: as I said, she has the gift of wizardry - her knowledge of telling stories is out of common - and her way of finding extraordinary constructions of words, like a boy named Gogol -  they come in the mind of an ordinary writer maybe once in a hundred years.

(A Life in Books)

(Una Vita Tra I Libri)



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