By Nina Krishna Warrier
First, let me get this off my chest. I am a great fan of Jhumpa Lahiri’s works. However, I am no erudite critic. So where I am coming from is simply as a person who loves reading, a lay reader.
Without going into too many details, Lahiri was born in London, the daughter of Indian immigrants from West Bengal. Her family moved to the United States when she was three. Lahiri debuted with her collection of short-stories, Interpreter of Maladies (1999). It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Hemingway Award.
Her first novel, The Namesake (2003), was adapted into a popular film by the same name, directed by Mira Nair. Her second collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth (2008) won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her second novel, The Lowland (2013), was a finalist for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award for Fiction. In all these books, Lahiri explored the Indian-immigrant experience in America.
In 2011, Lahiri relocated to Rome, Italy. Since then she has published two books of essays. In 2018, she published her first novel in Italian called Dove Mi Trovo. Whereabouts (Penguin / Hamish Hamilton, Rs 499), is the English translation of this book, which she has translated herself.
So, it was with much expectation that I ordered a copy.
The first thing that struck me when I opened the book was an absence of blurbs in praise of the book. Giving a glimpse into the contents inside, the front flap of the book describes Whereabouts as a “ravishing new novel” that “celebrates ordinary life and community while exploring existential themes of presence and absence.”
To me, Whereabouts is a nameless, dateless diary.
It is a 154-episode witnessing of life happening at various places in an un-named place in Italy. Since all the episodes are independent and not connected, you can begin the book from any chapter. To that extent, it’s without beginning or end. Even if the sequence of the chapters was reshuffled, it would make no difference to the book.
Perhaps this book will appeal to students of literature who could dissect it as a Vipassana-like exercise by way of writing. Anicca, equanimity. Everything is transient, so keep your cool. Be only a witness. As the Buddha said, “Events happen; deeds are done; there’s no individual doer thereof.”
The writing is epiphanic in places. Sample this: I am caught in the charade, I play a part in it, albeit as an extra. In the unfolding drama of life, we have to play our roles unrehearsed. At the end of the day, we are all ‘extras’… when we look at the bigger picture.
Or, for that matter, read this: If anything, I am going to have a perfectly forgettable day. Even for a woman commuting day in and day out by a local train in Mumbai, the highlight of the day could be something as trivial as getting a place to sit in a Virar Fast. Lahiri offers no such solace.
Had Whereabouts been written by someone who didn’t come with Lahiri’s pedigree, how would the critics have reviewed the book? I’m sure they would have panned it. In this case, Lahiri’s reputation precedes the book.
In an editorial in Newsweek, Lahiri had said that she “felt intense pressure to be two things, loyal to the old world and fluent in the new.” When she relocated to Italy, did she voluntarily recreate that feeling? Is there a kind of masochism attached to it? Was it written when the writer was depressed? Is Whereabouts a sort of catharsis?
Since I don’t know Italian and, as a result, have not read the original work, I can’t say anything about the translation. But, minus a plot, names of people and places, and chronology, Whereabouts is neither an essay nor a short story. Maybe Lahiri was making a statement about the aimlessness of human existence.
The highbrows will call the book nuanced; the lowbrows will label it tedious. Locked down in an apartment in Mumbai thanks to the pandemic, how did I find Whereabouts? It neither made me happy nor did it make me sad. As a Jhumpa Lahiri admirer, I found it disappointing.
Former copywriter Nina Krishna Warrier is now a full-time homemaker and amateur author based in Mumbai