Words of wisdom: Jhumpa Lahiri on east, west and finding happiness in the middle

Jhumpa Lahiri is a Pulitzer-winning author whose story moves from India through USA to Italy.

Photo: Touko Hujanen

Reetta Räty, 24.06.2014

Long form

Reetta Räty met with Lahiri in Finland. In this exclusive interview for Aalto Leaders’ Insight the author talks India, USA and identity – and reveals where she has been happiest.

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Free at last

A bus has been standing amidst traffic between Agra and Delhi in Northern India for two hours now.

I am laying in the backseat of the bus reading. I have folded my scarf into a pillow. Delhi has about 22 million inhabitants and is one of the largest cities in the world. Agra has one of the world’s seven wonders, the Taj Mahal mausoleum, which Shah Jahan built for his wife who died aged 39 during the birth of her fourteenth child.

Yet being stuck here in Indian traffic does not make one think of the size of the city or its historical tragedies. The attention is drawn to the clip of Indian reality outside my window: colours, sounds, overall chaos where trucks, water buffalos, rickshaws, monkeys and thousands of human fates are visible all at once.

Incredible India where traffic is never just a line of cars. Magnificent India where it is always worth carrying a camera, and a book.

What I have in the backseat of the bus is the American-Indian novelist Jhumpa Lahiri’s most recent book Lowland.

***

Jumpa Lahiri is a writer awarded with the world’s most prestigious prizes.

Her most recent novel Lowland was just published in Finnish (Tulvaniitty, Tammi 2014). This is why Lahiri is currently sitting in the publisher’s auditorium on Korkeavuorenkatu street in Helsinki, reciting a section that describes the book’s two brother protagonists.

Since childhood Subhash had been cautious. His mother never had to run after him. He kept company, watching as she cooked at the coal stove, or embroided saris and blouse pieces commisioned by a ladies’ tailor in the neighborhood.

Lahiri is in Finland with her husband Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush and her children Octavion (b. 2002) and Noor (b. 2005). The children are sitting on the front row of the auditorium as her husband snaps photos with an iPad. The audience includes reporters, authors, avid readers and Minister for Foreign Affairs Erkki Tuomioja.

Lahiri appears exactly as attractive as in the photos within the covers of her works. Dark hair, matte skin and a narrow face. She is smaller than I thought, and does not do grand Italian gestures or talk in an exaggerated American style.

Lahiri talks to the crowd about the events of Lowland that take place within the naxalite insurgency of 1960s India. One of the brothers in the book ends up in the United States, and no event takes place without some psychodrama related to family relations.

At he book signing after the event, the author says that she did not anticipate such eager Finnish readers. People standing in line all seem to utter the same thing: ”I am a big fan of yours. Thank you so much for your books.”

The power of Lahiri’s narrative lies in her ability to depict relations between cultures and families in a particularly recognizable manner. It is rather evident that the experiences derive at least partly from her personal life story.

The story of Jhumpa Lahiri takes place in India, the United States and these days also Italy.

***

Lhiri is 47 years old.

Her parents are Indian, who moved to the West already in the 1960s.  The author herself grew up on Rhode Island on the US East Coast.

She received a Pulitzer prize in 2000 for her first short story collection Interpreter of Maladies, which is mainly about Indians who have emigrated to the States. Such as Lahiri’s parents.

“My childhood felt very heavy”, Lahiri says and looks me straight in the eye.

We are sitting at the cabinet of a hotel in Helsinki a couple of days after the publisher’s event. Lahiri drinks green tea. She has a serious basic expression, even timid. Yet her speech is direct and confident.

The heavy feel of her childhood stemmed from the fact that Lahiri is American and Indian, but not at home in either country or culture. Her family had moved to the US, but she felt like her parents did not come to terms with their decision. Elder of two sisters, Lahiri did not know what was expected of her. Should she be Indian, American, or something else?

“There was just a lot of confusion, a lot of back and forth and conflict in terms of what I am supposed to do, how I am supposed to act.”

