Whereabouts is the latest book of Jhumpa Lahiri, which she wrote in Italian and now has translated into English herself. But here is a nostalgic return to her older work, I read some 4 years back, based on which a movie starring Irrfan Khan and Tabbu has been made.
“A simple tale of Indian expatriates yearning for filial love and reluctant to give up on their children”
Jhumpa Lahiri deals with a crucial subject of immigration and identity in a lucid manner. The story is about a Bengali family immigrated to the US, how they settle with a constant yearning for filial love, a sense of’ outsiders’ hinging upon unconsciously, a reinvented pride in one’s community & cultural ethos, a firm will to pass the legacy of language and tradition on the descendents, an unflinching love for children who find all these traits foreign including the country they visit sporadically in vacations. With the name the father bestowed on his son in the fond memory of a writer, whose book kept him awake on the night a ghastly accident took a horrific death toll, the son is struggling between what he means to his parents, what he thinks he is and what he really is.
The son in his childhood innocence was obdurate to let his father change his nickname to his official name. However later on he realizes a self inflicted ignominy because of his name. As he grows up with everything around being American yet the family’s insistence or imposition of Bengali identity, he finds himself in troubled waters of identity and a baggage to lift in terms of his altruistic responsibility towards his parents. Gogol as the protagonist is called finds everything related to India as cumbersome, tedious and repressive. The children of his age from other Bengali expatriates also find resonance with this indifference towards the numerous festivals and rituals practiced by their parents with devotion and conviction.
The major turning point comes when Gogol moves into a live-in relationship with his girlfriend in her home with her parents, at first without even telling his parents for months. He was so taken aback by their life style, a subtle blend of extravagance and liberalism. In his admiration for her way of life, he finds a disdain for his erstwhile lifestyle, about which his parents were proud and humble. He becomes so involved in his newly found delight that his parents slip away from his adulated opulent display of life. In between he loses his father; this incident brings him closer to his family especially his mother consequently his girlfriend becomes insecure and leaves . His mother tries to set him up with a fellow Bengali girl, who visited their home numerous times when Gogol was a little boy. The relationship transcends into marriage and his mother’s urge for belongingness to her community gets satisfied for ephemeral.
The marriage hovers around for a year but a cul de sac Gogol finds when he comes to know of his wife’s affair. Gogol despised everything Indian including his parents’ obstinacy to keep thinking of him and their silent resistance for his overtly minted American ways. But in the end, it’s his family he feels closest to and can count on to. There is a symbolism associated when Gogol opens the book given by his father, the very same book which saved his father’s life and gave Gogol his nickname. This nickname Gogol realizes is a gateway from his life where he is Nikhil to his parents’ world where he is always welcome.
Lahiri elucidates beautifully and effortlessly that identities can be multiple and convincing. Gogol runs away from his Indianness as he was born and brought up in the US, he was made to call something as his own which was far away from him. His parents found the pain of separation from their people insurmountable but in the process of loss and gain naturalize it. Gogol in the end finds his identity inveterate and intact for what he is and what he is to his parents. In fact both are the same. He could be Bengali and American at the same time. Lahiri’s writings are comprehensive and compelling.
A simple narration of a family comes alive and the characters stay even after the story ends. A delightful read embellished with the significance of the theme makes the whole story relatable. The readability of the novel is enhanced by the ingenuity of Lahiri’s creative writing. Every sentence is refined and calibrated but doesn’t fall short on its commitment to make the scene immaculate. There are many ways of story telling, some emphasize on the strength of the story further bolstered by relevance and clarity of characters or even the mere prose shedding ecstasy with every turn of the page. Lahiri’s skills as a writer emanate the beauty of this creative process. The book might appear to be more relatable to the non resident Indians but it deals with ubiquity of identity in a way it ends up belonging to all.