BY LAVINA MELWANI
With the Booker Prize announcement just two days away, American academics weigh in on the nominee who appears to have become the next big Indian crossover novelist.
She’s been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She’s on the longlist for the National Book Award. Her new novel, The Lowland, has been reviewed everywhere, from The New York Times to the most obscure little blog.
Few writers of Indian origin command this kind of fanfare in the West, except perhaps Salman Rushdie. There’s little doubt that Jhumpa Lahiri is a literary rock star. But is she the next big Indian writer after Rushdie, in terms of international standing?
Homi K. Bhabha — the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature and Language, and the Director of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University — is puzzled by this question. “How are Jhumpa Lahiri or even Salman Rushdie ‘Indian’ writers? That is not their fundamental experience. If anything, Lahiri is among the leading writers in English who have a very cosmopolitan experience.”
Bhabha points out that Rushdie moved to London as a schoolboy, studied at Cambridge and has lived most of his life in the west. Lahiri too has lived her life in the U.S. with brief visits back to India. “She knows how to weave plot and character with great subtlety; she has a way of understanding the psychological agony that people suffer in certain social conditions. She is a remarkable observer of human interaction and of how relationships are made, and she has a very finely tuned sense of place in her work. This is why she’s a great writer, not because her parents happen to be Indian.”
Yes, we Indians do tend to claim anyone who has even an ounce of Indian blood as ‘Indian’ and revel in their success, no matter where they live! While Indians and Indian-Americans are quite thrilled with Lahiri’s meteoric rise, what is remarkable is her crossover appeal, with translations into 30 languages. Perhaps what connects readers most to her is that, in spite of her talent and luck, she is, in many ways, just like them.
She has had early rejections, she has struggled with name, identity, duty and self, family ups and downs and her place in the world. She has been a daughter, a wife, a mother — and the emotions and discoveries of those realities have seeped into her work. She can articulate those gains, losses and longings better than any of us and we are grateful to her for that, for she is a diarist of our lives.
“This is a novel as affecting in its Chekhovian exploration of fathers and sons, parents and children as it is resonant in its exploration of what is acquired and lost by immigrants and their children in pursuit of the American dream,” wrote The New York Times about The Namesake.
Lahiri would be the first to question her title as an ‘Indian’ writer. She has always eschewed labels, of ‘Indian’, ‘Asian’, ‘Multicultural’ — and prefers the stark, simple title of ‘writer’.
Deepika Bahri, Associate Professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta, says, “I would say it’s important to locate Lahiri where she is, which is within an Indian-American context. There are continuities in the two categories and we have to honour them, but it wouldn’t be fair either to Lahiri or to Indian writers to conflate the two categories. Indian writers in India would resent that because they should command their own space and, for her, it just wouldn’t be adequate to describe the canvas that she is encompassing.”
Indeed, Lahiri’s canvas has very specific cultural details of the lives of Bengali-American immigrants and it is these details that add humanity and make the story come alive even for people who are not part of that world, says Sunita Mukhi, Professor in the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies at Stony Brook University in New York. “These stories can be shared by many others who have a sense of displacement but who find a comfort and home in all these specific details of family life, food and fragrances.”
Mukhi has used Lahiri’s books in her class “Desi in the Diaspora”, where — although 60 per cent of her students are Indian — the rest are Latino, Blacks, Bangladeshi and other minorities. She found that all of them seem to relate to Lahiri’s work, especially to The Namesake: “They identify with her. She is articulating a lot of their anxieties and their despair of being of desi descent and living in America. Many who read the same book and are not necessarily Bengali, can begin to understand the culture of displacement too.”
Yet, her continuous pursuit of these themes has its detractors too. One reader tweeted: “Tired of her one-track immigration angst. She has been writing about not belonging for 15 years now! Getting old now!”
Bahri says: “I find that objectionable. Would you lay that charge on Jane Austen? There are thousands of stories to be told about these lives. She shows how dynamic and internally diverse culture can be without succumbing to this great seduction of tradition or the romance of Indian values, while still showing how it might matter.”
What Bahri does have a critique about is the fact that Lahiri is a little disingenuous when she says she’s not accepted as a true American, given her extraordinary success in the marketplace and her great appeal in the American literary world where she operates very much within an American tradition of writing.
With the advent of Lahiri’s new novel The Lowland there seems to be fresh debate on her writing style as well as whether she is a better writer of short stories than of the novel. Randy Boyagoda wrote in The Financial Times, “Booker or not, The Lowland is awash with Lahirical excess.” Porochista Khakpour in the Los Angeles Times writes about her “passionless restraint”: “In Lahiri’s fiction even when there is some blood on some hands, it’s like watercolour blood, non-threatening and even comely. Sometimes that is magical and other times it feels dishonest.”
Bhabha makes an insightful point about Lahiri and Rushdie: “It is the strength of these writers that having some kind of Indian cultural background largely through their families has opened them up to really appreciating the complexities on a world scale. Whatever it is that’s passed down to them through their families with an Indian aspect has made them voracious for experience on a global scale.”
Indeed, Lahiri actually lives what she writes about — and that perhaps is the secret of her appeal to readers everywhere: she has a hunger for embracing the world and new experiences.
As she told Salon magazine recently: “To a certain degree, all four books are visiting and revisiting a certain migration pattern, in terms of what the characters are doing. That is something I’m less interested in continuing to explore right now. I feel — I want to look elsewhere, and look at things differently.”
Forsaking her parochial Brooklyn neighbourhood, much like her parents leaving Kolkata, she now lives in Rome with her husband Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, a senior editor at Time magazine. Far away from everything familiar, she is starting to write in Italian and exposing her two American-born children Noor and Octavio to a life of dislocation — and discovery.
So is she the next big ‘Indian’ writer after Rushdie? Maybe not. But she’s certainly a writer, who like Rushdie, attempts to swallow the universe whole and claim a global citizenship.
Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications and blogs at http://www.lassiwithlavina.com. Twitter @lassiwithlavina. Google+ the author.