Whereabouts – Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest offering is a treat – a novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections, as mesmerizing as the light and languor of a European city in summer. As a writer she always surprises – this is her first novel written in Italian, as well as the first time she has self-translated a full-length work.

In Whereabouts, this European city is not named, but from various hints peppered throughout, it can be assumed that it’s a city in Italy. It’s a book made up of a multitude of vignettes, most not more than two to four pages long, kind of like a pointillism painting, where various distinct dots of our narrator’s musings and happenings in her life merge to reveal a bigger picture.

Our narrator is a woman, possibly in her mid-forties, a teacher by profession, and she lives alone in what she calls her ‘urban cocoon’. There is little else we know about her. But that is exactly the point. The idea is not to dwell on her identity, but to get a flavor of her experiences because in many ways they are universal. She could be any one of us. Not all of the events in her life will mirror ours, but quite a few are likely to strike a chord. The chapter headings, deliberately generic – ‘On the Couch’, ‘In My Head’, ‘At My House’ and so on – could be interpreted as a metaphor for how the sense of place in the novel is largely internal.  

The action in the novel is inherently interior, we are privy to our narrator’s thoughts and her perception of the world around her. She might be alone, but she is not completely cut off. Friends, acquaintances mark her social circle, transient relationships exist too. No definite pointers of her existence are handed to us on a platter, and yet a snapshot of her persona gradually emerges.

We learn that she has a strained relationship with her overbearing mother, who tormented by old age, expresses her wish to stay with our narrator if only because she dreads being alone. But our narrator resists, she wants to cling to the independent life she has carved out for herself. The past always comes back to haunt the present, and it’s apparent that the shadow of her father’s death, when she was 15, hasn’t entirely left her. She bemoans her wasted youth, of the years spent conforming to parental expectations, when she could have rather been a rebel with a cause.

Although she’s not married, our narrator tells us of her one long-term relationship with an anxious, highly-strung man, who she later discovers was two-timing her. The end of that union is a sort of a relief because she can “look at him without absorbing a drop of that tiresome anxiety, that ongoing lament.”

Some of her friends don’t understand the choices she has made – “I bump into my married friend for whom I represent…what, exactly? A road not taken, a hypothetical affair?” Another friend envies our narrator, and seeks refuge in her spartan home, away from her harried, busy life of working and raising a family – “’This is the only place I can relax,’ she says. She likes the silence, and not seeing objects scattered everywhere.”

Chance encounters punctuating our narrator’s existence are pregnant with meanings too – a fling with a married man conjures up images of languid afternoons spent in a series of trattorie talking and relishing delicious food, a mother bathing in the sea with her children entrances her because “she was a steady pillar in the midst of that roiling force.” A whiff of sadness permeates her being when her favourite stationery shop shuts down and the family running it, who she is fond of, is no longer around.

Solitude is the dominant pulse of the novel, it throbs persistently throughout the book – “Solitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect.” Indeed, solitude has its pleasures, it allows our narrator to control her time and space. And yet there are moments when she can’t help thinking, “There are times I miss the pleasant shade a companion might provide.” Essentially, our narrator wavers between stasis and movement, between the need to belong and a refusal to form lasting ties.

The majesty of Nature also evokes a range of emotions and influences our narrator’s perspective more often than not. While on the beach, she observes that “the gray light that pervaded the sky after sunset made me melancholy”, and at another time she notices “a ferocious noise coming from the crashing of the waves and the roar of the wind: a perpetual agitation, a thundering boom that devours everything. I wonder why we find it so reassuring.”

The precision of Lahiri’s prose is striking. Her language is minimalistic, stripped off any embellishments and feels bleached down to its bare essentials, but there’s beauty in her stark expressions, the effect they create is hypnotic. You can almost picture yourself sitting in a sun-drenched piazza in a European city, drinking in the warmth with a whole afternoon of people-gazing before you – people whose stories you don’t really know, but sudden glimpses into their lives on display can fire up the imagination of the myriad possibilities. Reading Whereabouts produces similar feelings.

I have read both Lahiri’s short story collections – Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth. These collections, along with her novels, have given her much fame, primarily for her exquisite portrayal of the quintessential immigrant experience, notably Indians trying to adapt to a Western land and treading a fine balance between embracing a new culture and staying true to their Indian heritage. Those were books that focused on the disconnect that people feel with their surroundings.

But Whereabouts is a different beast altogether because there are no such clear markers of people and their identities. The disconnect, the author portrays, is more with the inner self. Perhaps, Lahiri is trying to tell us that on some level we are all outsiders, that it’s a collective feeling we sense, not only when we move around the world, but also when we are rooted in the same place.

Is I’ve 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.

Is there any place we’re not moving through? Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, uprooted, turned around. I’m related to these related terms. These words are my abode, my only foothold.

When I Hit You Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife – Meena Kandasamy

Here is another example of a major literary prize bringing to my attention a new author. Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife has been shortlisted this year for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the winner of which will be announced in the first week of June.

