Like Ray’s globe-trotter Manomohan Mitra (in “Agontuk” or “The Stranger”)1, the Bengali has never been a “KupoMonduk”. The Bengali migration has not just been across the barbed wires separating the two Bengals, but has often carried him across the oceans, to new continents and cultures. Jhumpa Lahiri is a product of that “Wanderlust”. More than any other writer of her time, Jhumpa has emerged as a spokesperson of her generation, one that has been born and brought up outside Bengal, spent their lives far away from the sights and sounds of this land. It is a life lived in a myriad of fragmented cultural identities. The middle class Bengali values of home, the All-American values at school and the big wide world, the Indian identity at Diwali, all combine, collide, embrace and sometimes repel each other in this strange whirlwind of immigrant existence. We have met this generation, often looked at them with the curiosity of a stranger, but have never quite been able to fathom the complexities and confusions that surround their lives.
It is a generation, often misunderstood, by Bengalis at home, and at large, by the Indian community, which alludes to the word “A.B.C.D” with deriding connotations. But such casual, offhand criticisms do little in understanding the complex dynamics of the American born Bengali generation. The one dimensional clichés that have existed in Bollywood (and very recently in Tollywood too) in the name of “crossover cinema” have only worked in order to enhance these widely believed stereotypes, but have failed to give us a more nuanced look at this generation. Jhumpa, on the other hand, tells the tales of more ordinary people, multihued characters who are far away from the cartoonish caricatures of pop culture. In the “Namesake”, Moushumi Majumder (often described as a character close to Jhumpa’s own self) does not try to balance Bollywood and ballet, nor is she given to the stereotype of the Western Bengali fawning over “Baul”. Moushumi is intelligent, self assured, reads French feminist theory, and carries herself in her own friend’s circle without the burdens of expressing her Indianness.
But questions of identity creep in more subtly into her literature. The sense of belonging or the absence of it expresses itself in strange ways through the pages of her stories. To some, the faraway land that one has left behind becomes a mere detail in their lives. Dev, in “Sexy”, defines his identity simply by a point in the map of the subcontinent. Beyond that, he says to his girlfriend, there’s “nothing she’ll need to worry about”. It was a life that he was prepared to forget, just like the wife he had at home, in those precious moments with Miranda. While some forget easily, others cling to their identities with a zealous passion like Mrs. Sen. She wears her identity in multi colored sarees (and stores more of it in the form of more sarees in the wardrobe), her cravings for fish and in her refusal to adapt to the customs of the new land.
The house has come up as a dominant motif in diaspora literature, time and again. In Naipaul’s protagonist Mohan Biswas, whose life is in many ways a symbolism for the existence of the displaced amidst others, we notice the strange yearning to own a house, a tract of land that he can call his own. Amidst strange people in strange places, one’s own house becomes the only expression of a threatened identity. Sanjeev, in “the Blessed House”, becomes zealously protective of his home. Although not overtly religious, he violently opposes the placing of Christian memorabilia in his home. His repeated insistence signals the insecurity that he faces over his identity, and that he wants to cling on to the image of the house that he presents to strangers as the only source of his identity in a foreign land.
The sense of displacement is also often accompanied by the pangs of separation. None expresses it better than Mr. Pirzada. Mr. Pirzada’s life is an anachronism in the most literal sense. The arms of the small pocket watch that he carries, points to the time in Bangladesh, where he regularly calls his own near and dear ones. The concept of time, in this foreign place, carries to him, no other meaning. There can be no better symbolism of displaced existence, one that captures the protagonist in that one small idiosyncratic moment, and reveals him in such great detail. While new identities are created, old identities which have expressed themselves so fiercely elsewhere merge seamlessly in this distant land. The two Bengals come together at the dining table as Mr. Pirzada “eats rice with his bare hands”, and the baffled young child expresses, as nobody else can, the futility of partition. “It made no sense to me” she says “Mr. Pirzada and my parents spoke the same language, laughed at the same jokes….chewed fennel seeds after meals as a digestive…. Nevertheless, my father insisted that I learnt the difference”.
