I have often wondered who I am. Am I a type or am I an exception? I like to think of myself as the modern global citizen. But what does that even mean? Does the global citizen have a cuisine to call her own? Do we have a dinner table ritual like every other culture? Do we let our children drink with us? Do we have fairy tales? Which language do we speak? Where is our native?
My first acquaintance with the author Jhumpa Lahiri was an association. I can’t remember how or why, but I associated her with my father’s longing for home. Every time that man would say he wanted to go back home to his ancestral house in Dhaka- one that he had never seen in his life- his next thought was to go back and read Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake.’
As a Bengali born in Hyderabad, in a nursing home where I did not have any other relation save my mother and father, I was already very different from my cousins. They were all born at home, delivered by mid wives and surrounded by relatives. After their births, the house would be blessed by the company of eunuchs whose blessings resounded throughout the neighborhood.
As an oddity, I learnt Telegu before I learnt Bengali. My first word was ‘Chinnapapa’ and not ‘ma’. After twenty three years, five languages and four cities, I am left struggling for words when people ask me where I am from.
After reading Lahiri’s ‘Interpreter of Maladies’, I can finally begin to answer that question. A book of nine short stories, Lahiri writes about people like me- the ones searching for roots, searching for their place in the new world as well as the old.
Shobha and Shukumar, a Bengali couple born and brought up in Boston, are a modern pair to the onlooker. But after having lost a child, they too find it necessary to go back to the stories and rituals of Kolkata- a place they have never been to, but only heard stories of.
Mr. Pirzada is luckier than the above mentioned couple. He is from Bangladesh and he knows his country. Although a visitor of the states, he remembers his origins. He remembers that no child should ever say thank you to an adult for a gift given and that shoes need to be removed outside the house before entering. He remembers that children are innocent and that the only thing they should be concerned with is chocolates and dolls. Despite his worry of his family back in the Dhaka of the mukti judho (Liberation movement), he keeps his cool in front of the young Jhumpa.
Mr. Kapasi is a first handed witness of what the modern world does to young love. He hears the story of Mrs. Das’s infidelity from her and wonders how the American concept of love is so very different from the Indian’s concept of the same. Mr. Kapasi is a translator who soon realizes that betrayal, love, passion and ailments are universal. However, the way of dealing with these differ from culture to culture. When Mrs. Das romanticizes his profession as a translator, Mr. Kapasi realizes that he can transgress cultural boundaries and language barriers to understand and assess different cultures. Post this realization, Mr. Kapasi becomes the objective observer on the other side of the camera watching different cultures intermingle and co-exist.
Boori ma of ‘A real durwaan’ is a character I know. She had the same sentiments and regrets but her name was different in my world. She was called Kanchan maashi (aunty). She was the lady who was the care taker of our house in Kolkata. Just like Boori ma, she too had just two saris and always roamed around bare feet. She rubbed coconut oil on her hair and body before bath every day and always told me stories of the ancestral home and zamindari they were stripped of during the partition. I was always assured that she would have been a very rich woman with a lot of jewels and a horde of servants, had it not been for the Liberation movement.
Mrs. Sen, is like Nazneen of Brick Lane. She is forced to move out of Kolkata and live in the states for the sake of a husband who is trying to make it big in the new world. She cannot and will not learn driving, she tells her husband, a man fervently trying to modernize her. Her association with her home town is more a cultural one. She is the type of woman who will make sure that anyone passing through her house gets food and a glass of water. She will not have no for an answer. Mrs. Sen is Ashima from ‘The Namesake.’ She is every house wife ever who has been told that getting married to a Bengali settled in the States will be the best decision of their life.
Twinkle and Sanjeev are another failed relationship. They fail not because they lost a child, but because Twinkle found Christianity and shoved it down Sanjeev’s throat. Twinkle’s introduction to Christianity came in the form of Christ figurines and mantel pieces hidden all over their new house. Twinkle held on to her new found, glamorous faith and Sanjeev resisted.
Bibi Haldar is my heroine. Hers is a story of breaking away from the clutches of tradition and gender roles and taking control of one’s own life. Bibi Haldar wants a husband, but is denied so by her cruel brother and sister-in-law. They see her as a mad woman with overflowing sexual desire, but she does not relent. At the end of the story, she puts on her red lipstick, shows a middle finger to society and her family and makes a life for herself and her son (whose parental origin is unknown), keeping her dream of finding a husband alive.
The ‘I’ of the last story is a nameless man searching for his place in the new world. He struggles with the new culture, but after thirty years of living in the states, realizes that: “while the astronaut, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know my achievement is quite ordinary….As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination. (Page 198, Harper Collins)”
Lahiri also explores the relationship an outsider has with the Bengali culture. What do they think of when they see a Bengali in the States? Miranda of the short story ‘Sexy’ answers this for us. She is in love with a married man- Dev and knows that she is the quintessential ‘other woman’. But is the role of the ‘other woman’ same in the case of a conservative Bengali family structure as it is for an American family? Roshin, a Bengali boy of nine, educates her by his innocence.
All the heroes and the heroines of the book remind me of my father and his longing for a home he had never seen and his feeling of sticking out in the by lanes of North and South India. He, like most of the characters, wanted to go back. But I don’t think I ever will go back, wherever ‘back’ might be.
I like the approach of the “I” in the last story. Maybe the question we should be asking is not when we will go back or where. Maybe it is- where will I go from here? Maybe we are not meant to belong to one place or one culture only. Could it be, that our mission in our lifetime is to imbibe all cultures that come our way and be from wherever we are at a particular moment?