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
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