Finally, the greatest source of cultural confusion, as Jhumpa has correctly identified it, is names. Which immigrant has not faced this situation, when in an apparently friendly crowd, the harmless question of “What is your name” suddenly creates that odd feeling of isolation, when you want to look away from the prying eyes? To Gogol Ganguli, life’s confusions start with his own name, a name that suddenly separates the All-American kid from his peers. To the young Dixit girl (in the story “Sexy”), who used to be taunted with “The Dixits dig shit” in her school bus stop, the Indian name is more than a source of confusion, it is a deep scar that she will carry throughout her life. It is Jhumpa’s ability to put into paper these small fleeting moments of humiliation and shame that makes her a great writer.
But Lahiri, inspite of the rich social experiences portrayed through her writings, is hardly an “academic’s writer” or a “postcolonial poster girl”. She is, rather, a “writer’s writer”, more of a craftsman, one who carves a beautiful narratives out of everyday existence. Jhumpa is a product of that new generation of writers, whose training in writing has been in the “creative writing” classrooms of Ivy League universities, leafing through the Janet Burroways and the Yellow Gotham softcovers. One can see in her the qualities of a trained writer, a sharp eye for detail and complex character sketches. She eyes the Bengali life with the wonder and the curiosity of an outsider. The intricacies of mundane Bengali life take a new color in her pen. When the young child wonders why Pranab kaku barges into the house without knocking or an appointment, or Mr. Pirzada makes a deep well in the rice to pour more lentil soup, or when Eliot notes with surprise as Mrs. Sen uses “a blade that curved like the prow of a Viking ship” (“bnoti”) to cut vegetables, it is only Jhumpa who stands with one feet on each aisle can capture these tiny, insignificant moments so beautifully. Her building of a scene often reminds one of John Updike. Like Updike, her portrayal of small town America is rich in detail and imagination, signaling a sensuous engagement with reality.
But perhaps Jhumpa’s greatest strength is in her portrayals of characters. Through each small incident, each idiosyncrasy, she slowly and painfully constructs her characters. Each of her characters is a different human being, one who deals and lives with her immigrant identity in her own unique way. They are often lovable, sometimes selfish, but they resonate with the warmth of proximity. Take Aparna for example, the protagonist’s mother in the story “Hell Heaven”2. Even when she emerges as a control freak mother to her teenage daughter, we never forget the greyer shades of her character. Her muted expression of love for Pranab kaku, her unhappy marriage and confinement in a foreign land, her conservative Bengali values, all reinforce each other to create a character that is richly layered. But amidst all these complications, she never seems a distant woman, a woman who could reside only in the pages of a novel. In moments that she longs to hear “Boudi”, or discusses “Nargis, Raj and the umbrella” with the bubbliness of a teenager, we could see in her the newly married girl next door. It is this ability to build convincing and endearing characters that separates Jhumpa from the scores of others in the same trade.
The major criticism against Jhumpa is that she has rarely stepped beyond the Bengali-American perspective. New York Magazine, in speaking of her new book, writes “Unaccustomed Earth is, once again, about upwardly mobile South Asians from New England”.3 But then Hardy never went beyond Wessex or Faulkner beyond the Yoknapatawpha County. R.K Narayan never went beyond the small town in South India, nor did Jhumpa’s other idol Gogol go beyond cold and damp St. Petersburg. Jhumpa herself retorts “It baffles me. Does John Updike get asked this question? Does Alice Munro? It’s the ethnic thing, that’s what it is. And my answer is always, yes, I will continue to write about this world, because it inspires me to write, and there’s nothing more important than that.”3 Writing is a craft that’s deeply personal. Stories are not drawn out of vacuum, but out of cold hard reality. But the writer does not merely document reality, she transcends its objectivity. Jhumpa has done it time and again, telling us how upwardly-mobile-South-Asians-in-New-England is not just a stereotype, but an endless variety of faces whose lives and dreams represent the world itself in a microcosm. In doing this, Jhumpa has ushered in a new era in Indian literature, and we hope, there comes out more of her kind, “from Jhumpa’s Overcoat”.
The post originally appeared in "Bangalnama". This is a very interesting webzine run by a group of friends, in an effort to chronicle and celebrate the culture, politics and identity of (erstwhile) East Bengal. It is an issue close to my heart, as it is an history whose bits and pieces I have grown up seeing. The webzine contains a number of interesting posts, which I would highly recommend.