Sunday, May 25, 2008

On Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth

A slightly different version of this essay appears today in the Observer.

Fiction is nothing but a narrator’s intelligent attention to the play of human feelings, but in the stories of Jhumpa Lahiri that attention takes a very distinctive, refined form. Her characters, genteel Bengalis now resident in suburban America, are themselves acutely conscious of the management of their emotions, of not behaving in an unseemly manner, of keeping their regrets and resentments to themselves. They not only speak without exclamation marks, but also think without them.

And on another level their creator is similarly reticent, steering well clear (the metaphor seems appropriate because in many of Lahiri’s stories characters are seen talking or thinking as they drive) of pathos or melodrama or anarchic laughter, always choosing a murmur over a shout. Both the writer and the characters, for their own particular reasons, want to put a brake on emotion, and the reader moves into the space they have left open. A sentence from the title story of Lahiri’s first book, Interpreter of Maladies, might exemplify Lahiri’s method. A woman, Mrs.Das, argues with her husband over who is to take their daughter to the rest room on a journey, and loses. All we are told about Mrs. Das's response is that she “did not hold the little girl’s hand as they walked to the rest room.”

The stories in Lahiri’s new book, Unaccustomed Earth, although they wander over familiar material in a familiar manner, are decidedly longer, slower, and better than those of the earlier set: they might be said to represent the perfection of a method that was at last glimpse only simmering.

These are Very Serious stories, stories that take storytelling seriously, and everything in them works together to let us know they are so: the slow, even sluggish, openings, patiently building up a scene and behind it a situation; the precise, serene sentences, accumulating weight and meaning clause by clause; the unvarying gravitas of the narrators, whether third-person or first-person – a mood and meaning that are gestured at even by the statuesque author photograph on the inside cover.

The shadow of death hovers over many of them, but humour or happiness seem remote. On one of the few occasions that a character makes a joke, he finds that “No one laughed”. A peripatetic widower sends a postcard to his daughter and her family that says “Be happy, love Baba” – “as if the attainment of happiness were as simple as that”, the sentence goes on, and although we guess this is Ruma's response, it might just as well be the narrator's.

Even so, the stories succeed on their own terms: many of them are exceptionally fine. In the title story, the widower mentioned above comes to spend a week with his daughter Ruma and her little son Akash. Lahiri’s achievement here is to capture all the registers of the encounter between three generations, and evoke the ghosts that drift alongside. Ruma and her father have never been particularly close, and indeed she suspects that he does not really miss her mother. He is never named, as if to emphasise that he is only a visitor. This is very subtle of Lahiri.

But Ruma’s father and Akash take to each other immediately, and Ruma is “briefly envious of her own son”. Her father takes to working on her garden, as he used to in their old home – his home, and in an insight characteristic of Lahiri, we learn that “when he thought about his garden was when he missed his wife the most”. He is now seeing another woman, but cannot bring himself to reveal this to Ruma: the positions of father and child have been reversed. Both are on unaccustomed earth, and Lahiri beautifully draws their situation out to something like a close.

And in the book’s best story, “Year’s End”, a teenager, Kaushik, is told by his father, also a widower, that he has remarried: that Kaushik now has a stepmother and two stepsisters. Kaushik loved his late mother dearly, so his father is prepared for outrage. But Kaushik, although taken by surprise, reports that “no turbulent emotion passed through me as he spoke”.

When Kaushik arrives home after his exams, he is received by his father, and notes how the decor of the house has been changed by a hand with a different taste in interiors. But the house itself seems eerily silent, “as if Chitra and her daughters were discreetly hidden in one of the many cupboards”. “Where are they?” he asks finally, and in those three words are contained all the uncertainty and pathos of one of the many orphans in Dickens. We hear Kaushik’s plaintive question almost as a cry: in the same instant the boundaries between the author, and the character, and the reader are erased, and Lahiri's fiction has worked its magic.

