Jhumpa Lahiri is by now one of the canonical figures of Indian English writing, and some of her pieces will doubtlessly find a place in university curricula before long, if they have not already. Her style is exquisite: intimate and detached at the same time, with carefully chosen words that weave a feel of deceptive simplicity. It recalls Jane Austen writing with a fine brush on her “little bit of ivory, two inches wide”. But Lahiri’s milieu, from which her characters emerge, is not tiny, unlike Austen’s: Lahiri is one of the roving cosmopolitans of the modern-day world, having been born to Bengali parents in London, then moving to the US, then to Rome in 2012, and now dividing her time between Rome and New York.
Penguin Hamish Hamilton
At least one of these migrations—to Rome—was voluntary, but her themes continue to be uprooting, alienation, quest for a home. In Roman Stories, some of her characters are people for whom homelessness would carry more urgent connotations than it presumably does for her: The first story is in the voice of a young immigrant girl in the Italian countryside whose father has been maimed for life in a racist attack; “Well-lit House” is narrated by a Muslim immigrant man, who has a brief period of contentment with his family in a flat provided under affordable housing before he ends up as flotsam on the city streets. In representing characters from the lower ends of the social scale, this collection marks a shift in Lahiri’s fiction, which tends to be centred on middle-class characters. She is on unfamiliar ground here, and it shows. Many of the stories are perfunctory, like exercises in sympathy. They are impeccable as pieces of creative writing but hardly move the reader.
All the characters here are feeling alienated for different reasons—at the most basic level, for being in a place they were not born, for being coloured, for wearing the hijab, for being poor in a rich Western nation. Then they are estranged because they are ageing, their children fled the nest, their spouses are dead, they have to undergo a major operation in a foreign land, they are in love with a lost time as preserved in literature. It’s an ever-expanding circle, with the reason behind this particular feeling getting finer until they reach the last, which must be closest to Lahiri’s heart, given her fondness for Dante (as explained in fine, self-regarding detail in her memoir, In Other Words).
The collection ends with the story “Dante Alighieri”, which, unlike most of the other pieces, flows freely. Here Lahiri is in her element, with the “I” being a shy, intellectual woman who moved from America to Rome, married there, returned to America after separation from her husband, and now shuttles between the two continents. Why this to and fro, one wonders (she leaves Rome in August, returns in May, and a few times in between for the holiday season or whenever she gets leave from her job as an academic). Is it necessary? (For most of us, consideration of the expenses involved would dampen the compulsion for frequent intercontinental travel.)
But the narrator has her reasons: “Distances help, as does changing one’s perspective on a regular basis—they make the end of a long marriage easier to bear, they lighten the load of an unhappy childhood and an adolescence spent under a rock and the fear of having ruined everything.” Very poetic, surely, and First World, if I may say so. But, carp not, for her daughter is on a social-responsibility trip: “Right after school she moved up north. It’s been a while since we’ve spoken, and at the moment she’s out on a ship, to help people who risk their lives in flimsy boats on the open sea, trying to get to Italy.” Is there a slight poke at the narrator here, contained in the words “It’s been a while since we’ve spoken”, suggesting the daughter’s rejection of her mother’s privileged lifestyle? I hope so.
It is often said that our children are our worst critics, and in these stories, the offspring of the immigrants do not seem to have any of their parents’ crippling sense of unbelonging. They talk and joke in the language of their adoptive land; they are successful, assimilated. The first story, “The Boundary”, one of the best in the collection, is narrated by a second-generation immigrant, a 13-year-old girl, the daughter of a man who looks after the countryhouse and vineyards of the non-resident owner. A city-dwelling family comes to the house on vacation, and the girl watches them keenly, weighing herself against them. She records what she sees without commentary, but we sense her wistfulness, verging on incredulity, about their easy, happy life: “They say that being here is all they need, that even the air is different, that it cleanses. How lovely, they say, being together like this, away from everyone.”
“In representing characters from the lower ends of the social scale, this collection marks a shift in Lahiri’s fiction, which tends to be centred on middle-class characters.”
For the girl, this “cleansing” place is just humdrum home, tarred by the shadow of the racist attack that psychologically crippled her father, who moved his family to the seemingly less dangerous countryside, hoping that here they would be left in relative peace. Her mother, meanwhile, hates the country, saying that the people “around here aren’t nice, that they’re closed off”.
The mother of the vacationing family might be the author’s double since she scribbles thoughtfully in a notebook in between domestic chores: “Now and then she lifts her head and looks intently at the landscape that surrounds us…. She looks at all the things I look at every day. But I wonder what else she sees in them,” the girl says. In this simple amazement lies the gap that separates the child—dislocated, economically disadvantaged, with dysfunctional parents—from the urban, entitled family, who can afford to make leisure trips to taste the “authentic” countryside, only to return to the same city that victimised the girl’s father.
Flavour of Rome
Sadly, such nuances are not sustained in the collection. The second section, “The Steps”—the title signifying the aspirations of upward mobility and the downward spiral of those hopes that is the fate of most immigrants—is uninspiring although readers from Rome might cherish the local flavour (the stories in this collection were originally published in Italian). The steps also beckon at the storeyed history of Rome, a city at once ancient and modern, whose mythical founders, Remus and Romulus, were exiles to begin with.
In all the stories, Lahiri refrains from naming the characters, presumably so as to not fix their identities. Repeated story after story, and with characters called “P” or “F”, this seems pretentious. Ditto about her strategy of identifying women as “widow”, “wife”, “expat’s wife”, “mother” without naming them—is she suggesting that these impoverished immigrant or native women’s lives are scaffolded by marriage and motherhood? The decision is perplexing, if not downright presumptuous.
If Roman Stories is an experiment in writing about people who are pointedly different from Jhumpa Lahiri the Pulitzer-winning writer, then the result is not exemplary. Except in flashes, she has not “become” these characters through acts of empathy, which sets apart the best of writers. Rather, to use the image of swimming that recurs in much of Lahiri’s writing, she has taken a dip in the vast sea of experiences of people unlike herself and promptly returned to the safety of familiar shores.