Review: Whereabouts: A Novel by Jhumpa Lahiri
The unnamed narrator of Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel, Whereabouts, is a flâneuse who roams the streets and sidewalks as often as she wanders within, into the deepest recesses of her inner self. A writer, an academic, and a spinster in her mid-forties, living a spartan life in the “urban cocoon” of an unnamed city, she is in constant conversation with herself — now brooding on her relationship with the geographical and emotional places she inhabits; now on the vacuous connections she forms with people, now on the vestiges of a filial bond. Solitude has become “her trade”; a condition she tries to perfect; yet it torments her, discomfits her. Sinking into loneliness, she finds herself shrinking, lost — adrift from the continent of touch and intimacy.
The narrator’s relationship with the city she calls home, and its inhabitants, is marked by knowing and not-knowing. The people walking on the sidewalks are “the permanent fixtures” on her mind, “knotted up in the fabric” of her neighbourhood, just like the buildings or the trees: “These are the faces that have kept me company for years, and still I don’t even know the people they belong to.” This incongruity lies at the heart of this novel, which is saturated with the dualities — they are many — of light and shadow, stillness and movement, exuberance and dread, attachment and estrangement, contentment and dissatisfaction. Told in fragments, in pared-down prose, it’s a portrait of the modern epidemic of urban loneliness, which Victoria Laing calls a city in itself.
We follow her over the course of nearly a year as she navigates the cityscape, flitting in and out of piazzas, trattorias, bookstores, museums and coffee bars, carrying out her daily tasks that are perfectly mapped in her mind. She goes to the pool to lose herself in water: “My thoughts merge and flow; water is an element that restores me.... Everything — my body, my heart, the universe — seems tolerable when I’m protected by water and nothing touches me. All I think about is the effort.” When she meets the teenage daughter of two of her friends, the young woman reminds her of her own “squandered” youth: “She is fluent in the language her parents struggled to speak. She doesn’t look like a tourist or foreigner; she is the type that fits in anywhere. Full of dreams and plans, she believes it’s still possible to change the world.” She envies the teen’s grit, her courage to stand up to authority, her triumphs in love. At her age, she didn’t know love. She read books and studied, listened to her parents, “did what they asked me to”. On some days, she bumps into a man, her friend’s husband and her neighbour, with whom she could have “ventured into something reckless”, but doesn’t. Some unpleasant encounters add to her personal register of “loss, betrayal and disappointment”. The stay at an unpleasant hotel room for a three-day convention makes her “hate the world”. A friend’s overbearing husband gets on her nerves. Her boyfriend of five years cheats on her. Her therapy sessions don’t go anywhere: “Every session was like the start of a novel abandoned after the first chapter.”
Often, what dominates her meditative and melancholy reflections is her place in the world and her splintered self. She is bugged by her parents who keep “nipping at my heels,” leaving her to mourn her “unhappy origins”. Her moribund mother — “frustrated as a wife; disdainful as a widow” — lives alone, tormented by her life as an old woman and burdened by the passage of time. She had lost her father when she had turned 15. They had booked train tickets and packed suitcases for a play running in a city across the border, when the tragedy had struck, turning the long train trip into a “pageant of mourning.”
Living alone is liberating and offers joy, but she is also assailed by the memories of her oppressive mother’s fitful rages, by her father’s failure to protect her in the tempestuous household. Part of her routine is to take a train to see her mother, which scrapes off new layers of pain each time. A change of seasons does nothing to lift her spirits: “In spring, I suffer. It doesn’t invigorate but depletes; every blow in my life took place in spring.” Even when the occasional light of the sun reinvigorates her, she is dismayed to notice that “there is no escape from the shadows that mount, inexorably, in this darkening season,” and finds a parallel in “the shadows our families cast” from which, too, there is no escape. At times, she misses “the pleasant shade a companion might provide”.
We get to know how movement and departure are central to the narrator’s life. In a one-page chapter titled ‘Nowhere’ towards the end of the novel, she let us in on how she has never stayed still: “I’ve always been moving, that’s all I’ve ever been doing. Always waiting either to get somewhere or to come back. Or to escape...” And then, as if seeking validation from the readers, she asks: “Is there any place we’re not moving through?” She lists a litany of words with similar meaning with which she identifies herself: “Disoriented, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, uprooted, turned around.” She tells us: “I’m related to these related terms. These words are my abode, my only foothold.”
Whereabouts is a departure for Lahiri in subject, theme and style. It’s her third novel, but the first she wrote in Italian as Dove Mi Trovo, literally meaning “where I find myself”, in 2018, and has translated herself. The first book she wrote in Italian, since she moved to Italy from the US in 2012 to recast and recreate herself in another language, was a memoir — In Altre Parole, translated by Ann Goldstein, in 2016, in which she writes about both physical and linguistic exile and her quest to find herself in words. In her previous short story collections and novels — Pulitzer-winning Interpreter of Maladies, Unaccustomed Earth, The Namesake and The Lowland, written between 1999 and 2013 — she has explored the dislocation and migration of Indian-Americans, the complexities of their identity and belonging, and their quests to connect with their roots.
Like Lahiri, the narrator of Whereabouts, too, is a writer looking for salvation in her syntax: in the former’s case, it’s both the new language she has embraced as well as the language she revisits through translation. Her account makes us see how easily Lahiri slips into the role of the interpreter of families’ “private morphologies”. By divesting the novel of proper pronouns, she lends it a touch of universality. We know that it’s not the story of just one life, but many lives: the story of the collective condition of the in-between people inhabiting the shifting world where identity, being and belonging are all in a constant state of flux. In being minimal and spare, it sparkles. Lahiri’s new place and language have provided her with a new window through which she looks at the world. In Whereabouts, she makes the most of that window.
The last we see of the narrator is when she is on the train, stepping across the familiarity of her surroundings, leaving behind the city she has lived in her entire life to accept a fellowship in “a place I’ve never been before.” Casting off the encumbrances and accoutrements of language and belonging impose, she has finally managed to “push past the barrier” and will soon land in another country, “surrounded by another impenetrable tongue,” where she will likely pass though other thresholds.
A day before she leaves the city, the narrator steps out into the piazza for “a last glimpse of my present surroundings.” As she walks, she catches sight of a woman walking at the other end of the block, dressed almost exactly as the narrator is. She has got a sprightly step, unlike the narrator who always lacked a spring in her step, and clearly knows where she is going. The narrator’s “double”, seen from behind, explains something vital to her: “I’m me and also someone else, that I am leaving and also staying.”
Nawaid Anjum is an independent journalist, translator and poet. He lives in New Delhi.