A few weeks ago, quite by accident, I heard Jhumpa Lahiri speak at Akateeminen Kirjakauppa. She had flown up from Rome with her husband and children to promote her latest novel, The Lowland. Jhumpa Lahiri has been one of of my favorite short-story writers since Interpreter of Maladies. To me, it is one of the most perfect collections of modern short stories to be written and compiled. There are not many books I will read and read and then read again. Interpreter of Maladies is one of them. Inspired by her visit, I am currently rereading another collection of her short stories, Unaccustomed Earth. Yes, six years later, it’s just as good as I recall, if not more poignant and nuanced the second time around. I found her first novel The Namesake not as satisfying as her short stories- I feel that’s where her real prowess and talent lies. Still, I’ll give The Lowland a go. It took her 16 years to complete. Imagine…16!
Lahiri is much like her writing. Moving. In the way a river flows into the deeper, bigger understanding that is the sea. Understated yet clear. Precise. No nonsense almost. She carries a subtle and elegant quality. Her silver-haired husband, who looks like he enjoys being under the Italian sun, was wearing an elegant scarf. Linen. Beautiful design of faintly Indian expression. Her two children, a boy and a girl, both about tweenish in age, were tucked in a corner between the bookshelves, diving into their new bookstore acquisitions while their mother spoke. I can only assume they are the Octavio and Noor for whom Jhumpa dedicated Unaccustomed Earth to.
I wonder how the whole family must be getting on in the unaccustomed earth of their own. In Rome. From Brooklyn. I wonder how Jhumpa is getting on with her new writing projects. In Italian.
The writer. The daughter. The sister, perhaps. I wonder how she transports one into the world of her characters, quite dead center into the same room, into the very life in which they exist; so one feels witness to the quiet, lonesome inner drama as it unfurls. Here is an excerpt from Unaccustomed Earth which had me reading into the wee hours of the night:
With the birth of Akash, in his sudden, perfect presence, Ruma felt awe for the first time in her life. He still had the power to stagger her at times- simply the fact that he was breathing, that all his organs were in their proper places, that blood flowed quietly and effectively through his small, sturdy limbs. He was her flesh and blood, her mother had told her in the hospital the day Akash was born. Only the words her mother used were more literal, enriching the tired phrase with meaning: “He is made from your meat and bone.” It had caused Ruma to acknowledge the supernatural in everyday life. But death, too, had the power to awe, she knew this now- that a human being could be alive for years and years, thinking and breathing and eating, full of a million worries and feelings and thoughts, taking up space in the world, and then, in an instant, become absent, invisible.
Yes, I wonder about Jhumpa, the writer. Who doesn’t judge her characters, no matter how much she may not agree nor approve of their actions. Behavior, thoughts, tendencies which she creates from her own mind, impressions, observations. I wonder how she creates these characters so vivid, with impulses so familiar and recognizable, you swear they could be people you have known from your own life. So you feel as though you might be, could be, one of them.
Jhumpa Lahiri. Writer. Mother. Wife. Woman.