Review: Sophiya Sharmaon Jhumpa Lahiri

The Wanderer’s Tongue is a Coiled Serpent

Since the turn of the century, Jhumpa Lahiri has translated life in the desi diaspora into elegant prose. When I first read her short stories about South Asian immigrant life in America as a teenager, I recognised a moment that was ahead of our relatively young diaspora in Australia. It was the early 2000s, and the only popular representation of desis that kids like me saw was the caricature Apu on The Simpsons. As a young immigrant I struggled to articulate how small these disparaging stereotypes of the stinky, heavy-accented Indian made me feel. Lahiri’s sophisticated emigrés taught me to envision a different self. Though tokenistic representation in the Australian mainstream is the norm, figures like Pallavi Sharda and Roanna Gonsalves have since affirmed how diasporas mature over time. And now that I have spent my twenties travelling and living in other places, I find my ability to move through worlds has become more important than belonging to just one. As my own identifications shifted, so did my preferences as a reader. That my relationship with Lahiri’s writing endures is a testament to her ability for reinvention. British-Pakistani novelist Hanif Kureishi has said about writers that; ‘Every 10 years you become somebody else.’ Building on and breaking from more than a decade of writing, Lahiri’s Whereabouts (2021) is the product of a becoming which refracts life through the medium of a new linguistic lens.

A solitary figure traverses the piazza. The eternal charm of a stationary store unravels as suitcases replace sundry notebooks and pens in a shop window. Cat’s tongue cookies are dipped into tepid cups of coffee by brittle hands. Braiding an intimate portrait of an anonymous protagonist with the seemingly indifferent rhythms of the world around her, Lahiri scavenges a penetrating account of a life in motion in an Italian city. Whether at the neighbourhood trattoria, in a lingerie store, or visiting her mother’s home in a distant town, the lone meanderings of this scholar are inflected by her unhappy childhood. A meeting with the teenaged daughter of a friend ignites a reflection into her own youth:

As she tells me about the boys that want to date her, amusing stories that make us both laugh, I can’t manage to erase a sense of ineptitude. I feel sad as I laugh; I didn’t know love at her age. What did I do? I read books and studied. I listened to my parents and did what they asked me to. Even though, in the end, I never made them happy. I didn’t like myself, and something told me I’d end up alone.

These lines churn a dormant melancholy inside me as I read them. I recognise the protagonist’s need to wander, as though solitude were her only chance at rebellion in a world where company is currency. Perhaps this is the incarnation into which all of us who lived by the book as teenagers manifest as adults. Unbeknownst even to myself, for years I carried on my feeble shoulders the weight of my parents’ dreams for a better life and opportunities for their daughters in Australia. I worked hard to be seen, hoping that in the absence of any cool cultural capital at school I could nevertheless prove myself a model daughter. My studious days as a teenager – bereft of the thrills promised by young love – soon morphed into a voracious capacity for adventure in my twenties. The grasp of expectations has been tenuous ever since. Or so it seems. Lahiri’s narrative travels to those coiled edges of memory where we discover that our neuroses are shape-shifters and not the kinds of serpents that vanish. Lahiri acquaints us with an individual who artfully surrenders to her early socialisation, and to the labile ennui that infects her as an adult.

We meet the protagonist through short, lucid vignettes in the shape of chapters. These are akin to field notes I often take as an anthropologist watching an event unfold. What Lahiri has written are short auto-ethnographic accounts; the scholar of the self makes an observation and tries to grapple with the history that she brings to it. One such moment of self-inquiry is entitled At the Cash Register, in which she asks:

Was it my parents’ strict tutelage that prompts me to always choose the least-expensive dress, greeting card, dish on the menu? To look at the tag before the item on the rack, the way people look at the descriptions of paintings in a museum before lifting their eyes to the work?

