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Of cultural convergence and internal conflict - celebrating the life and works of Jhumpa Lahiri

Sanjana Ray
11th Jul 2016
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Like any other Indian living overseas, Nilanjana Sudeshna ‘Jhumpa’ Lahiri exalted a natural curiosity about her roots – embedded deep in the soil of Bengali passion. Jhumpa was born in London and brought up in South Kingston, Rhode Island by a mother who was determined to educate her children in the norms of their Bengali heritage. She graduated from South Kingstown High School and went on to complete her Bachelor’s in Literature from Barnard College, New York. An ardent lover of academia, she achieved multiple degrees which included an M.A. in English, Creative Writing and Comparative Literature as well as a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies from Boston University.

Image credits: Wikipedia
Image credits: Wikipedia

Having lived overseas almost all her life, Jhumpa was more than aware of American norms and customs, but she would visit her hometown of Kolkata annually. As a result, she found herself standing at the confluence of two diverse cultures. And, with a bright mind and enthusiastic pen, she’d pick up key characteristics of both worlds and create a magnificent link – one that sets the theme for most of her stories.

Jhumpa’s stories revolve around lost, individual souls who seek their life’s purpose to a bittersweet end. Rich with sensual conflict and emotional wisdom, her words take readers on a trip down the memory lane and offer them a front-seat view of her characters’ journeys.

As she celebrates her 49th birthday, we’d like to offer her a tribute by listing some of her best works, ones that offers a kaleidoscopic view of real-world struggles through the eyes of her lead characters.

 The Lowland

“Most people trusted in the future, assuming that their preferred version of it would unfold. Blindly planning for it, envisioning things that weren’t the case. This was the working of the will. This was what gave the world purpose and direction. Not what was there but what was not.” – Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland. 

Lowland is an offset coming-of-age story about two brothers, born a mere fifteen months apart, who were attached at the hip and could often be taken for the other. But as times changed, and Bengal witnessed one of the greatest acts of rebellions on a state-wide scale, so did the once granite relationship of the two brothers, who adapted to their changing social conditions in quite the opposite way. Udayan, representing the charming, idealistic and impulsive youth of Bengal, turned to embrace the Naxalite Movement that had broken out through the state and was ready to sacrifice everything for the idea that it represented. Shubash did not share his brother’s enthusiastic zeal in the political fortress and opted for a scientist’s life in a coastal corner of America. The story peters on to depict the tragedy meted out to Udayan, the turmoil in Shubash’s mind when he has to leave everything and return to his hometown to pick up the pieces of his broken family and his countenance dealing with his unbridled passions for his sister-in-law. Jhumpa’s theme of unrequited love, fate, will, exile and return reverberates richly through the course of the story and marks it a must-read in our libraries.

The Namesake

“You are still young, free. Do yourself a favor. Before it’s too late, without thinking too much about it first, pack a pillow and a blanket and see as much of the world as you can. You will not regret it. One day it will be too late.” – Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake

This international bestseller focuses on the central theme of being an immigrant in a foreign country and the natural clash of cultures, traditions and generation-gaps that come with it. It traces the journey of the Ganguli family as they leave behind their tradition-bound life in Kolkata to cross the many oceans to reach America, where they settle in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although Mr. Ganguli manages to adapt to the Western culture quite effortlessly, his wife has a more conservative mind and often pines for her home. The climbing point of the story is when their son, Gogol, grows up and is faced with the dilemma of having to choose between his roots or endorse the Western environment he has grown in. The book, which was also adapted into a movie of the same name, is one of Jhumpa’s best and had millions nodding in agreement as they turned the pages swiftly.

Interpreter of Maladies

“Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.” – Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies. 

A collection of nine short stories, Interpreter of Maladies is what shot Jhumpa to fame, even winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Hemmingway Foundation/PEN award, with over 15 million copies sold worldwide. All the stories revolve around the lives of individuals – Indians and NRIs – who are caught between their indigenous culture and that of the ‘New World’. Faced with love, betrayal, anxiety, abandonment, return, release and more, we follow the bittersweet journeys of these fluid, ordinary characters as they seek the unknown.

Unaccustomed Earth

“He owned an expensive camera that required thought before you pressed the shutter, and I quickly became his favorite subject, round-faced, missing teeth, my thick bangs in need of a trim. They are still the pictures of myself I like best, for they convey that confidence of youth I no longer possess, especially in front of a camera.” – Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth. 

This collection of eight dazzling stories, and winner of the Pulitzer, spans from Cambridge to Seattle to India to Thailand. Dealing with the lives of Indian Americans who seem to have lost their cultural identities and are subjected to a mixed environment of culture and chaos, the book explores the theme of gender roles, guilt, responsibility, loss and nostalgia.

As we travel through yet another transient day and remain oblivious to its beautiful monotony, we celebrate love, life and culture through the lives of these conflicted characters as they mask their confusion and ebb on to live another day.

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