Jhumpa Lahiri(1280x400)
Rupleena Bose and Jhumpa Lahiri

We meet the world renowned writer Jhumpa Lahiri, who is in conversation with Rupleena Bose, and we get the opportunity to learn more about this revered author, the way she interprets stories and translates instances in her life into stories in her books. In this session, we inquire into her book, ‘The Lowland‘, its origins and its making.

Rupleena Bose’s first question to Jhumpa Lahiri was of the relative silence around the Naxalite violence that the book revolves around. Lahiri responded by saying that there isn’t really silence surrounding the issue because there was always a visible tension in her home when her parents discussed it in the United States of  America. “I was vaguely aware of some sort of tension in the air, but I wasn’t aware of what it really was”, she says. At one point in her adolescence she learnt about two boys in her hometown who were murdered in a Naxalite raid. “It caused a very intense reaction in me”, she adds, because when she was in America she remembers her parents speaking of it. Even fifteen years after this incident, she felt haunted by it. And perhaps she wanted to give this haunting a name and story which led her to write the book.

“I didn’t have any agenda, beyond a personal one in terms of writing the book,” she says. When people asked her why she wanted to write a book on this incident, what she had to say was, “I really couldn’t put it into words, but I just wanted to better understand what happened. I didn’t have any objective because I was very ignorant.”

Upon being asked if her characters lived in two Calcuttas, one – the real and second – the imagined, she replies by saying, some of her characters do. Gauri, one of the protagonists in ‘The Lowland’ lives in an imagined one because she leaves and does not return for a long time. She feels something happens when you leave a place. Lahiri speaks of her parents and how they had a connection to India that never ceased to exist. But their India, the imagined India, the India of their time ceased to exist because they ceased to exist there.

Upon being asked to read a few pages from her book, Lahiri eloquently weaved magic into the air with her words:

“Subhash had listened. He had watched from the window. He hadn’t gone out…”

After the brief reading session, the conversation commenced. Rupleena Bose asked Lahiri if both her characters Udayan and Subhash, from ‘The Lowland’ are portraits of masculinity.

It’s a portrait of two brothers, Lahiri says. She speaks of her own childhood, how she is a child of two people who share an intense and close relationships with their siblings, who are men as well. Lahiri was always fascinated by their relationship. “I’m a child of two people who have only brothers,” she says. And there is something in the relationship between two brothers that she was captivated by. There was a primordial quality in the sibling trope, the mythology, fate of one brother against another, like Remus and Romulus, involved in it, the charm of it all, that interested Lahiri.

“For me it was an imaginative journey I had to make as well as working with a historical reality,” she says.

Lahiri went on to speak about the way her characters accessed Calcutta through nostalgia. When you leave a place, for whatever reason, you complicate your relationship with the place, she says. As a child, she had always been acutely aware of the degree to which Calcutta was an absence in her parents’ life. She thinks nostalgia is a very interesting thing, but one wouldn’t want too much of it.

On being questioned about Udayan’s death and him being survived by his brother, this is what Jhumpa had to say:

“He is very much present in his absence, in the life he leaves behind.”

“With any death a person lost becomes present in many ways.”

The most interesting and perhaps even the ‘spiciest’, most complex of characters ever created by Jhumpa Lahiri would be ‘Gauri’ from ‘The Lowland’. Jhumpa herself still finds the character of Gauri to be a mystery, “Gauri is a mystery to me even. I don’t know where she came from. I know that the book was not functioning without her.”

Once she saw Gauri in her mind’s eye, and saw her walk into the lives of these two brothers, the story moved forward. “She is the gravitational centre of the book. She is essential. She is the key to this book and a character who makes very intense decisions, some very disturbing choices, and a character who makes a lot of mistakes,” Lahiri says. “I was aware this was a very strongly flavoured character I was creating.”  Lahiri confesses how she was an extreme person and it was never her place to judge Gauri. It was her interest to only understand her.

“We’re all human and in that we fail,” she says. We are all humans and we all make mistakes. We hurt people even if we don’t want to.
In Gauri’s case, Lahiri admits her own surprise over the fact that there was no person that Lahiri could draw inspiration from. “I really had to build her from the ground up. It was really very exhilarating from a writer’s perspective,” she adds. She also confesses feeling sympathy for Gauri despite all her flaws. She says, she wouldn’t have been able to write about her if she hadn’t have felt sympathy for her.

Lahiri seemed surprised when asked about her using memory and secret as a trope in her books. She says she never realized she was using any tropes. “Secrets interest me as a writer,” she says. Everyone of you out there has a secret, I know it. We all do.” And she feels that a portrait of a character is also a portrait of us that we carry but don’t express to others or ourselves. The intersection of these personalities, the one we covertly carry and the one we display, is what interests her. Secrets create an interesting tension, she says. “You should know one or two secrets your character has in order to know your character,” adds Jhumpa.

Her next book is in Italian, which chronicles her journey of learning Italian. It is a linguistic autobiography, she says.

From the longing to belong to inquiring into the tensions which exist invisibly but are tangible among humans, we see Jhumpa Lahiri exploring the human psyche and reality by employing several different tropes, consciously and unconsciously, into her writing. The thing that makes Jhumpa Lahiri’s work similar to most of her contemporaries is that there is a longing in all of them to belong to someone. At some level, they are echoing each other, and in some way they’re echoing all of us.

Jhumpa concludes by saying, “Fiction is the only way I know a human being can inhabit the mind of another human being.”

Jhumpa Lahiri
“I never felt that Bengali was fully mine and I never felt that English was fully mine either.” – Jhumpa Lahiri


You could buy ‘The Lowland’, here:

The Penguin India Blog

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