Jhumpa Lahiri: Of Many Facets

Jhumpa Lahiri Vourvoulias (born Nilanjana Sudeshna) was born in London, in July 1967, and brought up in South Kingstown, Rhode Island. Even though she was brought up in America, she became very close to her Bengali heritage from an early age. Lahiri has traveled extensively to India and has experienced the effects of colonialism there as well as experienced the issues of the diaspora as they exist.

She feels strong ties to her parents’ homeland as well as the United States and England. Growing up with ties to all three countries created in Lahiri a sense of homelessness and an inability to feel accepted. Lahiri explains this as an inheritance of her parents’ ties to India, “It’s hard to have parents who consider another place ‘home’ even after living abroad for 30 years, India is home for them. We were always looking back so I never felt fully at home here. There’s nobody in this whole country that we’re related to. India was different-our extended family offered real connections.” Yet, her familial ties to India were not enough to make India “home” for Lahiri, “I didn’t grow up there, I wasn’t a part of things. We visited often but we didn’t have a home. We were clutching at a world that was never fully with us. Lahiri described this absence of belonging, “No country is my motherland. I always find myself in exile in whichever country I travel to, that’s why I was tempted to write something about those living their lives in exile“. This idea of exile runs consistently throughout Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Interpreter of Maladies. Her other works are The Namesake (2003) and India Holy Song (2000)

As a collection of nine distinct short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri’s debut, addresses sensitive dilemmas in the lives of Indians or Indian immigrants. The stories’ themes include marital difficulties, miscarriages and the disconnection between first and second generation immigrants in the United States. The stories are set in the northeastern United States, and in India, particularly Calcutta. The book brings to light many of the issues with identity faced by the Diaspora community. The book contains the stories of first and second generation Indian immigrants, as well as a few stories involving ideas of otherness among communities in India. The stories revolve around the difficulties of relationships, communication and a loss of identity for those in diaspora. No matter where the story takes place, the characters struggle with the same feelings of exile and the struggle between the two worlds by which they are torn. The stories deal with the always shifting lines between gender, sexuality, and social status within a diaspora. Whether the character be a homeless woman from India or an Indian male student in the United States, all the characters display the effects of displacement in a diaspora.

The gender roles in her novels are very well defined. Many of her characters depicted in these situations hold onto role definitions that American readers find stereotypical of Indian culture. Such generalizations (and the sometimes-ironic reversals of them) act as literary tools that add to her most sympathetic characters and her most poignant storylines. She often toys with the reversal of gender roles, especially as they relate to husband-and-wife roles within marriages. Whereas in India, a strict set of guidelines dictates how husbands and wives act both publicly and privately, in America, such guidelines are not as clear-cut and, oftentimes, are thrown out altogether. Lahiri’s married characters often deal with confusions of marriage roles in relation to cooking, working outside the home, and bearing children. According to Lahiri’s generalizations of Indian marital culture, women are solely responsible for cooking and doing household chores, as well as becoming completely domesticated with the arrival of children. Men are, according to such guidelines, responsible for working and providing their families with a monetary income. Many of Lahiri’s characters, specifically the ones in the diaspora, must cope with new and sometimes shockingly different gender stereotypes and roles in their new homelands. Generation gaps, culture shock upon moving away from the “homeland” and questions of sexuality play their roles in Lahiri’s interpretations of gender and what it means to Indians in Diaspora. The following questions seek to analyze Lahiri’s motives and methods when it comes to discussing gender and sexuality in terms of diaspora.

The film showcased recently on her work, The Namesake, also deals with the ever-changing role of a family. Her early life is very well depicted in her works. The stories are majorly set in Calcutta, a city she knew quite well as a result of repeated visits with her family, sometimes for several months at a time. Calcutta was neither a tourist place nor her former residence. Although the story speaks of an American life, yet India continues to form part of the fictional landscape of the characters. All most all the characters have an Indian background, India keeps cropping up as a setting where the characters struggle and come to terms with what life means in a distant land, to be brought up there, to belong and not belong there.

The question of identity gets pronounced when these culturally displaced immigrants and those who grow up in two worlds simultaneously, and their children are struggling hard to adjust. Lahiri says that to please her parents and meet their expectations, to meet the expectations of her American peers, and the expectations she put on herself to fit into American society was not easy. If you have noticed, she writes frequently from the male point of view. This could have been out of curiosity as she had no brothers. The first story that she wrote from the male point of view was the story “This Blessed House,” in Interpreter of Maladies. The protagonist of The Namesake was also a boy.

After reading her stories, one does come across a wide range of perspectives, changing gender roles, and the changing lives of thousands. Although Lahiri is a Pulitzer Prize winner, yet there is nothing very remarkable, and eye catching about her writing. Her works deal with the same story of culturally displaced immigrants struggling for their identity. There is no newness, and gradually the works seem mundane. I personally feel that the stories are sad and they fail to end on a note of happiness. They are extremely boring, repetitive and drab. I hope she comes up with better stories in future…

Aditi Raman

[Image Source: http://www.sfgate.com/c/pictures/2003/10/07/dd_lahiri.jpg]