Lahiri’s father worked as a librarian at Rhode Island University and her mother researched Bengali literature. America had so much more of everything than India did, but only in material terms. “I was out of control in an existential way”, Lahiri says.

Her parents missed India, but at least they had acquired an identity: the identity of an Indian. The daughter was a complete in-betweener.

“The signals I was getting were so confusing that I did not know how to read them.”

The daughter grew up asking her parents and herself: why are we even here, in the United States. “I mean, if you don’t want me to adopt this culture, if you don’t want me to dress like an American, to act like an American, to see things like an American, to look like an American, WHY ARE WE HERE?”

“There was always this terrible ambivalence because of the choice they had made.”

Lahiri is not agitated but she talks intensively. The conflict of her childhood is clearly a matter she has processed thoroughly. When she was younger it was hard to put into words. It was a vague, dark feeling that made her feel homeless. Something was missing. But what was it?

An identity, perhaps.

***

Being an immigrant child or child of immigrant parents is not all that peculiar, especially in the US.

Lahiri believes that her parents were people who externally built a  home: they possessed the language skills, work, a house, but in their hearts they were always looking to the past, India. This made adjustment particularly difficult. “I think if I had different kind of parents, who were more like yeah, we come from India, but we are here in the US, because it is a great country, we really like it - then I would have been a different kind of person.”

“But they were not like that. They were always looking back. They were always kind of guilty about being in the US. As a result, I was not able to feel any one way.”

Lahiri reveals how sceptical her parents were towards the United States. Yet it was the culture of her schoolmates and friends, it was her life.

“They would always be watching the news, criticizing all the politics, criticizing the foreign politics, criticizing everything. And I would wake up in the morning, go to school, pledge allegiance to the flag, and think: my God, my parents, what were they thinking, do they have any idea that this is what their child is doing?”

“I felt weird about that.”

***

Lahiri’s words and writing give the impression that not only was she slightly confused as a young person, but also unable to explicate her emotions.

Only becoming a writer made her an interpreter of these feelings.

The tone of the books is often hard-edged, yet very prosaic.

Lahiri manages to describe the feelings of a migrant or a person living in the “wrong” place as an outsider, for she is now a narrator instead of the experiencer.

Lahiri manages to describe the feelings of a migrant or a person living in the “wrong” place as an outsider, for she is now a narrator instead of the experiencer."

The narrator’s voice is strong, as it conveys thoroughly experienced emotions.

When Jhumpa Lahiri was young, her family visited Calcutta along the Ganges River on a regular basis. Lahiri is particularly explicit when she describes Calcutta, and confident, too. She is clearly describing familiar streets, habits, food, a way of life.

When it comes to Lahiri’s works, they often revolve around a yearning for life instead of one. So what does an Indian living in the United States yearn for, exactly? What is she missing?

“I think: everything”, Lahiri says. “From the physical world, the look of things, the plants, the colour of the sky, the smell… to more emotional aspects, such as people, family, a sense of being from somewhere, and not being a stranger.”

Indeed. The colour of the sky. That is also different in India, and it cannot be purchased from ethnic shops, even if you lived in America, where money buys anything.

Lahiri sighs and addresses the subject of her parents again.

“They missed a huge range of things. The way of life, the attitude, everything was so extremely different in the United States.”

The way of life - what about it? Isn’t United States THE country for all kinds of people, all possible cultures?

“Well, it is a place of all kinds of people and things, BUT”, the author says and highlights the last word, “compared to what my parents were used to, it was a much more isolated kind of life”. In Calcutta, Lahiri’s mother lived on a hectic street in an apartment building with neighbours and relatives above and below, side by side.

“In Calcutta, there is a lot of spontaneous interaction with people. There people still, even now, will come by without telling first. They just come to say hello, have a cup of tea. This really struck me when I was young because in America nobody would do that. They call, they make an appointment. It is much more  organized. Nobody comes by unless you invite them.”

