I’m only about halfway through this latest novel by Jhumpa Lahiri now, but reading it stirs up so many memories I can’t help but write about it. Lahiri is one of the few writers now working for whose books I cannot wait for the paperback; I have to order them as soon as they come out. I relate to her writings in a deeper way than most people other than Bengali/Americans because I lived in East and West Bengal for so many years. I lived in Dhaka and Chittagong in Bangladesh, in Calcutta itself, and in Santiniketan, the village a few hours north of Calcutta by train where Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, established his ashram and university.
In Bangladesh, I studied Bengali language at Dhaka University. I never got proficient, but back then I could hold a decent conversation and read street signs and advertising slogans. Several years ago when I saw the film version of Lahiri’s first novel, “The Namesake”, I remembered enough of the language so I could anticipate what the subtitles would say, and read well enough so that I realized that the Bengali credits at the beginning were not really Bengali translations but just the phonetic equivalent of what was appearing in English on the screen.
In Santiniketan, what I remember best are the bicycle rides I would take through the countryside in the afternoon. It’s just a village, after all, and in no time I was on dirt roads surrounded by rice fields, huts, water buffalos, various rural people going about their business. I used to visit an isolated grove of trees in which was the ruins of a mansion. I would lay down the bicycle and walk through the undergrowth and get as close as I could to the crumbling walls, and I would wonder who lived there and what it must have been like when it was still inhabited.
In Calcutta, I was continually amazed by the amount of people everywhere. Throngs and throngs of people on the streets, in the shops, crammed into the electric trolleys until they hung out the doors twenty-strong, riding on the back bumpers and roofs of the buses. The streets were always packed with trucks, cars, taxis, buses, motor-rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws, hand-pulled rickshaws, ox carts, pedestrians, cows, chickens, and all sorts of other living creatures. One public park in the middle of the city was riddled with large tunnels through which multitudes of huge rats crawled, and people came to feed them and worship them.
But even back then, Bengal wasn’t just a novelty to me. It was clear in spite of all the dust, noise, and crowds that there was a rich culture behind it all, and that Bengalis were a justifiably proud people.
It was many years later when I first heard of Jhumpa Lahiri. I was living in Thessaloniki, Greece, at the time. To get my book fix I often visited an English-language library at Anatolia High School, which one of my sons used to attend. The librarians, in fact, called me their best customer, because I took out and read books so frequently. One day I was perusing the shelves and one of the librarians came up to me and offered me Jhumpa Lahiri’s first book, the Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories “Interpreter of Maladies”. “I thought you might like this,” she said. And she was right. It immediately skyrocketed up the charts to make a place on the list of my ten favorite fiction books of all time. The stories were so elegant, so poignant, that they left me breathless. They are all on the theme of Bengalis adjusting to American culture, or Bengalis who have integrated into American culture coming to grips with their Indian roots. Lahiri perfectly captures the human side of the alienation of being transplanted from one culture to another. I was stunned. It was one of those profound times when you discover an important new writer, a writer so significant as to be life-changing.
My next encounter with Lahiri’s work was when I was visiting one of my sons at Princeton University. We went to see the film version of her first novel, “The Namesake”. Again, a profound experience. Beautiful, touching. It’s the story of a Bengali couple who emigrate to the United States, and how the disparity of the two cultures affects them and their children. For me the film is near perfect. The Indian actor and actress who play the parents delivered Oscar-worthy performances. I have seen it over and over since then, and each time it is a deeply moving experience. I think the film even surpasses the book, as when I read the book I found it well-written but overlong in certain passages.
Then Jhumpa Lahiri’s second collection of stories, “Unaccustomed Earth”, came out. It is a beautifully-written group of stories, some of them interlinked. It made me consider whether Lahiri is one of those writers who shines brighter in shorter form, when she can more keenly focus her concentration. Still, it did not prevent me from ordering the novel “The Lowlands” the same day it became available.
To be continued…