Have You Read Jhumpa Lahiri yet?


I first picked up ‘The Interpreter of Maladies’ while still at school, when the safest way to pick a read was by relying on the awards they had won. It was also the time when I was warming up to the voice of authors in our sub-continent, discovering the joys of stories set in familiar landscapes and with whose protagonists I shared a connection- of geographies, language or culture. Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy and the likes filled up my book shelf and thoughts, introducing and then transporting me to distant lands and times in my own country. Lahiri’s Pulitzer winning collection of short stories was such an easy read in contrast to the  complexities of Rushdie’s narratives that by the time I finished Namesake (her second book and more famously a Mira Nair movie), Lahiri had become one of my favourite authors. Then on, it was all about waiting for her to publish again, while I filled up the time in between reading the others and decoding the reasons for my fondness for her style.
It was through her third book- “Unaccustomed earth” that I could fathom some of these reasons. Most of her stories are weaved between New England, in and around Boston, and Kolkatta, more often than not revolving around Bengali immigrants living in America. Jhumpa, was raised in Rhode Island and studied at the Boston University after her Bengali parents moved to States. Thus her writings are often borrowed pieces from her own life, capturing the dualities of immigrant life in America, expressed either through the questions of individual identity(Namesake) or the dynamics of evolving relationships (various stories from Unaccustomed Earth, Interpreter of Maladies and most recently Lowland). The beauty of her writing lies in the simple construction of the plots, the easy flow of language, the unpretentious subjects – the focus always being on telling the story, simply, honestly as one would narrate from his own life. There are no larger-than-life characters of Rushdie’s fiction in Jhumpa’s writing or extraordinary landscapes of Seth’s . She relies only on the mundane pieces picked up from lives of ordinary people, the profundity of which only compares with life  itself.
Soaking them in the intricacies of a particular culture conveyed effortlessly to the non-Bengali reader.
And if you care to look closely through her common themes – the dysfunctional family ties, the dichotomy of independence and isolation in a foreign land or the intrinsic battles that come with selfish choices- they are reflections of every life’s dilemmas. 
Sometimes her disparate stories seem so strangely linked that I have often tried to connect the dots to form the pieces of her life’s story. Wondering which of her characters or part of them among the sister, the lover, the wife, the mother or the rebel is/was Jhumpa herself.

She is the only author I have bothered to read every work of. The only author whose books I have happily lent, whose stories about siblings I have read to my brother to convey an inexplicable emotion(because he refuses to read anything himself) and because these writings ought to be shared. And if it is possible to be inspired by a writing style, or emulate the impact of a story, it is hers that I would want to embody in my future book(if that ever happens). She is the reason, New England has come to occupy a space in my head, the possible witness to the stories I have read.

I recently finished her latest offering -‘The  Lowland’, that had my partner competing for time and attention through the Christmas holidays. The story that travels between the turbulence of the Naxal movement in dense Kolkatta to the quietude of university life in the sparse New Hampshire, deserved a reading under the warmth of the winter sun.
However, my “comfort read” (much like the comfort food we crave every now and then to restore emotional  balance) remains her collection of stories from the “Unaccustomed Earth”. I have read and re-read it when I have wanted to read nothing else. Like that timeless movie we can always watch, knowing that it remains brilliant even when you have grown out of other stuff that you once fancied. When even though you know how it concludes, it is the journey that most interests you, the pauses when you look up from the pages to fully grasp and assimilate a sentence.

Have you read Jhumpa Lahiri yet? If not, read her before this winter ends and you won’t regret it.

If you have, what is your favorite story?


Love ‘Letters’

Books (besides a dog), as the old cliche goes are a man’s best friend and thus like we find various friends over the course of a lifetime, we befriend varied subjects and authors at different times in our lives. After all, we all love a good story, whether it travels to us from continents away in the form of news or simply  trickles down as gossip at the office water-cooler. And then a lot of us go looking for them, in the wide jungle that is literature, available to us at the book stores in the form of fiction, biographies, fantasy or a fifty-shades-of-gray.

For me what started out in school as a customary tool to improve my skills in the language with Enid Blyton and Inc. , soon transformed into a hobby when words seemed to open a limitless resource of stories in the form of Nancy Drew’s adventures or Agatha Christie’s detective stories or later a Robin Cook medical thriller. Of course those were the kind of stories that were to be read and forgotten within a span of days, because not matter how ingeniously a mystery was deconstructed, there was little to take away from it in terms of the human experience. The realization gave way to works of Jeffery Archer, Sidney Sheldon and Eric Segal and thus began the era where books like Kane and AbelDoctors, Gone with the Wind and Tell me your dreams were remembered and not merely their authors. Sometimes, some of these books became a guideline for living my life for a while (thankfully) and Howard Roark from The Fountain Head (Ayn Rand) more than just the lead protagonist in perpetual rebellion against the world. This was the beginning of a life-long friendship, where books became co-travelers on journeys (and I gladly sacrificed the wonderful view outside the window), or skipped various outings with friends because the idea of spending time with a book seemed far more stimulating.