And links
to two old essays on short-story writers, both, like Lahiri, of Asian origin and both now based in America, whose work is in my judgment as good as hers: Nalini Jones and Samrat Upadhyay.


Amit said...

Chandrahas, here's a wonderfully insightful essay on Jhumpa's fiction, if you haven't read it already.

Rohit Thombre said...

This: "They not only speak without exclamation marks, but also think without them.", is a great line.When u call Lahiri subtle,u aren't mocking by any chance are you?No,I guess that wouldn't be your style.I dont know if Im reading a disquiet in your review that isn't really there but I've read Interpreter and Namesake and both times I thought to myself, talented and all but does she HAVE to write about those damn nri bongs all the time??There..I said it. Phew.

Chandrahas said...

Rohit - As always, I feel from reading your comments that you are one of the most perceptive readers of my work, and you catch things that I have left unsaid (although I hope that in future comments you will avoid saying "u", which I consider the ugliest and laziest word in the 21st-century English lexicon).

You are correct to query my comment saying "This is very subtle of Lahiri", which was implied by my point in the previous sentence anyway, and was something I added this afternoon to the piece that appeared in the newspaper. Although I tease Lahiri's work gently in this piece, it is not at that point, but at the place where I say her stories are Very Serious.

You are also right in sensing a disquiet with Lahiri's first collection of stories (I haven't read *The Namesake*). I thought there was a kind of tension there between the subject matter, which was about the lives of immigrant Indians, and the first audience of the stories, who were American, which expressed itself in bits of the language and vocabulary: the refusal to name the Indian gods the characters are thinking of, or the foods they are eating. These problems are all sorted out in the new book, which also has the other merits that I have pointed out.

I have less sympathy with the objection that Lahiri writes about the same kind of people all the time: NRI Bongs, as you say. The reason why I don't feel that this is at all a problem is that the condition of NRI Bongness is not central to every story: the characters have problems of the kind all human beings have, and their double allegiance culturally is only a facet of their existence. When Kaushik feels lost by his father's remarriage, that has nothing to do in particular by his being an NRI Bong, and in fact his response is more American than Bengali, which is to set out on the road all on his own and drive his blues away.

I think rather that it is quite courageous of Lahiri to stick within these self-imposed bounds, and yet say so much about universal human problems and feelings. Perhaps we Indian readers, used to finding Indians of every stripe and from every corner of our country in our novels, chafe at the smallness of Lahiri's fictional universe. But there is no rule - even in our globalised age - that says that fiction should seek out characters of a wide range of ethnicities and nationalities. In every art form there is a strain of work that achieves spectacular effects from working only within a limited palette, and I think Lahiri's stories are within that tradition in literature.

Rohit Thombre said...

No one replies to comments the way you do, acknowledging yet gently berating all at once.The u comes from too much Gtalk usage Im afraid,and does look flaky..damn.I realise that the NRI bong objection is frivolous but there are so many good books out there that one needs these thin off-the-cuff judgmental reasons to cut the potential stacks down to size to fit our lives.

amit varma said...

"These are Very Serious stories, stories that take storytelling seriously, and everything in them works together to let us know they are so: the slow, even sluggish, openings, patiently building up a scene and behind it a situation; the precise, serene sentences, accumulating weight and meaning clause by clause; the unvarying gravitas of the narrators, whether third-person or first-person – even, finally, the statuesque author photograph on the inside cover."

Hash, that last comment really has no place in a otherwise serious review -- not that I agree with all of it, but at least it pertains to her writing.

Also, is the capitalization of "Very Serious" some sort of mockery? Is a writer not supposed to "take storytelling seriously"?

Amit said...

