In Search of One’s Self

One of the contemporary’s leading literary voices is Jhumpa Lahiri. The road to her success, however, was no walk in the park. She already had a flair for writing even before she took a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature degree at Barnard College. She spent most of her twenties pursuing intellectual pursuits but was not totally convinced about pursuing a literary career; on top of completing her degree, she also completed three master’s degrees (in English, creative writing, and comparative literature and arts) and a doctorate in Renaissance studies. During graduate school, she started writing short stories that appeared in various publications such as The New Yorker, Harvard Review, and Story Quarterly.

Commercial and critical success only arrived in 1999, following the publication of her debut book, Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories, including some of those she wrote during her graduate school days. It was a literary sensation that won Lahiri the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, making it just the seventh short story collection to win the prestigious literary prize. The book also won the 2000 PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction. One thing was ostensible: the world of literature found its new voice. It didn’t take long for Lahiri to venture into writing full-length novels. In 2018, she published her first novel in Italian, Dove mi trovo. She also worked on its English translation, which was eventually released in 2020 as Whereabouts.

In Lahiri’s third novel and her first since The Lowland (2013), she reeled in her reader’s curiosity with the story of an anonymous character who was living in an unnamed place. The only pieces of information drawn with certainty were the character’s gender and the character’s occupation. The book’s main character was a woman who was teaching at an unnamed university in a nameless town. It was mainly through context clues that Lahiri provided details from which the readers can build the character’s profile and capture her psychological profile. She was in her mid-forties and was living alone. At the start of the story, it seemed that she had no family and had no real relationship except for connections with friends who, like the main character, were nameless.

“But it’s not just my eyes that suffer at dawn, it’s my heart that breaks. I feel the light that blazes across the city, striking my face but also warming my marrow, and as it rises I continue to look at my neighbors’ laundry, threadbare and bone-dry. Then I close my eyes so that I see the light through my eyelids, and I regret being typically sluggish and missing out on this extraordinary, everyday phenomenon”

~ Jhumpa Lahiri, Whereabouts

The plot component of Whereabouts was thin compared to Lahiri’s earlier works. In more than one way, the novel was a deviation from the elements that have characterized her prose. In the place of robust tales about South Asian immigrants and their offspring was a story that mapped one nameless woman’s psychological profile with acuity. With the power of Lahiri’s writing, it was as riveting as its predecessors, a testament to the beauty and the magic of her storytelling and prose. She provided an intimate glimpse into a life woven primarily through the bits and pieces of threads acquired from people who she crossed paths with. Her life and identity were too anchored on this group of people that their prolonged absence was slowly evolving into isolation.

And yet there were disruptions from her monotonous life, such as babysitting for a friend, or the occasional unscheduled dinners with a friend. She also attends weddings and baptisms. But despite these social occasions she partakes in, she often finds herself detached from the group, solitary even. Her bimonthly visits to her mother offered a very little reprieve. She was simply living up to her responsibilities as the dutiful daughter. Every visit, however, was as equally detached as her other social calls. So how does one find meaning and beauty in all the repetitions? Misery loves company while solitude loves misery: “Solitude demands a precise assessment of time, I’ve always understood this. It’s like the money in your wallet: you have to know how much time you need to kill, how much to spend before dinner, what’s left over before going to bed.”

The literal translation of the book’s original title, Dove Mi Trovo, is “where I find myself” or “where I am”, a fitting title that captured the impasse that the main character found herself in. Ironically, for a story that evokes the image of a place, the novel was scant in geographic details, including the character’s hometown. There was very little sense of place, contributing to the sense of claustrophobia hovering above the story. It was only through descriptions of the local atmosphere and local references such as piazzas and trattorias that the readers can build an image of Italy. She was also referred to as signora, another reference to Italy.

While the novel abounded with descriptions of the local atmosphere, Lahiri never provided specific hints to enable the readers to single out the location. It could be anywhere in Italy. Nonetheless, this lack of specificity did little to undermine the book’s overall message which was subtly woven into the narrative. As if to further underline this, several chapters of the book carried titles referring to generic locations such as “In the Pool”, “In the Bookstore”, “At the Trattoria”, “On the Sidewalk”, and “At the Register”. There were also chapters that referred to a time or a period such as “In August”, “At Dawn”, and “Upon Waking”. The readers can feel how time slowly becomes heavier as one spends it in solitude. All of these details converged to capture the portrait of seemingly domestic existence. The mundane provided a lush landscape upon which both the character and the reader can ruminate.

