On Finding Yourself in the Work of Jhumpa Lahiri
Nandini Balial on Language, Homeland, and Family
Something very strange happened when I began reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s newest book In Other Words. At first, I was pausing to skim the left-hand page, written in her newly adopted Italian, before reading Ann Goldstein’s English translation on the right. By page six, however, I stopped reading the English. Instead I was reading out loud the original Italian. And not without lack of precedent: I studied the language for two years in college, and Latin for six in grade school. My heart raced as I caught on to pronunciation rules, long since tucked into the recesses of my brain. When I stumbled over a word I took deep breaths to calm myself. But it was a runaway surprise: the thrill of being able to read, if not fully understand, a language that was not my own!
I suppose I could end this essay right now. But I have some words of my own to add.
It’s not the first time Lahiri’s life has reminded me of my own. We’re both Bengali women, immigrants. Arts and letters, as opposed to hard sciences, is our field. We speak Bengali but we neither read nor write it. We’re both engaged with words, although she is on a plane in a different dimension, while I pray someone will print what I have to say.
There are differences too: both her parents are Bengali, whereas my mother is Punjabi. I was nine when I arrived permanently in America; Lahiri was a toddler. She has a half-dozen advanced degrees, including a PhD, and I’ve done everything I can to never go near college again.
It startled me, then, to learn of her immersion in Italian: speaking, writing, even living there with her family. When I first started college I had similar goals. I was going to become fluent, then live for a year at Casa Italiana (at NYU; it’s even mentioned in the book), and spend the traditional semester abroad in Florence.
Here’s where this specific commonality ends for us both. After three semesters I knew I’d vastly underestimated the sheer exertion of attaining fluency in an unfamiliar language. I switched to Advanced Hindi. I speak, read, and write the language, and it was the easy A I wanted.
I like to joke that Lahiri makes life tough for Indian-Americans who work in the arts. Asians are generally associated with medicine, engineering, economics. All the Indians I grew up with in Texas work in those fields, including my brother. Lahiri has achieved great renown for her books, and rightly so. But she’s also set the bar.
I was 10, maybe 11, when I got my hands on a copy of The Interpreter of Maladies. My dad was borrowing it from one of his coworkers and it sat in the drawing room, far away from all my books which were neatly shelved in the room I shared with my brother. I swiped it. The author had won something called the Pulitzer, and this appeared to impress my parents. I began reading the slim volume of stories on the sly.
I was almost certainly too young for that book. Whole phrases in a few stories mystified me: “make love”; a woman telling a stranger that one of her sons is not biologically her husband’s; Filene’s; pulled pork; sangria; Christian Science; “sexy”; “satin slip”; “mistress.” (There’s a theme here, I know.) But so much about her writing leapt out at me, and not for reasons I could have predicted. The title character in “Mrs. Sen’s” moves through her life as a university professor’s wife as though suspended underwater. She grieves perpetually for her life in Calcutta but her behavior is robotic, fully internalized. When Mrs. Sen encounters tragedy—first the news of her grandfather’s death; then a car accident in which she and the boy she babysits are injured—she ceases to move or speak: “She did not call the fish store, nor did she thaw chicken. In silence she prepared crackers with peanut butter for Eliot… she switched on the television but never watched it.”
Shortly after our own arrival in this country, my maternal grandmother died. There was no one to leave me and my brother with so my mother did not attend the funeral. Thrust into an alien world but trapped in her grief, she went about life like Mrs. Sen, her walking pace as ghostly as her face. Meals were prepared and consumed in pin-drop quiet. It was difficult to both look at and away from my mother. I could not comprehend her grief, nor was I capable of aid or empathy. For six months the only sounds from my mother’s mouth were sobs or angry fights with my father, who was equally incapable of aid or empathy. To this day my stomach turns when I hear the Hindi film songs we used to drown out the thundering wordless sorrow of our small flat.
The Namesake went a step further to align my life with Lahiri’s pen. I was entranced by her graceful descriptions of multiple Bengali customs: referring to Bengal as home; rice-eating ceremonies; the concept of a good name and a pet name. She understands, I remember thinking, and she’s explaining it to everyone else too.
