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Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Whereabouts’: Snapshots into a mind and a milieu

P Anima | Updated on May 19, 2021

On her own: Lahiri’s protagonist is characterised by her intense solitude, a flâneur in her city and in the head   -  ISTOCK.COM

The novel, originally written in Italian, reads like a narrator’s despatches to the self, pithy meditations that probe both being and belonging

* The new novel is crucial to Lahiri’s oeuvre; as a writer of literary fiction, it marks a wholehearted departure from what defined Jhumpa Lahiri, the English author

* Lahiri was starting afresh. From the bottom. Again

* Having left the comfort of English, Whereabouts reveals an author who is slowly but sure-footedly moulding a new language to her will

* Lahiri is constantly probing the potential of everyday associations or the perfection of moments with strangers

***

Jhumpa Lahiri’s 45-year-old woman narrator is preparing to exit the city in which she has spent much of her adult life. In a bid to “remove every trace” of herself from her house, the nameless protagonist embarks on a marathon cleaning mission — windowsills, garbage cans, faucets. Sifting through stuff in the closet, she comes across an old, hand-painted ceramic plate, broken into two. She contemplates trashing it, changes her mind and instead decides to make it whole again. Superglue bought from the hardware store does the job.

Whereabouts, Lahiri’s new novel, is quite like the shards of the ceramic plate — disparate vignettes glued together to divulge a mind and a milieu. Originally written in Italian, Rome-based Lahiri has herself translated Dove Mi Rovo (2018) into English. Her first work in Italian, the non-fiction In Altre Parole (In Other Words), was translated into English by Ann Goldstein.

Whereabouts / Jhumpa Lahiri / Hamish Hamilton / Fiction / ₹499

 

It was in the essay ‘Teach Yourself Italian’, published six years ago in The New Yorker and translated by Goldstein, that Lahiri proclaimed her renunciation of English for Italian. Unlike, say, Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o whose rejection of English for his native Gikuyu was a political act, Lahiri considered her adoption of Italian a “metamorphosis”. She shared in the essay her admiration for the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa who had “invented four versions of himself: four separate, distinct writers, thanks to which he was able to go beyond the confines of himself.”

Whereabouts is crucial to Lahiri’s oeuvre; as a writer of literary fiction, it marks a wholehearted departure from what defined Jhumpa Lahiri, the English author. Over the years, Lahiri’s novels, including TheNamesake and the Pulitzer-winning Interpreter of Maladies, had become the benchmark of the immigrant experience in the US. And by forsaking English, Lahiri was trying to shed the encumbrances the language imposed, including the immense success it brought her.

Fresh start: For a writer who confessed to not belonging completely to any language, Lahiri has recast herself in a new one   -  ROHIT JAIN PARAS

 

Lahiri was starting afresh. From the bottom. Again.

As if abiding by the unwritten brief, in her first novel in Italian, Lahiri begins by unmooring the narrative arc from the specificities of place and identity. Apart from the fact that it is set in an Italian town, Lahiri gives away little else. Proper nouns have no place in Whereabouts, instead she sets it amidst an array of common ones — piazza, bookstore, supermarket, stationery shop, museum. They grant an intimate sense of space, yet wriggle free of being a name-bound particular and deflects the comfort of knowing. As the novel begins, the reader lands abruptly ‘On the Sidewalk’ and joins the narrator, an academic, as she mulls over the man commemorated on a marble plaque placed on the pavement. And we exit her life almost as brusquely at a moment when it holds promise. In between, the reader tags along, listening in to the narrator’s deepest thoughts as she saunters through physical spaces — pit stops that give form and shape to her everyday routine.

Lahiri goes about it by delineating chapters into places — both within and outside. She titles them ‘In My Head’ more than once, and then there are others — ‘At the Trattoria’, ‘In Spring’, ‘In Bed’, ‘By the Sea’, ‘At Dinner’ and more. Whereabouts reads like a narrator’s despatches to the self, pithy meditations that probe both being and belonging.

The author’s choice of form — short chapters in measured prose, more like snapshots meditating on fleeting moments — appears deliberate. Having left the comfort of English, Whereabouts reveals an author who is slowly but sure-footedly moulding a new language to her will. Lahiri had written about her early struggles with Italian: “I’m on the threshold, I can see inside, but the gate won’t open.” She has not just pried the gate open here, but has imbibed the sights within as well; but does not want to push too hard, not as yet. For now, she is content with her small, immaculate triumphs.

Lahiri’s protagonist is characterised by her intense solitude, a flâneur in her city and in the head. Seasons traditionally associated with cheer and gaiety bring her none. Spring is her season of suffering, one which leaves her depleted and disoriented. Her life in the city is held together by familiar and casual associations, for instance, the one with the barista in whom she claims to confide all sorts of things. Lahiri is constantly probing the potential of everyday associations or the perfection of moments with strangers, such as the one at the parlour when a beautician wipes off her nail paint. “I don’t want to spoil the moment or this contact between us. I’d like to appreciate her attention and nothing else.”

There are such fleeting moments in her intimate, yet nameless relationships as well. Schisms, when they appear, do so quietly, and are set off by disconnected acts. The deeper chords of discontent though are familial, long nurtured wounds and betrayals of childhood; the dead father is guilty of indifference and the mother of overbearance.

Whereabouts decontextualises belonging from its mere physical trappings. Lahiri’s narrator is not a strong swimmer. Yet, it’s in the pool that she loses herself: “My thoughts merge and flow. Everything — my body, my heart, the universe — seems tolerable when I’m protected by water and nothing touches me.”

By anchoring her first Italian novel among nameless people and places, Lahiri strikes at the fundamentals of belonging. Or is she redefining them? But for a writer who confessed to not belonging completely to any language, Lahiri has recast herself in another. A separate, distinct version.

Published on May 19, 2021

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