Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Three by Jhumpa Lahiri


Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth

When I was much younger, working in the receiving area of a large department store, I was instructed to bring a pallet of porcelain goods to "Johnson" in the China department. "Johnson" turned out to be John Singh, a young man from India, who was working part-time while in medical school. In the course of my duties, I would stop in and see him, these visits in his quiet department were a welcome respite from the clamor in the rest of the sub-basement where we worked. He had gone home to India for a few weeks and when he returned he had pictures of his visit. Family, cities, and sights, all of them wildly exotic to my sheltered sensibilities. The pictures of the Sun Temple at Konarak, with all of its erotic carvings, were the topper. He explained that they were historical, that the people of India were very restrained in public displays of affection, and very circumspect about sex.

I was returned to the memory of those Konarak images while reading the title story from Interpreter of Maladies, one of a trio of books I've just finished reading. Winner of a Pulitzer Prize, this is as fine a collection of short stories as I've read in a long while. Jhumpa Lahiri, born in London and raised in Rhode Island, explores the lives of various immigrants and first generation Americans who travel from India and back again. She explores the space between men and women, in arranged marriages and affairs, and the inhibiting forces of tradition and family.

The Namesake, a novel, follows one family over many years. It revolves around Gogol, a boy named after the Russian writer, who grows up with a self-loathing which he blames on his name, but is probably due to his lack of any sense of belonging. The distance between all of the characters, coupled with the poised, deliberate writing, may make this book difficult to stay with for its duration.

Unaccustomed Earth contains more stories, and a three part novella, Hema and Kaushik, which may have the best structure of any of these stories.

It isn't often I get to read the entirety of one author's work in the space of a couple of weeks. I was struck most by the tone set by the author, hers is a style that quickly gets into one's head, very natural, almost conversational at times, especially when describing food or fashion. Lahiri's writing, when read over three books, has the characteristics of a fugue: repeating themes, varying in color and intensity, but always returning to the base- the space between men and women, and how culture and family dominate and define it.

Reading them made me miss RS a little, as well.

By Professor Batty



3 Comments:

Anonymous niranjana said...

I was wondering how reading the three back-to-back might affect your reaction. A common complaint about Lahiri's work is that she tends to be one-note--a complaint that would certainly be exacerbated if her work were read at one go.

I have, however, never agreed with this criticism. Alhough her universe is very particular, I believe she infuses her characters with such depth that their ethnicity and background, while pivotal to Lahiri's work, is also rendered irrelevant in many ways.


Blogger Professor Batty said...

I've found similar situations of estrangement and isolation in the lives of grandparents and other older relatives- some of them were first and second generation in America. My parents had a big cultural shift as well, but that was more to do with leaving rural life and coming into maturity in the post WWII boom. Lahiri knows exactly what she's doing, while some of the stories may not be very compelling or dramatic, that is precisely the point of them. The first half of Unaccustomed Earth was like that, whereas Interpreter of Maladies really had quite a broad range of stories. The Namesake, being a family saga, required a longer story arc, again, it was not written as a "page-turner", with Gogol's search for his identity the driving force, rather than a traditional plot.

If there was a sameness, it was in the East-coast, Ivy League backdrops for many of the stories. I'll be interested in reading further work by her, although I'd probably pass on another book with the same background.


Anonymous Caroline said...

Reading this post brings the stories back. What Niranjana writes about the ethnicity and background being pivotal but also irrelevant is more or less what I thought about Anjali Joseph's book.

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