But we diverge again. Jhumpa is the author’s pet name; no one but my family knows mine. Gogol Ganguli, the novel’s protagonist, resents his name for years, certain that his classmates mock him for sharing a name with an author who died a virgin. I have never felt anything but pride in my name. Schoolteachers had to stop, every year, on the first day of class, to stumble through an unusual lineup of letters. I was polite but firm, repeating my name till they got it right. Classmates were less interested, but over time an air of geniality developed about just how many ways my name could be mangled. It was a gesture of acceptance that my public school peers were willing to mock each other for mispronouncing my name. The baristas at coffee shops, prospective employers, dates, new friends, even the parking violations bureau worker ask several times. And I’m happy to help.
The novel was a hit in the Balial household: my brother read it, as did my father, who possibly hadn’t read a book since my birth. The only person who didn’t read it was my mother—fiction tends to have a soporific effect on her. Similarities between Gogol and his family’s life did not go unnoticed by us: immigrants; two children, a boy and a girl; traditions, tensions. Our surname is Ganguli too. (The British authorities in Assam were so fond of my ancestors that they gave us a modified Scottish surname—Balial for Balliol—of our very own.) Over time our lives began to mirror the book. I, the older sibling, moved to New York, hoping to claim it as Fort Worth had claimed my parents. My father got a job in Bombay, where he now lives. My parents’ antipodal lives meet at twin points: one phone call in the morning, one at night. The time difference is almost exactly 12 hours.
Duality is practically a guarantee in the life of an immigrant. You are born and raised in one place, then you go to live in another. The identity you inherit will not be the one waiting for you as you yourself age. In Other Words details, for the first time, Lahiri’s own struggles as an immigrant:
My parents wanted me to speak only Bengali with them… If I spoke English at home they scolded me… I realized I had to speak both languages extremely well: the one to please my parents, the other to survive in America… Sometimes I had to explain the meaning of certain terms, as if I were the parent.
I was not so very different at school than at home. In both spheres—the only two available to me—I was polite, quiet, and obedient. At school I was known for my hand, which shot into the air without hesitation when a teacher asked a question. I was proud of this, dumbly unaware of how uncool it was to be a nerd in America. Untutored in explaining my identity as an immigrant, I dove headfirst into short stories and poems and novels by black and Latino writers. Langston Hughes, Gary Soto, Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, James Baldwin, Naomi Shihab-Nye, Maya Angelou. They understood what it was to look from the outside in. To stand on the periphery, a factual part of a new life but not an emotional one.
In Other Words is a powerful example of the emotional, physical, and logistical toll fluency exacts, especially in a writer. But the doubts that plagued Lahiri when she wrote in English morphed into different doubts when she wrote in Italian: “When I give up English, I give up my authority… What does it mean for a writer to write without her authority? How is it possible that when I write in Italian I feel both freer and confined?” She goes on to quote Ovid’s version of the nymph Daphne’s plea for rescue, to her river father deity, from Apollo. Within moments the frightened nymph transforms into the laurel tree. Mastering Italian is a metamorphosis for Lahiri: “I realize I’m trying to get away from something, to free myself . . . But this change is costly . . . I can’t move as I did before . . . Why am I fleeing? Who wants to restrain me?”
This is where I let out a choked giggle, because Lahiri identifies English as her own Apollo. The language has “represented a consuming struggle, a wrenching conflict, a continuous sense of failure that is the source of all my anxiety.” Even the most objective appraisal of Lahiri’s books would conclude that she is not a failure. As a reader I think she has put to paper countless things I have felt, seen, done, yearned for, achieved, avoided, discarded, and I’ve seen the same in others. Lahiri’s insights are not limited to Indians or immigrants. But as someone else who seeks solace in words, I empathize with the plight she describes.
I think I am fortunate in many ways that she, and often her characters, are not. The identities expected of me at school and at home were already carved out, waiting. I simply stepped in, not realizing they were coffins.
