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Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words

  • Published at 07:32 pm September 1st, 2016
Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words

Jhumpa Lahiri, a fiction writer and a Pulitzer Prize recipient in 2000, achieved success in her previous books by talking about others, and their lives, based on places where she has never lived. But in her latest book, In Other Words, she talks about herself - her own love story based in Italy.

She was born in London and grew up in Boston, USA. Her parents were from West Bengal, India. Bengali was factually her mothertongue but she had never lived in Calcutta (her parents’ native city); so, in essence it’s a foreign language for her. At home she spoke Bengali with an accent but could not read or write in that language, while outside home it was all English. She is very vocal about the agonies of her dual linguistic existence during her younger days. She says: “I never felt that Bengali was fully mine and I never felt that English was fully mine either. I had studied Italian for many years — simply for the love of it". But she also studied the language "for another kind of need, I suppose — a more irrational, emotional need."

Her earlier writings reflect a kind of compulsion: she needed to bring her parents’ long-lost, distant place back to them through her creative writings.

Once that purpose seemed redundant for her (after her first four books), and her characteristic incessant sensitivity taunted her to express her identity - a writer, this time - she wished for something new and wanted to revive her anonymity in a very different literary arena.

She abandoned her English for Italian as her new mode of expression and wrote In Other Words. Jhumpa Lahiri’s Italian acoustic relationship began in 1994 when she went on a trip to Florence, Italy. In her book she begins her first chapter telling us about her expedition to swim and her desire to go to the other side of a small lake in an isolated place. Once she crosses the lake and is standing on the other side, she reflects on her journey: "After crossing, the known shore becomes the opposite side: here becomes there. Charged with energy, I cross the lake again. I am elated"...... I got hooked onto the book with this paragraph. It has so much depth to it. Her power of illustration represents metaphorically the intensity of her internal and external struggles as she endeavours to learn and write in the Italian language that she is in love with.

This is her linguistic autobiography, her self-portrait. The genre of work does not leave much scope for Jhumpa Lahiri to be very creative. But she is a creative story teller. Her past stories were amazingly intertwined with her imagination, creativity and artistic lyrics. The long distance between her parents’ far-off land and her existence had made it possible for her to be creative. There she could tangle a web of complex, delicately drawn relationships and culture across the continents. But In Other Words the focus is narrowed on her, on the writer, on a single passion and an intimate relationship: between her and the Italian language.

Jhumpa Lahiri possesses an amazing power to observe, to pen insights into the craft of writing. Even in a new language she didn’t lack her skilled writing ability and artistic vigour.

Her self reflections are so vivid with her intimate thoughts, as she chronicles the process of learning the language in her chapters. Her emotions are inspired by her linguistic drive. When she is expressing her obsession, she writes: “A little like Matisse’s “Blue Nudes,” groups of cutout, reassembled female figures, I feel naked in this book, pasted to a new language, disjointed”.....In her new book she felt like Matisse, who moved away from his traditional painting and developed a new artistic technique.

The pages are written in small sentences, sometimes a bit abrupt, very much unlike her prior writings. But her candid revelation about her limitations with the new language lets us appreciate her more. She says “It comes in a flash. I hear the sentences in my brain. I do not know where they originate, I don’t know how I am able to hear them. I am afraid it will all disappear before I get it down.” Then she continues, “In English I can consider what I can write, I can stop after every sentence to look for the right words, to reorder them, change my mind a thousand times.” ..... Yet here her short sentences are insightful and full of wisdom. They are stimulating for an audience in search of its own change of course.

In Other Words is a short book, about 100 pages of actual texts, translated by Ann Goldstein. Lahiri and Goldstein appear parallel in this book. Lahiri's Italian, is printed on the left-side pages and Goldstein's English translation on the right. It consists of 24 chapters, of which there are two where she is telling two fictional short stories.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s inspiring tone led me to relate with her subject and her place of creativity. This has indeed been a good read!