She toys with the idea of buying herself an expensive body oil at the pharmacy, but leaves instead with the pills that she always keeps in her purse in case of a headache. The more she consciously attends to these neuroses, she is reminded that the cavern of memory is bottomless – offering neither refuge nor respite. In these delicate admissions Lahiri sketches the figure of a woman who might closely resemble her but is in actuality a product of the author’s ability to make a home in new worlds. Writing about the lone figure’s ability to move through the contours of the city and this Italian cultural lifeworld with ease, I felt Lahiri imagining another self on the page. There is something of Lahiri’s own becoming to be glimpsed in this character, which is unlike any other in her literary oeuvre.

Alongside the likes of Arundhati Roy and Aravind Adiga, Lahiri’s is a name synonymous with the literary excellence of the Indian subcontinent. Through her masterful mapping of life in the diaspora, she has also established herself as a voice of authority within the United States. In Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies (1999), she gave us a wide and affirming vista of immigrant lives in the United States in an inevitable conversation with home through a series of short stories. Her debut novel, The Namesake (2003), resonated with readers in the subcontinent and the diaspora, following the life of Gogol Ganguli, the son of Bengali immigrants mired in familial expectations and a life of his own between Boston, Kolkata, and New York. With Unaccustomed Earth (2008) she shifted the focus to second and third generation American Indians. Her earlier Indian subject is community-oriented, whereas in these stories she leans into the individual’s pursuit of meaning as time loosens the grip of identity. In all of these critically acclaimed works and in The Lowland (2013), her last novel before Whereabouts, the focus remains on diaspora and its intersections with a lost homeland. Yet this new voice and preoccupation with Italy does not feel like a betrayal because Lahiri’s stories have always been equal parts zeitgeist and augury, showing us around and mapping the terrain ahead at the same time

Descending into the liminal space of a foreign land and language after her move to Italy in 2014, Lahiri wrote In Other Words, published in 2015. In this non-fiction account of her experience as a student of the Italian language, she observed; ‘In the months before coming to Italy, I was looking for another direction for my writing. I wanted a new approach. I didn’t know that the language I had studied slowly for many years in America would, finally, give me the direction.’

After reading In Other Words I became obsessed with Lahiri’s pursuit of perfecting her Italian. Expressing her frustration at having studied Italian for years in the United States and still not being able to get beyond a few short sentences in conversations, Lahiri finally made the move that altered the course of her literary career. I watched in awe as she gave entire interviews in Italian – with resounding affirmations from the Italians who flooded the YouTube comments section. Having been a student of the Spanish language for seven years, and after several trips to Spain for intensive language courses, I felt united with Lahiri in the challenges of such an undertaking. Whereabouts gave me new clues as to why charting a new linguistic territory was so essential to Lahiri as a writer of Indian stories and to me as an immigrant.

Whereabouts is Lahiri’s first novel in Italian, translated by the author herself into English. Knowing Lahiri’s fervent wish to perfect Italian and use it as a bridge to another literary language, I read the character as a version of herself who has a history in this place, whose habitus is wrought by the southern Italian sun into the shapes of the unnamed city and its culture. At times I experienced the protagonist as the adult whose adolescent life has been written elsewhere in an Elena Ferrante novel. I found myself naming the anonymous streets and piazzas after those I had learnt from Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. In the protagonist’s memories of her dismal teenage years I was compelled to name her Giovanna from Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults (2019). For a reader of both authors, Whereabouts is an intertextual ode to the vicissitudes of life, a culmination of inner and outer geographies which Lahiri maps as she mingles her history with this new literary community. By journeying to the inside of a language and its places, Lahiri has brought back a new lens from which to address the lacunae of intimacy and identity that have always charged the lives of her characters.

In 2014 I travelled to Sevilla in search of Manuel Molina, the legendary flamenco singer-songwriter and guitarist. Though my love for flamenco took me there, it was to learn the language that I returned year after year. I adopted an itinerant lifestyle, splitting my time between working part-time jobs in Sydney and spending summers in Spain, learning both the language and a way of life. I adjusted to the slowness imposed by long heat waves, which sanctioned siestas and gave the city a nocturnal rhythm. Having little routine besides my early morning Spanish classes was anathema to my urge for perfection, to constantly achieve.