Yes, that Roy-ish capatilization did catch my attention with its obvious mischief lurking just below the surface. It's undeniable that her prose has humor and irony that capture the funniness of sadness, especially in stories like the one where they go for Pam's wedding (I forget the title) and in all the three melancholic ones that make up Hema & Kaushik. But no doubt, there's a sort of old-world Russian seriousness in her prose that's reflected in too much of telling rather than showing and her apparent denial of the frivolities and hilarity of our postmodern nothingness. I hear she doesn't read reviews, emails, letters, because if she'd read, I'd have told her, "Just chill, baby! Breathe in deep, count one thousand and one, one thousand and two, one thousand and blah, and start typing."

Chandrahas said...

Amit Varma - You ask ,'Also, is the capitalization of "Very Serious" some sort of mockery? Is a writer not supposed to "take storytelling seriously"?'

You are needlessly confusing two consecutive remarks which don't mean the same thing (else why would I repeat myself?). Of course a writer is supposed to take storytelling seriously: why would you write stories otherwise? Writers of comic stories also "take storytelling seriously", so there is no necessary correlation between the seriousness of the content and the seriousness of the writer.

My capitalization of "very serious" is my somewhat unserious response to Lahiri's very serious stories, in which humour is almost totally absent, and I don't see why I shouldn't make such a remark when I've devoted many paragraphs to pointing out the specific merits of these stories, several of which I admired greatly for their attention to craftsmanship and detail. There is only laughter in my remark, and no mockery, as you somewhat too seriously insist.

You are of course welcome to your thoughts, but I can't really see much merit in the points you have raised in this instance. As far as I can tell, I've read, and written about, the stories with as care as possible. The author photograph is also part of a book, and often it says a lot about how the author wants to present himself or herself (as does the author bio: think of VS Naipaul's bio at the back of all his books, which declaresthat "After four years at University College, Oxford, he began to write, and since then has followed no other profession."). If I made a comment on it in passing, I don't see what problem there is in that. If I had made it central to my reading of the stories, then there would be a problem with my approach.

Chandrahas said...

Amit - Perhaps Jhumpa Lahiri is reading this page right now, and your message will go through to her.

But if it is true that she doesn't read reviews of her books, then I actually admire that about her. I imagine that for an author, reading reviews of his or her work invariably turns out to be a disappointing experience because reviewers - even the best of them - miss many of the finer points that were so carefully thought about in the contruction of the work. I think the discipline in not reading reviews of your work is actually quite a worthy detachment.

I didn't think that some of the stories were about "the funniness of sadness", as you suggest, but I see where you are coming from, and I think your approach might, if fleshed out with certain details picked from the work, lend itself to quite an interesting and valuable reading of the stories.

Chandrahas said...

For more on author photographs and how they invite interpretation, I recommend the Spanish novelist Javier Marias's essay "Perfect Artists" in his book Written Lives:

smitajain said...

I've generally found her writing quite pedestrian. I found it difficult to get through The Interpreter of Maladies (of which, unfortunately, I have two copies), having abandoned it miday several times before attempting it succesfully.

Amit said...

I don't think that the author photo could be so easily ignored, especially in this case where two of the book's best stories, Year's End and Going Ashore, revolve around photographs and photogaphy. I do remember a spoof though that I read in an American novel where the novelist asks all future novelists to project writerly intensity in their eyes while shooting for the cover photo; when you turn the page to look at the author's own eyes, you find him looking away, softly, dreamily, hazily. Some talented writers like Jonathan Foer and John Berger have used photographs (not their own) and sketches to great effect. As for Jhumpa, she looked a million bucks the last time I saw her during the book-launch of The Namesake and her "statuesque" photo-shopped cover photo does no justice to her. She looks better even in the movie version of her novel. She could have corrected her photo had she been reading your review in The Guardian. But I know for sure that her husband wakes up early on weekends to remove the review pages before passing her the paper. Poor man, that's a part of his job description.

amit varma said...

"There is only laughter in my remark, and no mockery, as you somewhat too seriously insist."

Hash, a question-mark does not amount to insistence, and I'm surprised at the misreading. And if it is not mockery, merely humour, then I don't see the point of that bit of humour. Even humour should have Some Purpose, no?