Instead of exotic,  Lahiri’s India is communal. Of course America has citizens from numerous countries, but they have locked themselves behind their own doors. According to Lahiri,  another difference between America and India has to do with people and relationships.

“In Calcutta, family was the organizing principle. The whole life was about family events: from births to weddings and funerals, family is the set- ting for the whole life.”

And an Indian family celebration is not simply a celebration, but a force that holds families together.

“Ceremonies were ways of seeing people, keeping that sense alive that I belong to this larger group of human beings that I am connected to through blood, and… In America, they don’t have that at all.”

***

Discussions about India always include the notion of poverty.

Extreme poverty. This case is no different. But with Lahiri there is no sense in lamenting India’s poverty. Instead, we ponder how it shapes the outlook of a person living in India, perhaps even more than religion, cultural traditions or, say politics, do.

“In India, even if you are living a comfortable life, like that of my relatives, you are aware of poverty”, says Lahiri.

In India poverty is always visible.

“You cannot live in that country not knowing that for some people, life is very, very, very hard. You are up against that reality all the time. And I think it changes the way you approach your own life. I think you think: okay, I have a nice house, and a table, and clothes, but the person who is coming to wash my dishes has practically nothing. You are aware of that all the time.”

“I think in America, at least where I grew up, people were very sheltered from that kind of reality. So they turned their attention to other things, because they don’t have to think about poverty.”

This was another difference that Lahiri perceived in her childhood home. Her parents had seen Indian poverty from up close, the end of the Second World War, and endless political chaos. Her father was born in 1931 and her mother in 1939.

Lahiri says that her father in particular was bothered by the ignorance of Americans towards suffering in other parts of the world.

“We really could not waste food in our house. My father would say: I lived through a famine. We had food to eat, but hundreds of thousands of people dropped dead because they had nothing to eat. For him, to take too much food, to take a bite from an apple, and then toss it away - this is some- thing you see in America all the time - he would be just horrified, he would be almost morally of- fended when he saw this kind of waste.”

This is how many post-war generations feel in other parts of the world, too. Except that in Lahiri’s parents’ world the memory of a lack of everything is not history, but geography. India is a place across the sea, a reality at this moment. It can be accessed by plane, if one wishes to get on it.

Despite all the longing and scepticism Lahiri’s parents did not move back to India. Why not?

“No. They didn’t go back”, Jhumpa Lahiri says and finishes there.

***

The bus trip from Agra to Delhi is still advancing at a very slow pace.

The driver thinks a truck may have broken down on the road. A police officer arrives on the scene, but is unable to do anything. We are stuck.

A group of water buffalos is trying to get in between cars and buses. Monkeys are hanging on the edge of a stonewall, and one of them has a plastic bag over its head. There is a rickshaw with six passengers and a baby. A bunch of young men lies on mattresses on a truck. A barber has established a business on a street corner: a chair and a mirror.

Children are waving, men are winking and whistling, and the majority of women are dressed traditionally in saris.

I am reading Lowland – events have now moved from Calcutta to the US. Lahiri has comprehensively researched the history and motives of the Maoist naxalite movement. She says that she has, in fact, been working on the novel, for the duration of her writing career. The story was sparked by a report by her father on the actual events of his hometown Tollygunge during the time of the revolution. She wrote one piece on the most tragic events years ago and returned to the theme later, when the story had developed and she had interviewed a number of former Maoists.

The historical events provide shape for the work and a particularly interesting read for a trip in India. Nevertheless, more grand than physical places in Lahiri’s texts are human relations.

That was the day she told Drew the truth about her mother. That she has left and never returned. – – She told him how she used to sit inside the closet where her mother had kept her things. Behind the coats she hadn’t taken with her, the belts and purses on hooks that her father hadn’t given away. She would stuff a pillow into her mouth, in case her father came home early, and heard her crying. – – Drew held her as she listened. I’m not going anywhere, he said.

The night is getting darker in the bus and reading is becoming difficult. The driver says that traffic is getting heavier as after nine pm also trucks are allowed on the road to Delhi.

