In one of her sessions at this year's Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), Jhumpa Lahiri described herself as "a writer without a real language". For an author whose first collection of stories won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it is an intriguing confession.
How does it make you feel? I ask her when we meet on a freezing Sunday morning at the Samode Haveli, a boutique hotel in the heart of Jaipur, where she is staying with her husband and two children. "It is an oddly clarifying feeling," Lahiri says. "But, as with everything else in my life, it is also disconcerting."
Lahiri, 46, speaks softly, articulating her thoughts with intense concentration. Self-assured without being glib, there is a touch of diffidence about her.
On learning that I am Bengali, she slips in the odd phrase in Bangla, and breaks into a rare smile as she says it. "So many of my stories come to me from other people telling me their own stories," she says.
Lahiri is not a fluent reader of the language, but she speaks and understands it comfortably, especially the familiar rhythms of Ashapurna Devi's household diction. "So I decided to collaborate with my mother," she says. "She would read the stories on tape, and I would listen to them later and translate."
Ashapurna Devi wrote about women and men whose lives were claustrophobically restricted by social, economic and psychological conditions. "Her language felt pure, immediate and radically different from what I was reading in English at the time," Lahiri remembers. "But it was her understanding of human nature, along with her ability to peel away the layers within the family that fascinated me most."
"In America, you open the door with your key… and you are locked in this airtight thing. In Kolkata, not only are there more people, but the social boundaries are also more porous, which makes interior lives all the more precious and powerful."
Ashapurna Devi's stories, as Lahiri puts it, were full of "the stunning complexities, dysfunctions and dissimulations of family life", in spite of the love and the bond that existed among her characters. That and the city of Kolkata, from where her parents came, started deepening Lahiri's awareness of the divide between the inner and outer lives of people.
"Kolkata is one of those places where it can be hard to be alone because you are constantly surrounded by people," says Lahiri. "In America, you open the door with your key, go into the house, and you are locked in this airtight thing. In Kolkata, not only are there more people, but the social boundaries are also more porous, which makes interior lives all the more precious and powerful." In Lahiri's case, every visit to the city resulted in a further reckoning with who she was.
HOW KOLKATA INSPIRED HER
Born in London in 1967, Lahiri moved to the US with her parents when she was two. "The house in Kolkata, the Lahiribari, represented an alternative reality to my parents," she says. It is the model for the dwelling in Tollygunge where the Mitra family lives in The Lowland. "When my parents' marriage was being negotiated, it was decided they would stay in London for two years before they went back to Kolkata." But instead of returning, Lahiri's father moved his wife and daughter to the US.
"My mother kept hoping we would go back to India," says Lahiri. "And it wasn't until I was eight years old that my parents bought the house they still own. My mother says she realised that day they would never return to India."
"The essential dilemma of my life is between my deep desire to belong and my suspicion of belonging."
This decision, and the feeling of being out of place induced by it, became vital to Lahiri's emotional history. The stories in Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and Unaccustomed Earth (2008), as well as The Namesake (2003), her first novel, are haunted by protagonists struggling to make peace with their complicated, and often conflicting, legacies.
"Now my parents are towards the end of their lives, and I don't think my father, whose choice it was to move to the US, ever regrets making it," says Lahiri. "But I know it was not an easy choice."
Lahiri's own battles were no less difficult. "Language, identity, place, home: these are all of a piece - just different elements of belonging and not-belonging," says Lahiri. "The essential dilemma of my life is between my deep desire to belong and my suspicion of belonging."
All her life, she has observed the effect of uprooting people who are profoundly rooted. "That's my parents," she says, "They leave India, they feel ambivalent for the rest of their lives about the choices they have made, they are always looking over their shoulders, and feeling caught in a state of suspension. Those are the people who raised me."