Since I grew up in New Delhi, Hindi, which I spoke with friends at school, was as normal a part of my life as English (all the books I read) and Bengali (my mother tongue). We’re a family of Bollywood obsessives; my parents love the music in films from the 1950s to 70s in particular. If you add that to my mother’s hard-drinking, ready-to-sing-and-dance side of the family, language takes on mutable levels of concentration. All three languages remain a part of me, none clawing for dominance. Thanks to Advanced Hindi, I can still read and write it; the cinephilia means I can watch films in both Hindi and Bengali without subtitles, and memorize and sing film songs, all things which give me a great deal of joy. English is my chosen written language, the language in which I think and speak and type. Bengali is for family—shouted phone conversations with aging grandparents, whom I fear to see again lest I am unable to leave their side; my parents; the chance to, as Gogol and Moushumi do in The Namesake, “comment with impunity on another diner’s unfortunate hair or shoes.” I am grateful all three languages are a resource to me, can comfort me, can align me with strangers pretty much anywhere. And I don’t mind if these languages make me an oddity. Odd is not bad. Odd can be good.
One of my favorite passages of In Other Words is another that made me smile:
Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t, in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realize that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile.
My smile wasn’t a jeer, or a way to mock Lahiri’s very evident linguistic and psychological alienation. It’s just that I recognize this particular variety of loneliness, this specific impulse to want to belong. I see it in my father, who has by now lived alone in the following cities: Calcutta, New Delhi, New York City, Fort Worth, Bombay, Edison and Iselin in New Jersey, and London. I’ve never asked him which, if any, of the corresponding nations feel like his homeland. Similarly, and much to the horror of my paternal grandparents, who raised me and my brother, I ran away from Texas to New York City, even overlapping for a time with my father. And then I left New York for another large city away from Fort Worth: Los Angeles.
“But what need is there to go so far away?” My grandmother wailed over the phone one day. I was packing up my things in Harlem.
“Why don’t you go home and live with your mother?”
I’m sure I said something polite and mild about how I’d finally gotten a job, after 22 months of looking. And that I was fine, that it would be an adventure.
I was rather forcefully reminded by In Other Words of my true response to such a question. Lahiri feels lost because she has no homeland. I respect the cities of my upbringing, but I do not wish to be defined by them. I am an Indian, and I am an American. Both groups have subcategories: Bengali and Punjabi, and immigrant, respectively. But those homelands, those long loopy strands of biological and emotional DNA were the fabric of my life before I was even born. My NYU college application essay was about how Fort Worth and New Delhi were cities who’d given birth to me, and that’s true. But those identifying marks are like the postcards, little gifts, and souvenirs Lahiri brings back from her first trip to Italy: they are bested by “the clearest, most vivid memory,” which is immaterial. It is “certain words . . . certain phrases . . . And missing them pushes me, slowly, to learn the language.” Earlier in the same chapter, Lahiri recounts feeling foolish when she stops on the pavement to admire something, and a passer-by says, “with a slight impatience: Permesso? May I?” She repeats the “Permesso?” at the chapter’s end, but this time she asks it of Italian.
I want a say in who I am, where I come from, where I call home. It is why I ran away from my parents, it is what makes me love and miss New York, and it is what, hopefully, will soon take me back there. Fashioning my own identity was like learning a language. I stretched out in it, to see how far I could go. Fallow periods made me tremble like the new bark limbs of Daphne, stilled on the shores of Peneus. My assertion of my agency was the first act in my life for which I did not request permission.
I’ve mentioned that Lahiri says she writes because it’s how she understands what makes her react. In the same passage, she makes a further, better point: “Why do I write? To investigate the mystery of existence. To tolerate myself. To get closer to everything that is outside of me.”
My heart skipped a beat when I read the next bit: “Writing is my only way of absorbing and organizing life. Otherwise it would terrify me, it would upset me too much.”
The Satyajit Ray film Charulata features a Bengali song called, when translated, “I Know You, I Do.” The song is romantic, narrated by a man calling for his fair beloved, who lives far away. He has seen his love on an autumn day, and on a night in May. He has turned his ear to the sky, listening only for her song. The two lines I love best are translated as follows:
I’ve wandered land and sea
to come to this place
where I stand, a guest, at your door
Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote the song, is talking about the wonderment of a love, and how far he’s traveled, purely to stand at his beloved’s door, at the mercy of her hospitality.
I’m frightened, whistling to pretend I’m not, hands jammed in my pockets, ambling up and down the street, trying to work up the courage to knock at a portal that will allow me to become a writer. Jhumpa Lahiri was at the door of the Italian language, having heard its call throughout her besotted and forlorn travels. “I don’t have a country, a specific culture. My sole intention, along with a blind but sincere faith, is to be understood, and to understand myself.” È perfetto.