I close the book, sit up and look out of the window.

A truck driver next to me is lifting his hands to indicate that indeed we have no choice  but to wait. His car is painted turquoise and we are both on the verge of laughing, for India really is crazy.

***

I tell Jhumpa Lahiri in Helsinki that from a Finn’s point of view India is mostly mind-blowing.

She recognizes the feeling, but it is not her experience of India. The country is so familiar. “I am so used to going there from such a young age.”

When Lahiri speaks of India she does not speak of the mystical East where people believe in reincarnation and that time is cyclical. She does not speak of religion, arranged marriages or Hindu temples. She does not draw dramatic lines between the East and West. Perhaps because both are so familiar to her that they do not appear to be opposites.

How do you feel in India: a foreigner or at home?

“Both. I feel I am a foreigner but not totally. And it doesn’t feel like ‘I am at home’. I feel relatively at home.”

During her time at school people were baffled by her trips to India. To them India equalled poverty, misery and beggars.

“Nobody in America would think: wow, how exciting, you’re going to India, what you gonna see, what you gonna do, nothing like that. They just said: are you gonna be ok, do you have to have lots of shots, are you gonna come back alive?”

”They were sort of terrified because I was going to this nightmare place where everyone is begging and everything is dirty. All these stereo- types, they just saw one big Mother Teresa thing in India.”

What is India to a person who considers it almost a home? What does Lahiri think of it?

“There are things in India that I don’t experience in other parts of the world but in India….”, Lahiri starts and stops to ponder for a moment.

“A certain intensity of life. That’s India. Intensity of life.”

***

It is an exceptionally warm Saturday for April.

A silent Mannerheimintie is visible from the hotel cabinet windows. The author should head back to Rome today, but she has decided to inquire if she can stay for a day longer.

”This is my first time in Scandinavia. It looks like a lovely place, I would like to see a bit more of it”, she says without any particular attempt at flattery.

Lahiri has answered all the questions during the interview so calmly and analytically that when she suddenly uses a superlative, and on happiness of all things, the listener slightly flinches.

“The past years that I have lived in Rome have been the happiest years of my life.”

The happiest years of my life. That sounds beautiful.

For the last couple of years Lahiri has lived in Italy with her husband and two children.

Now she says that it has been a happier time than ever before.

“Obviously, it has something to do with Rome. But there is more. Something about freedom.”

Freedom. A word like happiness that resonates beautifully when pronounced in a sombre and definite way.

Freedom. Happiness. Rome.

Lahiri began to study Italian years ago.

“I don’t know why. It was a slow, very under the surface type of need. Both English and Bengali, neither feels completely my own.”

And Italian?

”Even less my own.”

Language is a valid reason for a change of scenery and perspective. Lahiri is currently writing a non-fiction book in Italian.

In previous interviews she has stated that language and writing feel like a home, when nothing else in the world does.

But now another place besides her desk feels like home. Rome.

Lahiri speaks of it as if it is a newfound lover. ”It is the first place where I feel very free. As free as I have been able to feel from the past.”

Lahiri says that, after all, she is grateful for learning to find her own way in the world because of her past. Without a national identity there was no readymade framework for life: I do this because I am an American, I do that because I am Indian…

”I think I feel free in Italy because I know it is not my country. I am not Italian, I am not connected to it in anyway, I wasn’t raised there, I have no connection there apart from my interest in it.”

”So I think being in Rome, I just feel distanced from that complexity of the past. I just feel energized in a new way, and I feel alive in a new way.”

These are big words but they do not sound overblown against the backdrop of Lahiri’s past. To feel alive in a new way. This is an enormously wonderful feeling, and as with Lahiri’s texts, it is relatable, even if one has not just moved to Rome. A new country, new culture, or a new life situation after a crises. Once you notice the colour of the sky again, the dreams you wish to carry on, the taste of red wine. The stance shifts from self-reflection to new horizons.

”Italy makes sense to me. It is not confusing. It is my choice to live there.”

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