“As disappointed as I am, I’m not surprised that my beloved stationery store no longer exists, the rents must be sky-high around here, and furthermore, who buys notebooks in the end? My students can barely write by hand, they press buttons to learn about life and explore the world. Their thoughts emerge on screens and dwell inside clouds that have no substance, no shortage of space.”

~ Jhumpa Lahiri, Whereabouts

For Lahiri, the place was not just of the physical or the geographical kind. With her dexterous guidance, the meaning of place took the shape of the emotional. Existentialism was a prevalent subject. In the main character, we see a drifter and yet she lived a highly-regimented life. Every detail of her quotidian life was driven by discipline, even the minutest detail. Her teaching occupied a huge chunk of her life and from it, the rest of her existence branched out. It was around it that she built her routine. Her writings were also anchored on her vocation. She went out to lunch by herself, frequenting a trattoria and ordering different dishes every day. To keep herself fit, she swims twice a week at dinnertime, and to pamper herself, she indulges twice a month by having a Sunday manicure. It was a humdrum existence akin to getting swept away by the crowd. She was barely distinguishable.

It was a bleak portrait of an existence. In a way, it is the portrait of a woman experiencing a proverbial mid-life crisis. We see a woman trying to navigate a critical juncture in her life. It is a point in time where one is seized by sudden of moments introspection. Through flashbacks, we learn more about the mysterious character, and her psychological profile took a firmer shape. Her disciplined life belied a younger life that skirted the edges. She had lovers, some of whom were married or unfaithful. At one point, she entertained the possibility of having an illicit affair with the husband of her friend. It crossed her mind to take “things a step further”. These were seemingly out-of-character but they provided a distinct texture to an otherwise monochromatic character.

As the unnamed character sweeps us with her story, she indulged the readers with her candid reflections on her unhappy childhood. The ghost of the past kept making its presence felt and she had no one else to blame but her parents, especially her father whose passivity did not protect her daughter from his wife’s vicious tongue. It left a deep scar that she had to consult with a therapist for a year, of which she opened up in a chapter titled On the Couch: “At every session she would ask me to tell her something positive. Unfortunately my childhood harbors few memories.”

All of these candid confessions seem to point out a feeling of being trapped, by memories, by her present circumstances, and by her own mind. Her journey of reflection abounded with philosophical intersections. In one part, she started to accept the impermanence of things, of life. For instance, a stationery store she was attached to may no longer be there the following week because it has been replaced by a different establishment. This was but one of many eureka moments for her. Perhaps the biggest of these moments of enlightenment took place in the concluding pages of the book. This moment of catharsis made her reexamine her life. As many of us have realized, in order for us to grow, we must step out of our comfort zones.

“That vast and vaporous territory, lacking precise pathways, is all that binds us together now. But it never preserves our tracks. The sky, unlike the sea, never holds on to the people that pass through it. The sky contains nothing of our spirit, it doesn’t care. Always shifting, altering its aspect from one moment to the next, it can’t be defined.”

~ Jhumpa Lahiri, Whereabouts

All of the novel’s finer qualities were woven together by Lahiri’s writing prowess, one that she has proven time and again. With the power of her prose, she managed to make the readers inhabit the mind of her anonymous character. Her namelessness seemed to form the idea that she can be any of us. Pronouns were traded for adjectives and yet it did not undermine the literary journey. It was a haunting experience that requires patience for the story to unfold and captivate. It evoked an interesting yet unique sense of time, place, and even emotions that effectively propelled the story.

In her third novel, Lahiri pushed the boundaries of her prose. In more than one way, Whereabouts was a deviation from subjects she typically grappled with. But then again, departure was familiar territory for Lahiri. She was born to Indian immigrants in London but was raised in the United States. Whereabouts was also her first novel written in Italian. Veering away from her typical tales of South Asian immigrant experience, Lahiri carefully built the profile of a nameless woman, living in isolation in an unnamed place and explored universal questions of existence. It was a vivid portrait of solitude and the ubiquitous experience of standing at the crossroads of life. Whereabouts was deceptively slender but it was, nonetheless, a lush tapestry, a ruminative and philosophical piece that makes the readers reflect on where they are in life.

“The city doesn’t beckon or lend me a shoulder today. Maybe it knows I’m about to leave. The sun’s dull disk defeats me; the dense sky is the same one that will carry me away. The vast and vaporous territory, lacking precise pathways, is all that binds us together now. But it never preserves our tracks. The sky, unlike the sea, never holds on to the people that pass through it. The sky contains nothing of our spirit, it doesn’t care. Always shifting, altering its aspect from one moment to the next, it can’t be defined.”