But just like at the gym you have to keep raising the bar and challenge your body, the themes of my literary companions became more convoluted, now negotiating cognitive dissonance in works of Jodi Piccoult( My Sister’s Keeper) or Stephen King’s The Green MileSoon books began to demand and occupy a larger space in my room, my mind. They were transporting me to faraway places to witness the lives of women in Afghanistan (Khalid Hosseni) or the uncover hidden mysteries of the Sundarbans (Vikram Seth) or vicariously experience the world through eyes of  a child in a Salman Rushdie /Arundhati Roy story set in Bombay/Kerala or mull over the dichotomies prevalent in the life of the second generation Bengalis living in Boston( Jhumpa Lahiri) or time-travel through the contemporary interpretations of mythological works (Immortals of Meluha, Palace of illusions etc.) Where else could you, if not through the magical alchemy of books, ever cross-over from your ‘muggle’ lives into Rowling’s Hogwarts School of Wizardry that ensnared kids and adults alike (who believed in the reality of Harry and Friends, like you would in a modern day Santa Klaus).

In today’s time books aren’t just company anymore, but also my refuge when there is really no physical place left for an escape. They become the face behind which I hide on long metro journeys to work everyday, the loud voice of the prose drowning all the voices in my head and shutting out the realities of living. They often oil the old, dormant ideas of my once inquisitive brain and plant a million new dilemmas about things that exist beyond the realm of our everyday encounters. And sometimes, if we are looking, books within their stratified narratives offer us a mirror- either to reflect upon our own lives or to take something away from the learnings of its protagonists. What does the success of a book like the Alchemist (Paul Coelho) or Eat, Pray, Love (Elizabeth Gilbert) indicate if not our huge desire to identify ourselves with other people’s stories. We pick up quotes,  forge opinions, draw on philosophies remember the  Scarlett O Haras, the Harrys or the John Galts (from the famous Atlas Shrugged) beyond their lives in fiction.

Often, while reading on a moving metro, I rest my eyes on the lush landscape outside the window while assimilating a beautiful idea- a quote, a thought or simply a well written paragraph and smile to no one in particular in the compartment. Because as long as there is still a book left in the world to read, who can claim to be alone?

The Palace of Illusions – Book Review

Recently I got my hands on this masterpiece by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and was quickly branded feminist by some of my colleagues as the package arrived at work from Flipkart and I explained the theme of the book that had piqued my interest in the first place. Riding on the wave of the deconstruction of our oldest mythological tales and epics is The Palace of Illusions, the story of Mahabharata as told by Draupadi- the Queen of Queens, the woman married five times over to the five sons of Kunti, the Pandavas. Obviously, since the Mahabharata has been handed down to us through generations and brought to us in popular culture from an essentially male perspective, where women were either shown as characters to be avenged, sympathized with or gambled in a game of dice, Divakaruni’s tale is a hit from the maiden chapter as the ambitious Draupadi is growing up in the confines of her powerful father, possessed and driven by revenge alone. She yearns for and fantasies about living her destiny and life outside her father’s fortress, a palace of her own and a loving husband- dreams of an ordinary girl, spinning her own palace of illusions. The book then slowly, like the slant and soft power of a woman shatters the illusions of a naive Draupadi one brick at a time.

Devkaruni gives voice to the woman who had a crucial role to play in shaping the course of the greatest tale of our continent but not before carrying us through her journey from an ordinary woman of desires harboring a secret and possibly only true love for an unsung hero she could have never had. What is most fascinating is the author’s touching upon the life of a princess with the concerns of a run-of-the-mill marital life-power struggles with her mother-in-law, craving love of the only husband who had rightfully won her, but never truly loved her or jealousy over her husbands taking other wives. The book zooms into the loneliness of  the woman with five husbands who were only truly married to a life of duty, leaving her no real companion but her place in history.

What is most refreshing is that the tale is relieved from the responsibility of narrating all the facts or establishing good vs. evil (that the Mahabharata is fundamentally referenced for), as the characters of the Pandava brothers take a back seat, while the more intriguing human sides of the supporting casts are brought to life and how! Thus you soak in easily, the casual tone in which the author narrates  her chosen sub-plots picked carefully out of the vast ocean of knowledge and lessons that are rife in the original story by Vyasa.

If you haven’t yet, pick this one up and you won’t regret it. I suspect that you would be as drawn into the drum-roll towards the biggest battle in history, empathizing with Paanchali (as Draupadi is also known as), ignoring the Black-and-White world of the Pandavas, and just like the protagonist falling deeply in love with the enigmatic and unfortunate Karna.