By Parul Sehgal, photograph: Liana Miuccio, ELLE India, September 2013
I meet Jhumpa Lahiri in Brooklyn on a hot, blue morning in August. Such is her reputation for reserve that I’m expecting a Bengali Garbo—or at least the woman from her author photo, with hair pulled back severely; wary, light eyes; arms shielding her body. Standing at the doorstep of her brownstone, I feel briefly ashamed in my mission, like I’ve been deployed to divest a turtle of its shell.
But she greets me in a sundress and sandals, her hair loose on her shoulders. At 46, she has a tense, tawny beauty, with a formality that falls away almost immediately.
Her home is warm and bright, and we chat in a busy room full of books about Italian architecture and children’s toys that look vaguely medieval in function. Her 11-year-old son, Octavio, finishes breakfast at the table and her daughter, nine-year-old Noor, lolls on the sofa next to me, playing a game on her iPad. We’ve barely been talking for 20 minutes when the doorbell rings. Her publisher has sent over a package (addressed to “JHUNPA LAHIN”) containing the first proof copies of The Lowland. The jacket is white, the title a chocolate slant, almost the color of dried blood.
“What do you think?” she asks her daughter. Turning the book over in her hands, Lahiri catches sight of the praise, the blurbs, the bio on the back. “Let’s not look at that,” she says, and I’m not sure if she’s talking to me or to herself. She puts the book down on the coffee table, face up, and doesn’t touch it again.
In that same modest, measured way, she discusses the attention her work has received. Since she made her debut in 1999 with Interpreter of Maladies, she’s produced a book every five years or so, each one a critical and popular success. Her first book won the Pulitzer Prize; her second, The Namesake (2003), was made into film directed by Mira Nair. Her third, Unaccustomed Earth (2008), hit number one on The New York Times Bestseller list and was awarded the Frank O’Connor Prize. And The Lowland, out this month, has already been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
She was happy to hear about the nomination, she says, for the freedom that recognition affords her. “My writing has always come from a place where I feel—and need to feel—completely alone and anonymous,” she tells me. “I’m very grateful for the attention because it allows me to keep working, which is what I love. But I have to seal myself off from it, absolutely negate it, because the writing won’t come otherwise. It’s such an intimate thing; I can’t do it in front of other people. It’s a rich dimension in one’s head – to access it, the noise has to be shut off. And there is a lot of noise in the world.”
That noise has been, on occasion, critical. There is a dissenting minority when it comes to Lahiri’s work—critics who have dismissed her (along with Arundhati Roy and Zadie Smith) as just “part of the late ’90s fad for beautiful young women novelists with Commonwealth roots,” those who have called her representation of the immigrant experience inauthentic or her depictions of India naive. For all her plain prose, Lahiri is divisive—unsurprising, perhaps, when you consider how eccentric a writer she really is, and how compulsively she has been drawn to variations on a single theme: The confusion, alienation and trauma of her parents’ migration to America. But that chatter feels very far away from the bright room we’re sitting in. Here, the talk is of work, of the stealth and patience that writing requires. “It’s all in the dark, all feeling around,” she says. “For me, it’s not a rational process at all. It’s living and breathing with the characters. Working with them. And slowly, they come to life, the story comes to life. That’s how it’s always been.”
But it was a long road to The Lowland, one that called for nerves above all. The novel is about two brothers: one joins the Naxalites and is killed and the other, living in America, must reckon with his brother’s legacy (and his irresistible widow). It’s based loosely on a true story that Lahiri heard as a child, of two Naxalite brothers who were killed in front of their family in 1971. For over 10 years, she tried writing the scene of the murder; for over 10 years, the story simmered in her, until she felt ready, and even then, she says, “I felt like I was on a tightrope from start to finish.” That’s not surprising, for The Lowland is a somewhat radical departure for Lahiri, a long way from her pointillist miniatures of Cambridge ennui. From the first page, you can see she’s up to something very different.
The book begins: “East of the Tolly Club, after Deshapran Sashmal Road splits in two, there is a small mosque.” In that one sentence, we get the collision of British, Muslim and Hindu (and with the fork in the road, an echo of Robert Frost, and Lahiri’s New England roots), an intimation of how the brothers will take divergent paths, and inevitably, a little Lahiri family history. The Lowland is set in Tollygunge, her father’s neighborhood in Calcutta, where Naxalism set down strong roots, even attracting members of her family. The book brims with facts and local political lore – unusual for a writer who doesn’t identify herself as especially political. “I’m looking at the world a different way,” she says. “I’m trying to create people of all kinds and put them into situations, and it’s not my objective to have a message. I work from the inside out.”
To depict Naxalism from the inside out, she travelled to Calcutta to meet people who had been active in the movement. It was a turning point for the book, she says. “You realize the difference between someone who may vote a certain way or think that these objectives are right and reasonable, versus a person for whom these beliefs, this sense of justice is as essential as water or air. Even all these years later, they’re still burning with it.”
The burden of representing this history, which is still very much alive, weighed on her, but returning to 1970s Calcutta seemed like pure pleasure. “I’m not romanticising it. Resources were limited, the lights would go out every night; but people had so much passion for the simple things, the basic things, the profound things.”
With Lahiri, everything has a way of wending its way back to her parents, and I’m reminded that we cannot choose our obsessions. After Unaccustomed Earth, she says, she felt that she’d come to the end of focusing so specifically on a certain kind of immigrant experience. The Lowland emerged from her hunger to ask different kinds of questions, and indeed, the coming to America aspect of the novel is very much in the background.
But what’s also clear is that if Lahiri has moved away from using fiction to fathom her parents, life is teaching her what she wanted to know. Lahiri has been living in Rome for a year now, a city that, she says, shares Calcutta’s relaxed sociability. And she has found that fumbling with a foreign language, struggling with simple things – phone calls, putting her children in school—has helped her see her parents more clearly. Although she admits this confuses her mother a good deal. “She’s like, ‘Why do you have to be so far away from us? If you want to understand us, come over!’” Lahiri says, laughing.
She’s completing a circle, and beginning to realize why she found America so cold when compared to India. “My parents had such a formal relationship with Americans for so many years. The only time our house ever came to life was on the weekends, when they would entertain their Bengali friends and suddenly, there would be laughter and music and food, and people would be relaxed. But during the week, it was tense because they were always on the defensive. And I understand that now, because for the first time in my life, I’m in a city where I don’t belong. I’m working in a second language. I speak it, yes, but with all sorts of handicaps and limitations. I look like a foreigner, and I am a foreigner. I finally get it, after years of writing about foreigners. It’s amazing to relive my family’s history in another context.”