Ever felt the joy when you stumble upon a favourite article of yours that you had written long time back and had forgotten all about it? I felt the same when I chanced upon this article I had made on Jhumpa Lahiri, after attending her much-talked-about prologue session in conversation with Rudrangshu Mukherjee, a notable historian, as part of the Kolkata Literary Meet 2014, at the epic Victoria Memorial, Kolkata. Not only was I impressed by what she had said, I could also connect with many of her thoughts, as I’m sure many of the readers will as well. So, without further ado, here it goes.
(Jhumpa Lahiri obviously doesn’t need an introduction. However, for the ignorant mortals, she is an Indian American author. Lahiri’s debut collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies (1999) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Award and The New Yorker Debut of the Year. Her first novel, The Namesake (2003), was a New York Times Notable Book, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist and was selected as one of the best books of the year by USA Today and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications and was also adapted into the popular film of the same name. Her book The Lowland, published in 2013, was a nominee for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award for Fiction. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is also a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama.)
‘Absent presence and present absence.’ The first of her musings that struck me was her above statement. In the subsequent conversation that followed, what the audience got was a peek into her mind, her life. Jhumpa Lahiri claims to feeling like literally living in ‘double worlds’. She didn’t quite feel attached to a single place. Wherever she went, the very presence of Calcutta went along with her. But whenever she used to come back to Calcutta, she just couldn’t connect with the city with that same intensity. Feeling herself under constant scrutiny like an outsider, she felt frustrated at the lack of personal connection. She had to continually face this personal alienation, first at the age of 2 and then at the age of 5. (Her family had shifted and moved to provincial old town of west England.) For her, Kolkata was an unknown scary city. A city she wanted to grasp but always went out of her reach, one with melancholic undertones. Her parents had a yearning for the city which she couldn’t associate with. The goodbye nights, when they would return to England, after spending vacations in Calcutta, were terrifying for her. Though being a difficult decision to move out of Calcutta, she also felt exposed to her parents’ longing for the city, being their child. It was a source of constant anxiety for her due to consistent inability to connect to one particular place. But on the other hand, it was a source of freedom from any kind of belonging. According to her, any feeling whatsoever, is psychological, not reality based as such. It is more a figment of mind, this feeling of belonging to a particular place or a thing.
She started her reading in English. She was a passionate and voracious reader. She felt quite nervous in social interactions. In those times, books were her companion. She feels more at home inside a library. Thomas Hardy was an inspiration for her book The Lowland as she tried to recreate his idea of a place. She claims to have 99% of inspiration from English and American writers. Mavis Gallant, a Canadian writer very much inspired her. The writer’s work on exile and many varieties of them. She considers Hardy’s novels as very clean. Because she likes reading both novels and short stories, she likes writing them both. She disagrees that short stories are inferior. In fact, she considers them as one of the most powerful of all literary works.
Coming back to her personal life again, she lamented the loss of the Indian citizenship of her parents. She was again, acutely aware even as a child, that her English was something her parents could not relate with. She considers herself a very confused person, if not and without writing. Finding her calling in writing was a relief for her, because at a particular phase, she was in an utter loss as to what to do. She found her solace in writing. Writing makes her feel whole. She muses; ‘the connection created through writing between you and the outer world is so beautiful. The connection almost feels spiritual connecting with people you don’t even know.’ This is, according to her, literature’s biggest achievement. It gave her life a sense of purpose, which wasn’t really there before.
Her maternal house (at 110, Vivekananda road, Calcutta) were her inspiration for her first two stories. She was quite an observer, with her object being the constant flow of life. It was something quite fascinating for her. Acutely aware that she was a foreign import, an outsider in her own city, she had to grow into it. Accept the reality that she, in fact, felt like an outsider everywhere. She couldn’t call the Americans her own and she couldn’t call the Calcuttans as her own, facing an identity crisis. She obviously had this desire to fit in everywhere. In her book The Lowland, she dealt with a story her parents were trying to piece together, what had happened way back their home in Calcutta. An incident had happened a stone’s throw away from her parents’ house in Calcutta, involving a Naxalite who had been shot in front of his parents. She says, death does kind of pervade Lowland but there are many chances of redemption as well. She also mentions about the flight of the bird Heron, attributing it to the writer Thomas Hardy, who she considers, will be known for noticing such subtle changes or the things going on in nature.
She is of the view that sometimes ignorance is beneficial because with that comes the curiosity for it. She admits to having a superficial knowledge of Indian history yet has the desire to know it more. She finds places near or by the sea very beautiful and her personal favourite. She falls back into leisure musing that the older she is becoming, more is she discovering how fragile Life is. Nature has a profound influence on her as much as time and life has witnessed too. The book The Lowland is so titled because it is literally a place of absence and presence. She mentions of a Cape, a place which has so many ramifications for her life. She liked observing the high and low tides of the sea, as they came and went. She liked the continuity of Life and the constant cyclical thing of change. She mirrors the her Life as a reflection of the coming and going of seasons. No one particular person or a thing really stayed or had a constant presence in her Life. Just as she said, an absent presence and a present absence in her Life….
I had then and again, refuse to give a conclusion to her thoughts. Some thoughts are best left to be mused on.