Jhumpa Lahiri is still asking what it means to belong, though not for immigrants

Jhumpa Lahiri is still asking what it means to belong, though not for immigrants

In an interview in 2017, one year before she published Dove mi trovo, her first novel in Italian, Jhumpa Lahiri spoke about her metamorphosis as a writer. “I used to look for an identity that could be sharp, acceptable, mine. But now the idea of a precise identity seems a trap.”

Five years earlier, Lahiri had surprised readers and friends alike by moving to Rome, led by an overriding desire to immerse herself in Italy, and more specifically, its language. In 2015, she published her first book in Italian, In altre parole, a work of non-fiction in which she asked herself, “why this escape, where do I have to get to, what am I trying to leave behind?”

Over a decade after becoming the literary default for the Indian-American experience in fiction – The Interpreter of Maladies, her Pulitzer-winning debut short story collection was published in 1999, followed by The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth, and Lowland, all of which explore lives of Indian immigrants in America – the answer to that question, at least partially, seems self-evident.

Fragments

In Whereabouts, her own translation of Dove mi trovo into English, Lahiri revels in an abjuration of the precise identity she had been chafing against. The novel is structured in the form of brief vignettes told by an unnamed narrator in an unnamed city in an unnamed country. In fact, Lahiri avoids names and specifics altogether in the entirety of the book – of places, characters, nationalities. The few biographical details we know are that the narrator is 46 years old, an academic and writer (of what, we never find out), and most crucially, lives alone in the city she has inhabited since she was born.

Whereabouts is a novel of fragments, each of its short chapters offering a brief window into the narrator’s personality and life – getting a coffee from her regular barista, waiting for a doctor’s appointment, or sitting in bed on a Saturday unable to leave the house. There is a sense of time passing, the changing seasons point to the turning of a year, but there are no clear linkages between these vignettes. And yet, when viewed as a whole, this patchwork somehow adds up to a pattern of life, meshing together to even result in an almost inexorable shift in its narrator.

Lahiri titles her chapters with mostly geographical (and occasionally temporal) prepositional markers: “In The Bookstore”, “In The Hotel”, “In August”, “At The Trattoria”, the latter among a few signposts that the unnamed country is Italy and the city, Rome. In a few interludes, titled “In My Head”, the narrator attempts to dig into her past to investigate her melancholy, her anxiety, her fear of taking leaps.

She wonders why her parents – a mother who was prone to bouts of rage and a loner father who died when she was 15 – are “still nipping at my heels”. It’s an intriguing literary device and play on the act of perception. Viewed through the singular lens of the narrator, all places, and most tellingly, characters, exist only in relation to her.

Possibilities

“Solitude: it’s become my trade,” she observes. “As it requires a certain discipline it’s a condition I try to perfect. And yet it plagues me, it weighs on me in spite of me knowing it so well.” This tension between the pleasures of aloneness and the pitfalls of loneliness, between her almost chronic discontentment and flashes of joy, is the erect spine that holds up Lahiri’s slim novel.

When a therapist asks her to tell her a positive memory for a change, something her childhood is severely lacking in, the narrator talks about sitting on the balcony off her apartment, feeling the sun shining on her and eating breakfast.

She is by no means a shut-in who entirely avoids human company or obligations. She has friends whom she sees occasionally, she alludes to lovers, she describes run-ins with her friend’s husband in their neighbourhood, as “pleasant encounters”, and when she’s needed in an emergency to dogsit, she shows up without a moment’s pause.

And yet, the lovers seem to be mere afterthoughts and her interactions with people either leave her depleted – after seeing the daughter of friends’ of hers, she looks back at her own life, depressed at the lack of love and adventure in her youth; going into her office makes her feel “exposed” – or lead her to make projections about the lacks in their lives, a protective barrier against any in her own.

The few people she does find moments of solace in are the barista she gets her coffee from (“a person I confide all sorts of things to, though I couldn’t tell you why”) or the man who sells her the same sandwich at least three times a week. As she eats one on a summer day, the sun pouring down on her, “each bite, feeling sacred, reminds me I’m not forsaken.”