When I Hit You
Juggernaut Books Hardback Edition

When I Hit You Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife is a raw and visceral story of an abusive marriage. It is also a novel that explores how writing helps the woman, the unnamed narrator, find solace and make sense of what is happening.

When the novel opens, we already know that the unnamed narrator managed to walk out of this violent marriage.

Here’s how it begins:

My mother has not stopped talking about it.

Five years have passed, and with each year, her story has mutated and transformed, most of the particulars forgotten, the sequence of events, the date of the month, the day of the week, the time of the year, the etcetera and the so on, until only the most absurd details remain.

The mother prefers her story telling in metaphors and finds various ways to convey how her daughter suffered in her marriage without really finding the need to explicitly dwell on the actual chain of events.

But the narrator is having none of it. She is firm that she must write her own story.

Much as I love my mother, authorship is a trait that I have come to take very seriously. It gets on my nerves when she steals the story of my life and builds her anecdotes around it. It’s plain plagiarism. It also takes a lot of balls to do something like that – she’s stealing from a writer’s life – how often is that sort of atrocity even allowed to happen? The number one lesson I have learnt as a writer: Don’t let people remove you from your own story.

We learn how the narrator meets her abusive husband – she was a student then leaning towards the Left, and he was a revolutionary who seduced her with his ideas.

He was a college lecturer, but as far Left as they came and as orthodox as it was possible to be. He wore his outlaw air with charm, his Communist credentials without guile. He had been a Naxalite guerilla (‘Maoist,’ he corrected me). An underground revolutionary. He had assumed at least ten different names in three years. The element of danger provided an irresistible aura around him. I loved this sense of adventure. I loved his idealism, I found the dogmatic obsession endearing.

They marry and it all begins to unravel. He gradually starts controlling her. It begins in a relatively minor but incredibly frustrating way. He forces her to close down her Facebook account, keeps tabs on her emails and her phone calls. The narrator begins to find her herself isolated as she is cut away from any meaningful contact with the outside world.

But as the days go by this escalates into full blown abuse – beating and rape.

He is channelling his anger, practicing his outrage. I am the wooden cutting board banged against the countertop. I am the clattering plates flung into the cupboards. I am the unwashed glass being thrown to the floor. Shatter and shards and diamond sparkle of tiny pieces. My hips and thighs and breasts and buttocks. Irreversible crashing sounds, a fragile sight of brokenness as a petty tyrant indulges in a power-trip. Not for the first time, and not for the last.

Kandasamy’s storytelling is non-linear. This means that while we do get an idea of the chain of events, the story is not narrated in the order in which these events occurred. Rather Kandasamy picks up various themes and each chapter is dedicated to that.

Thus, in one chapter the narrator focuses on the tumultuous two year relationship she has with a much older politician much before her marriage to her current husband. She talks about her naivete and what she assumes to be love, only to realize that when pushed towards making a choice, the politician goes for his career.

In another chapter, the narrator talks about the letters she writes to ‘lovers she has never seen, or heard, to lovers who do not exist, to lovers she invents on a lonely morning.’

But in every chapter there is always a sense of menace lurking around, that uneasy feeling of an impending disaster ahead. Indeed, the chapters which focus on the actual physical violence and rape are quite gut-wrenching and disturbing.

However, the narrator finds some sort of meaning in her chosen profession – writing. Writing helps her deal with her suffering and pain, something her husband does not like, instead finding ways to thwart her at every turn.

I cannot agree with what he has to say. To me, it sounds strange, alien almost, to imagine that my poem will be the source of future trouble, that a poem will prevent us from healing.  The poem is the healing, I tell him. It’s by writing this that I can get over it.

Despite such a gruesome subject matter, the story is not without hope. After enduring so much, the narrator manages to walk out of the marriage in the nick of time. And her parents finally support her, even though they were slow to accept the realities much earlier on for fear of being judged by Indian society.

Of course, when the topic is as grim as an abusive marriage, any novel can come across as nothing but a misery memoir.

But not in Kandasamy’s hands. She writes with poetic intensity and grace, and her intelligence simply shines on every page. Her prose is lush, and her narrative quite compelling making you want to keep turning the pages.

It seems that Kandasamy is examining every facet of this doomed marriage from an angle – writing is something that helps her do that – as she ponders over her role as a housewife which her husband chains her to, the pressure on her to produce a child, and her parents’ initial reaction to her abuse telling her to bear with it in the hopes that the husband will turn over a new leaf. In a culture where divorce has negative connotations, and given they are in denial, they would rather their daughter stick it out rather than be berated by society.

Kandasamy also reflects on the right of a woman to express desire, and how in many cases it is always assumed to be a man’s prerogative.

When I Hit You in many ways is autobiographical – Kandasamy was the victim of an abusive marriage. But she refused to bow down, crafting instead a powerful novel in a unique voice. And she brought to the fore the sad truth that even educated women can become victims of domestic violence – both physical and mental.