Jhumpa Lahiri is a popular short story writer, novelist and author known for her non-fiction writings as well. Her famous debut in the world of writing occurred with the publication of a short story collection by the title Interpreter of Maladies, published in 1999. Her debut novel, likewise, The Namesake, became famous just after its publication in the year 2003. Lahiri is an American citizen with ‘Indian’ roots. Though she cannot be termed an Indian author legally, she is an Indian author philosophically and her constant strife to enact her character’s mental trauma on the pages countersigns her Indianness more often than often.
Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London to her parents of Indian origin but not very much known about their ‘compulsions’ or ‘ambitions’. She was born on July 11, 1967, and her family came to the USA when she was three. Since then, to a great length and at present as well, she has spent her life in the US as a USA citizen. She received all her degrees in the USA which include a BA in English literature from Bernard College of Columbia University in the year 1989 and various degrees including an MA in English literature and a PhD in Renaissance literature from Boston University. She married Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush in 2001 and lived in Rome for a few years before returning to America and joining Princeton University as a professor of creative writing.
Jhumpa Lahiri has been mostly active in writing short stories. She has published two major collections of short stories and these two collections include 17 short stories in total. As many readers might already have heard that Lahiri mostly writes about migrant experiences, her short stories are predominantly about the life and struggles (including various kinds of internal and external strife) of Indians (which has a vast connotation) in the USA. She began her career with the short story collection Interpreter of Maladies which was published in 1999, containing 9 short stories and mostly suggesting the feeling of otherness that Indians, sharply zoomed in at Bengalis (with Bangladeshis included) in the USA. Looking for more than a sense of alienation and otherness in her characters, a reader can find that Jhumpa Lahiri’s writings are marked with simple language, wonderfully sketched characters, simply expressed emotions and thoughts and ‘full’ meaning, having aptly length, and a piece of literature full of vividity amidst almost monotonous harp reaching its crescendo too often than usual.
Jhumpa’s USP in her writings is simply the fact that she writes about the experiences of immigrants in the USA who form a huge community – specifically the Bengali Americans. She has done extremely wonderfully in highlighting their problems, feeling of being left alone and others, troubles with their identity and a longing for their roots. And, with no doubts to have gone otherwise, her idea became the idea of many people and her writings became very popular among the readers of Asian countries, especially India. He short stories did very well in her very debut publication and she also bagged the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Interpreter of Maladies.
Her debut novel, published in 2003, The Namesake, furthers the doubts and dilemmas raised in her first short story collection. However, because it’s a novel, The Namesake has a certain protagonist, very much developed on the basis of Lahiri’s own experiences as an ‘outsider’ in the USA. Gogol Ganguli looks for the patterns of his becoming and unbecoming throughout the novel and he is not successful even after the conclusion. Her second full-length novel, The Lowland, published in 2013, rekindles the days when the Naxalite movement in Bengal was at its peak. It tells the depressing story of Subhash, his brother Udayan, Udayan’s and later Subhash’s wife Gauri, Bela – the daughter of Gauri and Udayan, brought up by Subhash mostly because Gauri leaves Subhash and Bela when she is still a kid. This novel tries to find out the traces of identity crisis (as usual in Lahiri’s writings) when people leave their homeland and reach ‘other’ places seeking comfort and newness. The Lowland also tries to capture the causes relationships fail and build. It is also remarkable that the novel tries to rediscover the days of Communist movements in West Bengal, filled with bloodshed and deaths of many innocents and culprits.
Critical Insights into Jhumpa Lahiri’s Writings:
Out of all the Lahiri’s books, novels and collections of short stories included, except her non-fictional attempts, the readers will find one thing in common and that is a feeling of looming depression, a constant shadow of sorrows and a state of hopelessness (take these three things combined in a single package). Is this something that I am using to attack Lahiri or her writings? No! I am just stating this as a fact. I am telling what it feels reading the works by Lahiri. Though she claims that she captures the raw emotions and experiences of characters (who are supposedly modelled on the immigrants or, being specific, Bengali Americans) in her works and tries to represent those with artistic embellishments, the reality might be different for people based on their personal experiences.
First of all, Jhumpa Lahiri is an American author. However, she is represented more like an Indian writer by critics in India or mistaken for being an Indian author or an Indian-American author. This seems to be a misconception created by her regular ventures into the lives of Indian characters. However, one has to understand that if we talk about representing the ‘real’ Indian diaspora and their genuine struggles outside India, we will have to talk about V. S. Naipaul and his writings. Naipaul’s writings represent the pain of being sans comfort of being in the homeland and the truest possible quest for an identity which is lacking, missing a big pie from the circle of completeness and many things more for which Indians outside the country, mostly being taken generations ago by force and not on some foreign-land tourism with quick visas on arrival, regularly parch.
