Why Jhumpa Lahiri Is Essential Reading To Understand Indian Diaspora
I remember getting introduced to Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing with the book The Namesake, and anyone who loves reading will definitely have read the book. As for me, I rushed to buy the book before the movie was released because I am of the opinion that a movie based on a book doesn’t do justice to the writing, but watch the movie I will, at the same time didn’t want to spoil the pleasure of reading it as well. To cut the long story short in my opinion the movie The Namesake is one of those rare movies that was brilliantly orchestrated on-screen by Mira Nair, not surprising though with the outstanding star cast of Irrfan Pathan and Tabu playing the lead protagonists. And the ‘wow’ moment for me was when I saw Lahiri herself in a cameo role as ‘Aunt Jhumpa’ in the movie.
I have been following her body of work since then. Other than The Namesake which was released in 2003, I have also read Interpreter of Maladies, Unaccustomed Earth and The Lowdown, all her major books. It was from her books that I got to understand that the Indian diaspora now has a voice, more specifically I understood how Indian immigrants lived in America. In her body of work it is fascinating to read how her characters navigate between the cultural values of their homeland and their adopted home. I am sure she drew on her own personal experience as although she was born in London, her family moved to the United States when she was just two. Lahiri felt at home in the US and considers herself an American, and had said, “I wasn’t born here, but I might as well have been.”
I am sure she drew on her own personal experience as although she was born in London, her family moved to the United States when she was just two.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s birthday falls on July 11, she was born on that date in 1967 in London. Lahiri grew up in Rhode Island, where her father worked as a librarian at the University of Rhode Island. Did she pick up her love for the written word from him? I wonder.
Talking about her ‘immigrant fiction’, a term she disagrees with because according to her, “writers originate from different parts of the world than the ones they end up living in, either by choice or by necessity or by circumstance, and therefore, write about those experiences. If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction?”
The second book by her that I totally love is Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of stories which was released in 1999 and went on to win the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it was only the seventh time a collection of stories had won the award, which speaks volumes about her craft. Her stories addressed themes like marital discords, mourning the loss of a stillborn child, and the discomforting disconnect between first and second generation US immigrants. The collection received rave reviews by American critics, and sold 600,000 copies. I am not surprised why it became a bestseller.
The story depicts the beautiful balancing act that Indian immigrants do like caring for their parents and at the same time look after their immediate families as well. A very Indian thing to do.
In 2008 her second collection of short stories Unaccustomed Earth was released. And it debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list. By now her reputation as an author with original craft was established. I was lost in the family relationships depicted in the book, relationships between three generations: a father, his daughter, Ruma, and her son, Akash. The story is a study in gender roles in American society and family issues associated with the protagonist’s Bengali heritage. The story depicts the beautiful balancing act that Indian immigrants do like caring for their parents and at the same time look after their immediate families as well. A very Indian thing to do, something they haven’t let go of till now.
The Lowland, Lahiri’s second novel, released in 2013, and she was at her best according to me. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and not without reason. A novel spread that over 50 years of Indian and American history is about Subhash and Udayan Mitra, two brothers, starting to explore their surroundings during Naxalite movement in West Bengal in 1967. Though the brothers are attracted by the communist movement while at university, Subhash, the more cautious and sensible one quickly perceives the danger involved and steps back, he leaves for the US to study. Udayan, on the other hand, stays back, becomes involved in politics; he becomes someone who believes that violence against the state is justified in the name of revolution. No more spoilers for now, to know more read the book, if you haven’t still read it, you won’t be disappointed.
The novel spread over 50 years of Indian and American history is about Subhash and Udayan Mitra, two brothers, starting to explore their surroundings during Naxalite movement in West Bengal in 1967.
If anyone subscribes to The New Yorker magazine they would know that Lahiri has had a special relationship with it and has published a number of her short stories, both fiction and non-fiction which includes The Long Way Home; Cooking Lessons, an endearing story about the importance of food in Lahiri’s relationship with her mother and her latest story titled The Boundary which was published by the magazine in 2018. The story explores the life of two families dwelling on the contrasting features between them. So, what is Lahiri doing now, probably learning and writing in Italian. In December 2015, she published a non-fiction essay called ‘Teach Yourself Italian’. In the essay she had written that she is now going to write only in Italian.
I am sure she will not disappoint fans like me and we can expect a book from her soon. No, I have not read her latest releases In Other Words or The Clothing of Books, will have to buy them first. Till then I am going to re-read one of her books that I have. Because they are worth it!
Picture credit: Montclair State University
Smita Singh is an editor with SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are her own.