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Book Review – Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

Whereabouts – Jhumpa Lahiri (Image: Penguin)

Jhumpa Lahiri is my favourite contemporary author. From the day I picked up a copy of ‘The Namesake’ at College Street, I have been a fan of her work. The stories she tells resonate at a personal level with me. There is this unseen string that connects the reader in me with her characters. May be because she writes about predominant Bengali themes, or may be because her tales have a bearing on me as a person, because like her, I have also been on an eternal quest for rediscovering my roots.

In ‘Whereabouts’ I discovered a new Jhumpa. This is not the writer who described the pangs of Ashima trying to fit in, in a foreign country. Or, the tribulations of Nikhil/Gogol coming to terms with his ethno-migrant identity. The Jhumpa we are introduced to in ‘Whereabouts’ is not the same writer who celebrated relationships amidst the turbulent Naxal movement in ‘The Lowland’.

 ‘Whereabouts’ is about a lonely middle-aged woman who dreads her solitude. Reading this book gave me the feeling of guilt; it felt like prying into someone else’s life without their permission. Like laying your hands on someone’s personal diary. There is no ‘plot’ to this novel, yet the power of this piece lies in Jhumpa’s ability to weave magic into the mundane existence of life itself. The reader must invest their souls into reading this masterpiece, or be left bewildered while turning the pages – with absolutely nothing ‘happening’ in the narrative.

In an elegant, yet prosaic manner, Lahiri introduces us to the protagonist – her past, her present, workings of her mind, and most importantly how she views the world around her. The lyrical description of the tiniest details – like when the protagonist heads out to buy her daily needs from the store, or her journey from home to work through the piazza – it often feels like watching a European classic film unfold before your eyes, only in text instead of celluloid.

We are told that the protagonist enjoys her morning coffee at her regular barista, she feels awkward when she has to wait at the doctor’s chamber, she has a tiny office at her workplace, where no one makes a conversation with her. As we progress through these ‘journal entries’ time passes and seasons fly. And these fragments add up to a pattern of life. These vignettes are deeply personal, and the conversation is not even directed at the reader – they emerge as if the narrator is talking to herself.

It is only Jhumpa Lahiri who could distillate the daily drudgery of life to such brilliance, almost meditative, and most often intimate and personal. It is not just the musings of a woman coping with her loneliness, but also a deeper exploration of the human condition. At one point I can relate to the bouts of chronic depressive state of the protagonist, as I have been through that phase too.

And yes, the lingering theme of identity and migration, prevalent in all her books, encompasses the narrative in ‘Whereabouts’ too. Only, Jhumpa is asking a different question this time. It is not much about belonging, as much it is about fitting in. The vignettes told by an unnamed narrator in an unnamed city in an unnamed country, can be about anyone – you, me, or the migrant labourer who had to walk from his city of earning to his home in the native heartland during lockdown.

‘Whereabouts’ is a tale of possibilities, an experiment on understanding the existence. It is poignant, yet deeply cathartic, personal yet so universal. It is a narration of life as we experience it.

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

DISCLAIMER: All Images In This Post Have Their Respective Copyrights

Book Review – A Burning by Megha Majumdar

Facebook. Even a decade ago this word would have elicited raised eyebrows as response. But thanks to the digital revolution, it has now become a household name. It is here that we keep in touch with friends and family, binge on funny videos, connect with strangers, and vent out our feelings.

Imagine, if you were sent to jail for a post on Facebook? Sounds dystopian? Well, that’s the theme of this pacy thriller penned by debutante author Megha Majumdar.

Hailed by the media in America as the next Jhumpa Lahiri, Megha Majumdar paints a world we are too familiar with. Nothing is out of the ordinary here. We come across a girl living in a slum, who works at a fashion retail shop to support her family. We become acquainted with a transgender, who aspires to become an actress. Then there is the PT teacher at a school, who wants to break free from the mundane existence.

A Burning is a breezy read

And then, there is the society we all live in. Here, destitute citizens are pushed to the brink for ‘development’, women are forced to buy groceries in the dead of the night to save money, doctors do not feel the urgency to attend to a patient because he is from the lowest rungs of the society, a boy belonging to the lower echelons has to pay entry fee at a posh mall.

This is a society where a religious minority is killed on the suspicion of eating a particular meat, where the onus of proving innocence is on the accused, not the prosecutor, where judgments are passed to satisfy the collective conscience of the people, the media is only looking for headlines and politicians eye just the votes.

We are all familiar with this society. Then why does Megha Majumdar’s book feel dystopian? Because truth is always stranger than fiction, and we choose to believe we live in a fantasy world of ‘good days’ than face the reality. Megha hits the nail on the coffin of ‘reality’ hard, with the sharp satire and ruthless portrayal of plain happenstance.

As one reads through the pages, the sorrow-state of affairs in our la-la land becomes more and more acute. Images from the past haunt you, make you feel guilty – of being the silent majority. ‘A Burning’ is an indictment of not the government or the ‘system’. It is a document of rebuke – because we have allowed the country to descent into madness, systematically.

Jivan – the protagonist – could be any of us. It could be Sudha Bhardwaj, it could be Safoora Zargar. It could also be Afzal Guru. Or Dhananjay Chatterjee. Faces change. Contexts change. The story remains the same. We begin by empathising with Jivan, but choose to emulate PT Sir in our lives. Megha’s brilliance lies in capturing this convenience. ‘A Burning’ reminds us that we all are the ‘ghosts of the future’.

My rating: 4/5 stars

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