I grew up mired in familial expectations for excellence. To add to this weight there was always an undercurrent of aspiration amongst the South Asian middle class – to assimilate and be lauded for being model capitalist subjects and therefore ‘good immigrants’. Coming from a people who form part of a rural peasantry of agriculturalists in North India, the professional class shoe has never quite fit me from the very beginning. If my Punjabi roots had sustained a suspicion towards this farce of productivity, going to Spain affirmed it. In conversations with friends I learned to be polite and never ask anyone I had just met ‘¿a que te dedicas?’ (What do you do for a living?), a question that Andalusians believe to be more a value judgement than a way of getting to know someone. This new socio-linguistic world set the scene for a transformation. Beyond labels such as ‘immigrant’ in Australia and ‘NRI’ (non-residential Indian) at home, being in Spain felt like self-determination. Through the Spanish language I became someone who moved between worlds, recognising the malleability of my own identity. The Hindi-speaking Sophiya is not the same person as the one who still confuses the past preterite and imperfect verbs in Spanish. In The Enigma of Arrival (1987) V.S. Naipaul offers us an autobiographical meditation on the inability of the immigrant to ever truly taste the satisfaction of having arrived. Departing from a language and its associated places, then, becomes a powerful antidote for those of us who seek reprieve from monolithic designations that follow us like shadows. The liminal borderland that is Spanish for me and Italian for Lahiri feels like home because it is perhaps the only home, the only tongue we have been able to choose for ourselves.

Lahiri’s protagonist finds comfort in her transient stays in other people’s homes. They are stages set for others where she escapes the reality of her being, of an unshakeable deficiency. This nameless nomad is in a perpetual state of departure. Unlike the immigrants from Lahiri’s earlier novels, she is not at all interested in arriving. The author’s departure to Italy and another literary culture suggests the shedding of a history of being a writer of immigrant stories. About this new writerly realm, Lahiri writes that it is in never truly mastering the language, to not having an insider’s view, that she derives most meaning. She is certain that the periphery is not only a valid vantage point when it comes to linguistic expression, but that it offers something that the centre cannot.

Not being able to mould oneself fully into the shapes that a new language demands has also touched a delicate vein in Lahiri and in me. Growing up Bengali in America she wrote in In Other Words, that she felt that ‘I had two sides, neither well defined. The anxiety I felt, and still feel, comes from a sense of inadequacy, of being a disappointment.’ Lahiri meets her own imperfections through Italian, not as opponents but as familiar figures who remind her that writing itself is an extended encounter with her shortcomings. The author, her protagonist and this reader-reviewer are all stalked by a need to master, perfect, and correct the existential anomaly of having been suspended between two worlds. And even when a language gives us the gift of curating new selves, the themes that furnish such a space find their roots in a primordial lack, a history that Lahiri reckons with by befriending her imperfections. For me Whereabouts is Lahiri doing what she has always done – touching our bruised hearts and humanity through oblique yet penetrating forays into the inner worlds of her characters.

Those like me who are long time readers of her work will see the definitive shifts in tone and composition in these short chapters. The terrain in Whereabouts might feel sparse at times because of the epic intercontinental journeys and winding narratives that we have come to expect of Lahiri’s novels. Reading a translation also made me wonder if the words I read assuaged the author, and if the impasse of linguistic ownership had finally been crossed. Rendering her own Italian into English, this return to familiar territory is another kind of writing then, a return splintered by the impossibility of translation, or ever truly being able to arrive. For diaspora writers, Lahiri has set a precedent in breaking the confines of allegiance to a culture, its subjects and conditions. Writing, she says ‘is, above all, an internal dialogue…a selfish act.’ Her terse conviction to defy genre and resist expectation speaks to those of us who find ourselves bound by the task of telling ‘our’ stories.

This journey of choosing multiplicity and a diffuse self is above all about falling in love. Learning a new language is a romance because each day we wonder what novelty it will bring, which hidden parts of it remain to be intimated. Being in love with a new language and lifeworld is a process of softening towards ourselves, of becoming free from expectations and impositions that cleave us and leave us perpetually suspended between our native and adopted homelands. Whereabouts is an explicit refusal to conform and Lahiri’s extended allegory about departure, wandering, and a dawning of wisdom about the self who we can never truly escape.