She’s leaving home: Review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Whereabouts’

Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest is a sharp, unapologetic novel, which makes no attempt to please

Updated - May 16, 2021 12:37 pm IST

Published - May 15, 2021 04:00 pm IST

Reflections: Henri Matisse’s oil, ‘Woman before an Aquarium’.

Reflections: Henri Matisse’s oil, ‘Woman before an Aquarium’.

Jhumpa Lahiri can be credited with having birthed the diaspora novel. In the years since Interpreter of Maladies , her collection of stories about Indian-Americans trying to find their ‘roots’, won the Pulitzer in 2000, the theme of migration and dislocation has almost become a magic formula for success, with writers exploring it from every conceivable angle and readers lapping it up. Lahiri’s own subsequent novels — The Namesake , The Lowland — expanded on the theme, to considerable acclaim.

We, the inhabitants of a shifting world, will, of course, find much to identify with in characters representing a class of in-between people who have made good in their new lives abroad but are still haunted by thoughts of home. At the same time, don’t such pinpricks of the mind seem precious when one thinks of the kind of migration that results in battered bodies washing up on foreign shores?

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Cuts like a knife

Lahiri is thoroughly self-aware, as proved by her minutely thought-through writings. As such, she has resisted the tag of the ‘immigrant novel’ while struggling to bring more rarefied nuances to the concept. She moved to Italy from the U.S. to discover and recreate herself in another language. Her 2016 memoir, In Other Words , documents the transition. The pain and liberation of the transformative process is brought out there in a quote from Ovid’s Metamorphosis (her favourite book), where the nymph Daphne, pursued by Apollo, changes into a laurel tree, and Apollo, placing his hand on its trunk, can feel “the breast still trembling under the new bark”.

The relentless onward movement of life cuts like a knife, with the past still throbbing like an unhealed wound beneath the new skin. Yet the progression is undeniably exhilarating. Dualities like this form the warp and weft of Whereabouts , whose first-person narrator dwells in contradictions. Whereabouts has been translated by Lahiri from her own 2018 Italian novel, Dove mi trovo . The unnamed protagonist is an attractive middle-aged academic living in Italy — one can detect shades of Lahiri (who is the director of the creative writing programme at Princeton University) in her.

Quite contrary

But what is more important is that she is not Lahiri — the adopted persona helps Lahiri get rid of that unbearable solipsism which marked In Other Words. Interestingly, the narrator is constantly observing her own different selves — that of a single woman

addicted to solitude but not averse to having affairs, a tired teacher, a “terrible” daughter, a solicitous friend, a “survivor”. For the first time in Lahiri, we have a central character who is able to gaze at her splintered self and sometimes laugh at what she sees. This is an improvement from her earlier works of unrelenting dourness and it makes Whereabouts a mature, unapologetic novel, which makes no attempt to please.

The narrator is not a likeable person, unlike, say, The Namesake ’s kind Ashima. She is peevish, judgemental, given to self-flagellation, and Lahiri leaves it at that. The woman traces her intertwined desire for solitude and company to her mother but doesn’t pity herself. “Solitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect. And yet it plagues me, it weighs on me in spite of my knowing it so well. It’s probably my mother’s influence.”

The filial relationship, or its vestiges rather, is the most fully defined sketch in this impressionistic novel. Lahiri, the unparalleled interpreter of the “private morphology of families,” can be ruthless: here’s the narrator standing before her father’s grave (he died when she was 15) and addressing him: “I don’t forgive you for never having stepped into those arguments, for never protecting me, for having forsaken your role as my defender, all because you felt you were the victim in that tempestuous household.”

Walking away

Did that “tempestuous household” with the “oppressive mother” make her what she is? She leads a “Spartan life” alone in a flat lined with books, doesn’t own a car, shops frugally. While she is possessive about her books, she is irritated by children. Her constant self-analysis and dogged refusal to make herself acceptable can be darkly funny. For instance, there’s the incident where she cogitates at length about removing a dead, decapitated mouse, which gives her the creeps and “still reminds me of a fig in high summer: the flavor of its red flesh, the warmth in my mouth.”

What knits her contrary impulses together is her clinical mind, which can stare undauntedly at the abyss. She might have a prototype in The Lowland ’s Gauri, also an academic, who could leave behind grief, and her only daughter, bolstered by her intellect: “Gauri’s mind had saved her. It had enabled her to stand upright... It had prepared her to walk away.”

At the end of Whereabouts , this woman too is walking away. She is on a train to another country surrounded by a boisterous family of passengers who represent the ‘normal’ — they shout, sing together, eat ravenously. To her, they are objects of desire and revulsion, both. Theirs is the life she could have had but chose not to. Like Daphne, she is metamorphosing, choosing a new skin, rejecting possibilities. As the train carries her away to a new life, she might be saying with Elizabeth Bishop: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master;/ so many things seem filled with the intent/ to be lost that their loss is no disaster.”

Whereabouts; Jhumpa Lahiri, Hamish Hamilton, ₹499

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