THE LANGUAGE DEBATE
Growing up in the US, a country that was never entirely hers, and yet unable to be fully at
Novels written by Jhumpa Lahiri
Interpreter of Maladies (1999)
Unaccustomed Earth (2003)
The Namesake (2008)
The Lowland (2013)
"For her, the language I spoke was the most basic way for me to be either Bengali or not-Bengali," Lahiri says, "I was always aware of what the language I was using meant in terms of my bond with my parents - how it defined the lines of affection between us. When I spoke English, I felt I wasn't completely their child any more, but the child of another language."
As a young girl, when Lahiri would travel to Kolkata with her parents to spend long stretches of time in the city, she was strictly forbidden to speak anything but Bengali. "Yet, one of my relatives would always ask me, 'Bangla bolte paro? (Can you speak Bengali?),' and I would say, 'Hyan, pari (Yes, I can).'"
"I was always aware of what the language I was using meant in terms of my bond with my parents - how it defined the lines of affection between us. When I spoke English, I felt I wasn't completely their child any more, but the child of another language."
In the US, because of her name and looks, teachers would ask her parents, "Does your daughter speak English or do we need to go slowly?" For the past three years now, Lahiri has been living in Rome, Italy, and although she speaks fluent Italian, the confusions persist. "Because of the way I look, when I walk into a store, Italians speak to me in English: May I 'elp you?" she says, putting on an accent.
But to American tourists, she looks more Italian than American. If they ever stop her on the streets to ask for directions, they try their broken Italian on her. "I usually play along and answer back in Italian," Lahiri says. "But if I am feeling mischievous, I startle them by asking, 'Would you like me to speak English?' It's completely crazy!"
RECOVERING A HISTORY
In The Lowland, Lahiri tries to recover a history that was not physically her own; and yet, it was always a part of her consciousness. "America has a history - one that is young - but it was not what my parents felt remotely connected to," she says. "One of the first things I remember my parents and their friends talking about in America was the Naxal movement in the 1970s."
"Who am I to write about this? I told myself." When she was 30, she started making some preliminary notes, but soon clammed up. Her father, who is a librarian by profession, gave her books on the Naxal revolution, two of which she borrowed from him in 1997 and returned only in 2012.
"I obviously wanted to do justice to the political dimensions of the plot. But for me, The Lowland, in the end, is the story of what happens to a family after they are exposed to shocking violence."
Over the years, she spoke to her parents' friends, who had moved to the US after the Naxal period, about the way things were at the time. Her mother gave her the films of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen (whom Lahiri met in Kolkata later) to help her understand the pulse of the 1970s.
"It was only after the book was three-quarters cooked that I went to Kolkata to speak
Born in: London
Raised in: Rhode Island, USA
Lives in: Brooklyn, New York
Married to: Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush
Suddenly, as she started speaking to those who had witnessed or participated in the movement, the novel started coming to life. A year after her visit to Kolkata, Kanu Sanyal, an iconic Naxal leader, killed himself. For the purposes of Lahiri's story, the event seemed to bring in the right kind of closure. "I wanted to show that although the movement itself may have been brief, its impact on the lives of the characters, especially on Gauri, had been far-reaching," says Lahiri. "I obviously wanted to do justice to the political dimensions of the plot. But for me, The Lowland, in the end, is the story of what happens to a family after they are exposed to shocking violence."
The project Lahiri is currently working on - a book of essays, and one story, written in Italian - is more directly personal. "It's an experiment in a kind of linguistic autobiography," she says.
Her love for the language began 20 years ago, when she visited the country for the first time. On her return to the US, Lahiri started taking Italian lessons, and eventually got a PhD in Renaissance Studies, with a thesis on the use of Italian architecture in Jacobean drama.
Italy, Lahiri says, has completed a triangle in her life. "Having been raised in America and after coming to India for all these years, I can now see beyond the two antipodes of my life and, oddly, feel very much at home in Rome for now," she says. "Italy is literally, geographically, in the middle, between India and the US. It is also culturally situated somewhere between these two societies."