As for the author photograph, it comes as the last item after a colon that follows "These are Very Serious stories, stories that take storytelling seriously, and everything in them works together to let us know they are so..." So is the photograph something in the stories, as that sentence implies? If not, it's a poorly constructed sentence, no?

Amit, I disagree that her stories contain "too much of telling rather than showing." She is a classic show-not-tell writer, though my minor quibble with these stories is that she sometimes shows more than she needs to, and could be more subtle. That's just personal opinion, of course -- all in all, I think this is a terrific collection.

Chandrahas said...

Amit Varma - Ah, I see there is a slight slippage of meaning on the lines you suggest: I've been a bit slack while adding a few remarks to the published piece. I have changed that now.

Humour certainly has a purpose, and that is to be humorous. But I shall hold you to your assertion the next time you make one your deliberately atrocious puns in coversation, or when you make a facetious remark on your blog.

My intention behind the unusual capitalization was simply to find an economical way of saying that while I admired the seriousness of purpose of the writer very much, the stories themselves are sometimes a little too serious for my taste.

amit varma said...

Hash, if you change your post after much comment has been made on it, the comments appear superfluous. But that's your prerogative, and I applaud your honesty in acknowledging and changing a poor sentence once it has been pointed out to you.

I wasn't questioning the use of humour in serious pieces, but of this use of humour. But we could argue about that till the cows come home -- and we don't want the cows at home, do we?

Your explanation of the unusual capitalisation is actually clearer and better stated than the unusual capitalisation itself, so perhaps you should simply have dispensed with that bit of cleverness as well. But perhaps I nitpick.

Chandrahas said...

Amit - You are correct in your suspicion that you nitpick. You are pointlessly flogging a matter that I have already gone to great pains to explain.

You say that my paraphrase of the meanings contained in the capitalization is clearer that the original remark, and so perhaps I should have "simply have dispensed with that bit of cleverness as well".

But a paraphrase is always meant to be clearer, simpler, and more unambiguous than the matter of which it is a paraphrase, else it would not be a good paraphrase. Writing need not only inhabit the level of that paraphrase: it can inhabit other levels as well.

My original remark, of which the capitalization was an essential part, is certainly elliptical, but the meaning of it is available to any reader willing to do a bit of work in understanding it in relation to the rest of the sentence, and as far as I can tell there is a pleasure in writing, and hopefully in reading, that kind of prose. Further, in pieces with tight word counts, it makes sense to make some points in a compressed way.

If you find the capitals not to your liking, or think that the humour has no purpose, or think that it is a dispensable bit of cleverness, you should consider the possibility that, as you say elsewhere in these comments, that's just your personal opinion, and that it is absurd to make a writer with a different view of his work answerable to that opinion, or to suggest that he dispense with this or that.

The reasonable thing to do in such a situation is to concede the point, which at best is a point you might raise once, and get on with life. There is no law which says that one should always try to have the last word in a debate, and once you accept this you will also accept that there are many more useful things we should be doing with our time.

Rohit Chopra said...

Dear Chandrahas,

I very much liked your review of Unaccustomed Earth and have been enjoying the discussion it has sparked on the Middle

Rohit Thombre's point is interesting; indeed, several scholars have noted the Bengali-centrism of Indian historiography, social science, and fiction, which tends to equate the Bengali experience (NRI or otherwise) as the Indian experience at large.
But which writer is not resolutely local, from Harry Angstrom's world in Updike to Singer's Jewish neighborhoods or Flaubert's petty bourgeoisie in France? Some writers like Kafka, where the absence of the possibility of the local or any rootedness is the point of the writing itself, are exceptions. (Though Lukacs criticized Kafka on precisely this ground, for eviscerating his charaacters of any historical identity and presenting them as the universal human.)

It is also worth reflecting on what forms of local life we consider (or are trained to
recognize as) universal and what forms we tend to view as parochial. But Lahiri, one may note, is also local in another sense-- she is the quintessential New England writer, capturing, I think, something of the quiet melancholia of New England, seen in Thoreau (for all his exuberance and faith in the human spirit), Longfellow, and Dickinson.