On the other hand, Jhumpa Lahiri was born in England and she spent three years there with her parents before moving to the USA and becoming an American citizen subsequently. One has to keep in mind that her parents did not have to face the struggles and hardships that other immigrants might have faced at that time, either in the USA or in England. So, could her experiences be synonymised with the experiences of those children who had slaves, labourers, poor people taken to the countries outside India by forces as prisoners and slaves, and other people in penury as their parents? Would her feelings of being pushed into the corner and compelled to feel ‘otherness’ match the experiences of these slave children living entirely in isolation without even noticing that they were born in England or Netherland or Scotland or Australia or the USA or in the Trinidad islands? There is, without a doubt, too much ambivalence and even ambidexterity about the claims of such authors born with privilege and yet almost snatching their rights of being included in the ‘painful immigrants’ community. Who will be the voice of those who were taken from West Bengal as slaves to the United Kingdom to serve, directly or indirectly, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth? Jhumpa Lahiri did not care about ‘those experiences’ because those might be too ‘other’ even for her. Strange, but expected. It’s like the elite feeling diaspora who accept prominent citizenship of other countries but long for their Indianness inside… I am not calling them by any names! You will be responsible for what you think from here.
One thing is too apparent in the writings of Jhumpa Lahiri that she can create a panorama of emotions in the favour of any character that she wishes to be the champion of any particular short story or novel. She certainly has the expertise in creating the waves of emotional sentences that arrest the sentimental readers’ intellect and compel them to think in a certain direction. This is, indeed, a prowess to celebrate! Though I do have my doubts about her ‘understanding’ of Indianess and India as an Indian author in the truest form might feel, I certainly acknowledge her awareness of Indian values and sentiments in general.
Books by Jhumpa Lahiri:
Interpreter of Maladies (Short Story Collection): Published in 1999
The Namesake (Novel): Published in 2003
Unaccustomed Earth (Short Story Collection): Published in 2008
The Lowland (Novel): 2013
She has also published a novel in Italian, in 2018, Dove mi trovo.
Awards Won by Jhumpa Lahiri:
- O. Henry Award in 1999 for Interpreter of Maladies
- Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000 for Interpreter of Maladies
- Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2008 for Unaccustomed Earth
- Asian American Literary Award in 2009 for Unaccustomed Earth
- DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2014 for The Lowland
There are a few other awards won by Jhumpa but most of them are fellowships and minor awards. All important ones are mentioned on the list above.
Though it is certainly tough to conclude even an argument about such an acclaimed author of short stories and novels who has won so many accolades on the foreign soil, writing about India and Indians, yet being an American and spending only holidays in India, I would certainly make some points at the height of my free spirit about her writings. First of all, we will have to have an open and all-inclusive debate on the very validity of the term ‘Indian Diaspora’ because, I think, this term has been abused more than it has been used to describe something. Who is an immigrant? Who is a tourist? How easy is life in the USA? How difficult is life in the USA or England? In her novel, The Lowland, it feels too easy for Gauri to get a Visa, settle in the USA and also join a university and, eventually, after she leaves her husband and daughter, she becomes a professor, somehow. What was she doing in India? Is that really simple? To join the lectures at a university? Moreover, The Namesake, her debut novel, focuses on the absurdity of Indian culture and burdens the readers with bogus claims about Indian backwardness while comparing ‘Indianness’ with an American identity. What is Indian for Jhumpa Lahiri? I don’t think she has even an average knowledge of what is Indian and what is not, let alone the experiences that she could utilise and write about those in details. What is apparently available in the public domain from her life? She has been a privileged American citizen with a chance to study at the best of the universities and then enjoying the opportunities to get the best of the jobs. And yet, she has the big heart to feel for the immigrants who, even after this much on foreign soil, feel like being pushed to experience ‘otherness’ and long for their roots constantly and yet never surrendering the passport they are holding and coming back to their motherland – at the end, who wants to come back? It’s all a short-term excursion to let the mind think something adventurous! The real immigrants who go to the USA with qualifications in their hand and ambitions in their heart and eventually (thanks to their misfortune and the hypocrites who are already settled in the USA but cannot support the newcomers) fail because of so many reasons are nowhere found with their sordid experiences like a stirring desire to come back to India but with no resources to their avail! Ah! The dilemma of Indian Diaspora and the luxury of diasporic literature and the games of literary festivals! The enchanting game of representation of the immigrants is too much to give a place to the real sufferers… those with golden spoons in their kitchen drawers and costly aquariums in their bedrooms talk without tiring about immigrant experiences and longing for the roots… Let hypocrisy die ten times before being born again and I will come back with more ‘diasporic writers’ and their exemplary works to your service!
The Namesake Review
Written by Amit Mishra for The Indian Authors