Uninterrupted by a partner, children, siblings, or friends, she finds a patterned rhythm of activity, a relationship with her neighbourhood. Twice a month she goes to the beautician, twice a week at dinner time she goes to the pool, she visits her favourite stationery store, eats lunch at a trattoria at noon (by two, it is too full). “Solitude requires a precise assessment of time. I’ve always known this. You need to know how much time you need to kill, how much to spend before dinner, what’s leftover before going to bed.”

Whereabouts is haunted by the question of possibilities and what it means for a woman who is so established in her way of life, someone who wishes her mother would understand that solitude affords her “small pleasures” while at times missing the “pleasant share a companion might provide.” Is this it? Would that be so bad?

“Without saying a word to each other we know that, if we chose to, we could venture into something reckless,” she thinks about the possibility of an affair with her friend’s husband, only to add immediately after, “also pointless”.

Earnestness

Lahiri’s prose, famed (and sometimes derided) for its minimalist realism, is taken one step further in Whereabouts. Structured as the novel is in the form of brief vignettes, Whereabouts is replete with precise, sublime writing. Her narrator, a writer herself, turns detached observation into a virtue.

“Here he is in the bookstore,” she says of an ex-boyfriend who cheated on her for five years. “What he’s really doing is studying me,” she explains the behaviour of a pompous man married to an old friend. Having done away with physical descriptors for her narrator – we do not know what she looks like, how she dresses, what colour her hair is – Lahiri is free to delve into the physicality of actually being, of an experiential understanding of existence.

While writing about Lahiri’s debut, The Interpreter of Maladies, for The New York Times in 1999, Michiko Kakatuni described her as a writer of “uncommon elegance and poise”. Two decades later, the elegance undoubtedly remains a hallmark of her writing.

In a novel as intimate and mediated as Whereabouts, however, that doesn’t always make for compelling reading. There’s something prosaic about Lahiri’s dedication to poise when combined with her narrator’s despondency and detachment. Even as she experiments with form, Lahiri remains a traditionalist when it comes to refinement.

I yearned at several moments for the control to drop, for Lahiri to dig deeper, for her to get uglier, bloodier, like the only occasion in the novel where the narrator displays an inflamed emotion, turning to a guest at a dinner and snapping, “Do you realise you have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about?”

Simultaneously, there are moments of unusual earnestness in the novel. As with all things earnest, it’s a sword that cuts both ways. In the absence of irony, Lahiri writes, “In spring I suffer.” Of a neighbourhood that’s emptying out she writes that it “wastes away like an old woman who was once a stunning beauty”. Of “some elegant women” she sees on the street, her narrator clumsily observes that “they succumb to a few pastries even though they’re always on a diet, and they take advantage of the sales.”

Pure guesswork indicates this might be a facet of the excitement of creation in a new language. In an essay about the act of translating her own book, Lahiri writes that she was not interested in rewriting any of it to arrive at a “more supple, mature version of it in English.” Yet it is the same earnestness that has led Lahiri to exactly that, one of her most mature works of fiction till date, an escape from the gilded cage of expectations.

“When all is said and done the setting doesn’t matter,” the narrator of Whereabouts writes towards the end of the novel, having made the decision to leave, albeit temporarily, the city she’s always lived in. For all that Lahiri’s new novel seems to differ from her oeuvre, its central concern remains similar to her other work. It’s simply been flipped on its head.

What does it mean to belong, Lahiri is asking, when your entire existence is tied to one place, lived under one shadow? There may be no transcontinental displacement but her narrator is in many ways still an outsider.

Quoting the Italian writer Italo Svevo, the book’s epigraph states, “Every time my surroundings change I feel enormous sadness. It’s the change itself that unsettles me.”

But, Lahiri seems to say, that’s how the metamorphosis happens.

Whereabouts: A Novel, Jhumpa Lahiri, Hamish Hamilton.

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