A few weeks ago I visited Walden Pond where Thoreau wrote Walden in his log cabin, at least a mile away from his nearest neighbor (who
thought he was a 'ne-er do well' --how little things have changed, one might note, those in the arts often get denigrated in the same way today!). In a New England
winter, one can imagine Thoreau coming to the epiphany, oft-quoted,
that the majority of men spend their lives in quiet desperation.
Something of that sentiment, or akin to it, glimmers in Lahiri's work.

Best regards
Rohit Chopra

Chandrahas said...

Rohit - There are so many dazzling thoughts in these few paragraphs of yours that had I written them myself, I probably would have done three skips and a jump around my room, and then probably taken the next two days off too.

I thought that your remark: "It is also worth reflecting on what forms of local life we consider universal and what forms we tend to view as parochial" was very acute, as was the parallel you drew between Jhumpa Lahiri and Thoreau as melancholic New Englanders. Quiet desperation is indeed the prevailing mood of these stories, and had I access to your powers of connection I might have been delighted to use that quote myself in trying to point out how emotion is subdued in Lahiri.

Many sparks went off in my mind while reading these thoughts, and I thank you for them.

On a slightly tangential note (I have not made a tangential note in years, I feel), it seemed like it was about forty degrees celsius when I went shopping for meat and fish and beer this morning. The prevailing mood in Bombay is one of quiet perspiration.

amit varma said...

Hash, if the comments I was making here were pointless, I don't see why you took the effort to change a sentence in your review to make them moot. Still, I was hardly flogging a point -- I first stated an opinion, and then commented again when you mischaracterized a question I put to you as insistence. I don't see how I am trying to make you "answerable to [an] opinion" by merely stating it. Is a critic perhaps reacting too sensitively to criticism? ;)

If you just want praise and are not interested in any dialogue that is critical of your writing, that is fair enough -- this is your space, and I will respect your preferences and not sully these pages any more.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your kind words. The connections were, I think, a result of happenstance, a year spent in New England, and triggered, really, by your review and the discussion here.

I have been trying to come up with something clever about perspiration and desperation, as
food (fish and meat and beer?) for thought to sign off with. But inspiration fails, as it does 99 percent of the time, so I end with subdued voice.

Yours, in tangential noting

Sambit said...

Great scenes.

Arunava said...

Thank you for your perceptive reading, Chandrahas, which actually enhanced my experience with the book - not something reviews can normally do for me.

I wonder how many of the people who have written on this page are 40 or older. Many of the central characters in Unaccustomed Earth seem to be around that age, as I am (well over 40, actually). And there were chords that the stories touched in me that, I daresay, would not resonate within those not yet 40. At the risk of over-simplifying and generalising, it's around this time that the sense of adventure starts giving way to the need for anchoring yourself - and I sensed that in the people in these stories.

Another thing that strikes me about the unnatural calm of Lahiri's writing tone is that it is perhaps a useful technique in depicting dramatic events and emotions - which would otherwise tend towards melodrama if form matched content in excitability.

Chandrahas said...

Arunava - There are some very astute remarks here, and also an engaging candour in your reflections on how your age influences your reading of Lahiri. Age is actually an important axis along which we respond to works of literature - and of course also an influence on how writers themselves write.

Thank you for you kind words; I am glad you enjoyed my review. I try not to think of reviews as reviews but as essays, requiring a coherent beginning and an ending and some theme running through the paragraphs and holding them together: in this case, the deliberate stilling of emotional responses at more than one level of narrative that you also talk about. The essay is the most flexible, readable, and productive form of all, and it's a great vehicle for carrying out experiments in prose style and for making all kinds of loops and patterns of thought.

Neale said...

"Fiction is nothing but a narrator’s intelligent attention to the play of human feelings"

That is one, sweeping, preposterous opening sentence. You start off snarky (nothing but) and then try to make amends (intelligent attention).

