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Jhumpa Lahiri and travel

As a librarian, I am a supreme lover of books and have many favorite authors. However, if I was stranded on a desert island and only had the works of one author to keep me company it would have to be the brilliant Bengali American author Jhumpa Lahiri.

I discovered Lahiri thanks to my freshman English professor in college, Dr. Johnson. As her doctorate was in the field of comparative literature, she was well versed and knowledgeable about writers from around the world including Lahiri. (She also was how I became familiar with the great Antiguan writer, Jamaica Kincaid, another favorite of mine.) One of our assigned readings was a work of short stories by Lahiri, The Interpreter of Maladies. It was her debut collection, published in 1999, and would go on to win the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The stories are beautifully written in such a way that the characters seem real and lifelike. Lahiri was born in London to Bengali immigrants but immigrated to the United States with her family when she was three years old. As such her fiction is often autobiographical, touching on themes such as immigration, cultural acceptance in one’s “new” home, maintaining cultural ties to one’s “old” home, usually with characters that are either Indian immigrants or Indian-Americans.

Unfortunately for me as a reader, Lahiri has only three published works-Interpreter of Maladies, another short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, and her only novel, The Namesake, which in 2006 was adapted into a film by Indian director Mira Nair.

What I love most about Lahiri’s works is that there are always instances of her characters traveling. In the story “Interpreter of Maladies,” an Indian-American couple has traveled with their three small children to India, the country of their heritage, to visit with family. One day they hire a driver to take them to Konarak and act as their tour guide. Konarak is a small town in Puri district in the state of Orissa and is the site of the 13th-century Sun Temple, also known as the Black Pagoda.

“They reached Konarak at two-thirty. The temple, made of sandstone, was a massive pyramid-like structure in the shape of a chariot. It was dedicated to the great master of life, the sun, which struck three sides of the edifice as it made its journey each day across the sky.”

“It was no longer possible to enter the temple, for it had filled with rubble years ago, but they admired the exterior, as did all the tourists Mr. Kapsai brought there, slowly strolling along each of its sides.”

Because the couple had been born in the United States and only returned to India, every couple of years, they were undoubtedly tourists.

One of my favorite parts of The Namesake is when the Ganguli family visits the Taj Mahal while in India visiting relatives.

They are surprised, in the summer, to learn that their father has planned a trip for them, first to Dehli to visit an uncle, and then to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It will be Gogol and Sonia’s first journey outside of Calcutta, their first time on an Indian train.”

“For a few days, in Agra, which is as foreign to Ashima and Ashoke (the native born Indian parents) as it is to Gogol and Sonia (their American born children), they are tourists, staying at a hotel with a swimming pool, sipping bottled water, eating in restaurants with forks and spoons, paying by credit card. For two days they wander around the marble mausoleum that glows gray and yellow and pink and orange depending on the light.”

Although it is Lahiri’s writing on topics such as the Indian culture, on the loss of ethnic identity, assimilation, and being accepted by the place you call home that draw me in as a reader, I still greatly appreciate a little bit of traveling thrown in too. Everyone travels somewhere in their life, whether it is a planned trip, an unexpected one, or a journey that takes you culturally “home.”

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