Everyone has a book that changed their life. Mine was Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth.
I read it when I was 17 – a minimalist hardback cover with blue-green waves swishing around a kind of large embellished ring in their midst. There is no land in sight and the ring cannot dock anywhere. It is caught in the water, belonging everywhere and nowhere at once. Later I learned from an interview I watched online that the ring on the cover is based on Lahiri’s own ring.
The characters of Unaccustomed Earth – first and second-generation Indian immigrants to the US – are much like the ring.
They are caught in the choppy waters between their American and Indian identities, unable to completely belong anywhere. The majority of these Indians are Bengali.
They ‘take’ their food (Lahiri uses the Bengali English vernacular instead of the traditional ‘eat’) – ‘thick slices of eggplant to serve with the dal’ – even as younger, Americanised Bengalis munch on Cheerios.
Unsurprisingly, conflicts of cultural identity often lie along intergenerational lines, like in Hell-Heaven, where a young man called Pranab scandalises the older Indians around him by marrying an American woman.
But in spite of the Indian names and Indian families depicted, the book is distinctly American.
It follows (and leads) a long tradition of American immigrant fiction that dismantles the idea of home and nationality, questions what it means to belong. There are specific markers of American culture too – references to J. Crew and Laundromats, characters flitting between Boston and Cambridge. In the story, ‘Nobody’s Business’, the characters plan for Thanksgiving and browse the Yellow Pages.
Lahiri’s America seemed far away from me at 17.
I did not know firsthand the feeling of living in America and I have still never set foot there. But I did know what it meant to feel removed from the culture of your birth, even if it was on a completely different scale.
Growing up as a Bengali in Delhi, I felt confused about what language I should speak, what culture I ought to belong to. I could never feel completely at ease with the overpowering North Indian flavour of Delhi.
As a child, I wished to be able to speak Hindi with the same level of comfort as my classmates when Hindi for me, required deliberate effort, a conscious shifting of the linguistic tracks in my brain.
Still, I knew I would always feel like an outsider in West Bengal too, never having lived there and never having received any formal education in my mother tongue. I grew up hearing and knowing the names of neighbourhoods in Kolkata, districts in West Bengal, and sometimes even the names of places in the erstwhile East Bengal. But even as I knew the names of the places, I could never visualise what they looked like.
I know that the literal and emotional distance that Lahiri’s characters (and perhaps even Lahiri herself) feel from their Bengali roots is far, far greater, of course and I don’t want to say that our experiences can be equated.
For one thing, being Bengali in Lahiri’s America always carries the weight of being the racial other, a fate I am grateful not to have suffered. But Unaccustomed Earth came to me as the first acknowledgement of my sense of estrangement from a visceral kind of Bengaliness. It gave me the reassurance that others, and Bengalis in particular, also felt confused about their cultural identity.
Lahiri’s work contains characters who respond in all kinds of ways to their Bengali identities. Her description of cultural difference is probably most explicit in The Namesake. Nikhil, the protagonist, has to negotiate between the Bengali and American halves of his identity, between elements of familiarity and strangeness in each. Ashima, his mother, refuses to let go of her saris even after living most of her life in the US, unlike Gauri of The Lowland who rapidly switches to slacks and assimilates into American life.
Growing up, I could see Bengalis in Delhi responding in similar ways to North Indian culture, obviously on a much smaller scale. I saw some people, like my grandfather, speaking broken Hindi even after living in Delhi for decades. Others had swallowed Bollywood culture.
I myself felt caught in the middle, finding it easier to converse in Bengali even while being faster reader of Hindi, having studied it at school. I wonder now if others who grew up in the states with cultures dissimilar to their own have struggled with their linguistic and cultural identities.
Of course, it’s not just Lahiri’s subject matter that I love. Her style as a writer is sparse and measured. The weight of every sentence is calculated to make sure that each page has only the necessary amount of words. I think Lahiri’s somewhat blank style complements her treatment of the characters, letting the reader really feel their sense of detachment.
This running theme of cultural difference has brought Lahiri criticism too.
An Esquire article once called her “overrated” because of the repetitiveness of her motifs and style. But I think that it is a testament to Lahiri’s skill as a writer that in spite of a common setting, every character she crafts has a unique personality and every depiction of identity conflict is extremely realistic.
The proof of this skill is the Pulitzer she won for her debut book, a collection of short stories called Interpreter of Maladies which marked out Lahiri as an artful documenter of the immigrant experience in America. The stories, also about Bengali-Americans, talk about home, the immigrant’s bittersweet separation from it, and the desire to carve a unique identity when you grow up between two cultures.
Celebrating 20 years since its publication this year, Domenico Starnone (the acclaimed Italian writer whose work Lahiri has translated herself) recently wrote that “any definition of the self, in search of even provisional coherence, must always factor in a nagging, mournful surfeit.”
And that’s what Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing has meant to me: it gave me the proof that any act of self-definition would necessarily involve a ‘mournful surfeit’ but it also gave me the comfort that others had shared my experiences too, that even when I had felt alone, I wasn’t.
Featured image credit: Facebook/Jhumpa Lahiri