Chandrahas said...

Neale - You appear to have some vocabulary issues. "Snarky" means sarcastic or impertinent, and the phrase you highlight is neither. And as it is not snarky, there is nothing that sentence later makes amends for either.

If you go up and take a look at the opening sentence again, you may find that it has a somewhat surprised expression on its face, and I can't blame it after your hyper-aggressive reading. But it may have also recovered its usual composed expression, as all things return to their own level in time.

"Fiction is nothing but a narrator’s intelligent attention to the play of human feelings, but...". I could have made the opening simpler by saying "Fiction is its essence a..." or some such thing, so perhaps your objection really is to the fact that the opening sounds a little too emphatic, with a contentious adjective thrown in ("intelligent") that raises as many issues as it answers. I am willing to grant you this if you decide that this is what you want to say, and then we can take it from there.

Anonymous said...

How about?
"An important element of fiction is a writer's attention to the play of human feelings."


Chandrahas said...

Neale - Ah, now you are talking. At least we have now laid the ground for a reasoned discussion of word choices.

There are now two important differences between your version and mine. One is that you use "writer" while I say "narrator". The narrator (and narration, rather than plain "storytelling") is a useful concept in literary criticism, and the term is in my view more apt than "writer" here, while remaining sufficiently general to cover the sentiment that you express. Often the writer and the narrator, while linked by an umbilical cord, are two different entities; narrators are often used by writers like prisms to inflect their material, and to discipline their own process of creation and route it through the channel of a particular perspective.

Secondly, the idea that "An important element of fiction is a writer's attention to the play of human feelings" is indisputable. But, while it is true, is almost a truism. You might say I have taken this sentiment and have then cut my cloth to fit the suit of specific comment on Lahiri's work, which is to point out how narratorial mediation works in Lahiri to create a surface mood of almost unnatural calm. To put it another way, the head of your sentence would not work with the tail of my sentence; it would become a strange-looking animal then.

I take your objection to the word "intelligent", though, and think in retrospect that it adds a somewhat distracting branch off the path set up by my opening. So you are correct in pointing out that the sentence does not work quite as well as it might: it waggles fingers at too many issues. But such is life: one lives in real time, and the decisions one makes don't always turn out to be the best possible. One lives and learns, often through discussions like this.

Amit said...

'There are not, I suspect, many authors who prefer never to read reviews and profiles of themselves. "It's just too much, like looking into a mirror all the time," says Jhumpa Lahiri. This is a pity, as she's missing considerable acclaim.'

Smartas said...

I have great regard for you, Chandrahas, for two reasons. First, your reviews are generous and non-judgemental, while being delightful and quite specific in listing out the merits or demerits of a work or an author. Almost as impressive is how you take the time to respond to every comment and engage in forthright discussion. Keep it going!!

I for one, would take the information about Lahiri not reading her reviews with a pinch of salt. If this is true, it must be an affectation she has picked up, now that her literary merits have been recognized and she is more assured. I guarantee that she must have read reviews of her first book or two. Her saying that she does not read the reviews is something she has earned through her earlier books being accepted. Good for her. Does anyone else agree?

Chandrahas said...

Smartas - Thank you for your very kind words. And you are right: I love responding to comments. I think of a comment as the first move in what is meant to be a conversation, and indicates a certain investment of time, energy and thought on the part of the writer that should not just be acknowledged but also taken up in all its fullness.

I think your judgement that Lahiri's saying "that she does not read the reviews is something she has earned through her earlier books being accepted" is quite astute. Even so, if reports of her present absention from reading reports on her work are true, it would indicate a stringent self-discipline on her part and a stilling - i use a phrase now from Joseph O'Neill's marvellous new novel Netherland, which I finished reading this morning - of "curiosity's enoumous momentum". So I think we can both grant the truth of your point and yet allow Lahiri the distinction of hers.

Keep writing in.