~ Jhumpa Lahiri, Whereabouts
Rating

78%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 
19%
Writing (25%) – 
22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
12%

I can’t remember when I first encountered Jhumpa Lahiri. It was probably 2015 or 2016 when I obtained a copy of her first novel, The Namesake. It was an interesting glimpse into a foreign culture, of how each culture views different elements of what we often dismiss as inconsequential. In this instance, the emphasis was on the importance of the naming tradition. It was an impressionable read. Half a decade later, I finally got the chance to read another one of her works; I am still apprehensive about The Lowlands although I just might obtain a copy of the book. Driven by curiosity, I bought a copy of her latest novel, Whereabouts which I later on learned was originally written in Italian and was translated by the author herself. The book has an intriguing premise, a starkly different one compared to The Namesake. It was, nonetheless, as riveting. The anonymous character’s plight is one that many of us can relate to. The lack of purpose and the weight of solitude were just among the riveting subjects it tackled. While it was slender, I barely noticed it because Lahiri made wonderful points. Her writing was also impeccable as always. I can’t wait to read more of her works.

Book Specs

Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Translator (from Italian): Jhumpa Lahiri
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 157
Genre: Literary Fiction

Synopsis

A marvelous new novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Lowland and Interpreter of Maladies–her first in nearly a decade.

Exuberance and dread, attachment and estrangement: in this novel, Jhumpa Lahiri stretches her themes to the limit. The woman at the center wavers between stasis and movement, between the need to belong and the refusal to form lasting ties. The city she calls home, an engaging backdrop to her days, acts as a confidant: the sidewalks around her house, parks, bridges, piazzas, streets, stores, coffee bars. We follow her to the pool she frequents and to the train station that sometimes leads her to her mother, mired in a desperate solitude after her father’s untimely death. In addition to colleagues at work, where she never quite feels at ease, she has girl friends, guy friends, and “him,” a shadow who both consoles and unsettles her. But in the arc of a year, as one season gives way to the next, transformation awaits. One day at the sea, both overwhelmed and replenished by the sun’s vital heat, her perspective will change.

This is the first novel she has written in Italian and translated into English. It brims with the impulse to cross barriers. By grafting herself onto a new literary language, Lahiri has pushed herself to a new level of artistic achievement. (Source: Goodreads)

About the Author

Nilanjana Sudeshna Lahiri was born on July 11, 1967, in London, England to Bengali parents from Calcutta (now Kolkata) — her father a university librarian, and her mother a schoolteacher — and moved to London. When she was three, the family moved to the United States where they settled in Kingston, Rhode Island. Her kindergarten teacher started calling her Jhumpa as it was easier to pronounce than her complete name. It stuck and it was the name Lahiri used as her penname. Lahiri graduated from South Kingstown High School and completed her Bachelor of Arts in English literature at Barnard College of Columbia University in 1989. She also completed four graduate school degrees at the Boston University:  an M.A. in English, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, an M.A. in Comparative Literature, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies.

Prior to her university studies, Lahiri wrote prolifically but it was not until her graduate school education that she fully embraced the life of a writer. She wrote a score of short stories that appeared in publications such as  The New YorkerHarvard Review, and Story Quarterly. Some of these short stories became part of what would be her first book, The Interpreter of Maladies, which was published in 1999. It was both a critical and commercial success. It earned her the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, making it just the seventh short story collection to win the prestigious literary award. It also won the 2000 PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction.

Riding this wave of momentum, Lahiri published her first novel, The Namesake, in 2003. Her third book, Unaccustomed Earth (2008), was another short story collection. Her fourth book and second novel, The Lowland (2013), was nominated for both the Booker Prize and the National Book Award. It won Lahiri the 2015 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. In 2015, Lahiri published her first book in Italian, In altre parole (In Other Words) which won the Premio Internazionale Viareggio-Versilia. It was also her first non-fiction book. In 2018, she published her latest novel, Dove mi trovo (Whereabouts) which she also translated to English in 2021. Her latest work, Translating Myself and Others (2022), is a collection of essays.

In 2014, Lahiri was awarded the National Humanities Medal. Apart from writing, she served as a professor of creative writing at Princeton University from 2015 to 2022. In 2022, she became the Millicent C. McIntosh Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at her alma mater, Barnard College of Columbia University. In 2012, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was also named Commendatore Ordine al Merito della Republica Italiana (Commander of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic) by President Sergio Mattarella in 2019. In 2001, Lahiri married Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, a journalist who was then deputy editor of TIME Latin America. In 2012, Lahiri and her husband and two children moved to Rome.