Every once in a while you read something, usually a piece of fiction, that leaves you with a strong, specific impression of a thing completely alien to your own experience. It feels like you’ve been through a Vulcan mind-meld. This is something Jhumpa Lahiri is very good at: Her characters don‘t get under your skin — you simply blink and find yourself startled to be looking out from under theirs.
This is much more than empathy, and it’s a far more profound experience than mere tourism — remember that magical mystery tour of Mexico Garcia Marquez took you on in the ‘70s? The stories in Lahiri’s first collection, Interpreter of Maladies, are set in Calcutta, Boston and points in between, but it is her point of view, not their settings, that matters.
In ”The Treatment of Bibi Haldar,“ Lahiri writes in the first person plural, using a ”we“ that is neither royal nor entirely plural; Lahiri‘s ”we“ occupies the same space in consciousness as an ”I“ in most first-person narratives, but it refers to all the women of a Calcutta neighborhood. They aren’t a committee, but a collective point of consciousness. When the story‘s epileptic subject, Bibi Haldar, collapses in the stairwell, ”. . . we rushed out of our apartments to calm her at once, bearing palm fans and sugar cubes, and tumblers of refrigerated water to pour on her head. Our children clung to the bannisters and witnessed her paroxysm; our servants were sent to summon her cousin.“
The story isn’t told as if these women traveled everywhere in a pack, observing the same events simultaneously. It‘s more like they are interchangeable. What’s amazing is that this structure does not feel like a literary device forced upon the story for novelty‘s sake; the use of the ”we“ feels right and organic here. What it means is that this group of neighborhood women shares a conscious identity at a level that in Western culture is reserved for individuals — they are a thinking, speaking ”we.“
Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in India (or Artesia) will recognize this phenomenon. For Westerners, weaned on the cult of the individual, this aspect of Asian culture can be bewildering: Group identity tends to appear like conformity. This differently located identity is perhaps the biggest challenge to Westerners who want to understand Asian culture and art. Reading Lahiri’s story (the content of which is almost another matter entirely) is as close to understanding the locus of the individual in Indian society as one raised outside of this culture is ever likely to get.
Fiction is best when it‘s performing something that only fiction can do, like pouring you briefly into the skin of a fellow creature whose internal rhythms are so differently constructed and construed that no lengths of explanation, exposure or analogy will do. It’s exciting to read a short story that performs a feat like this. I lived in India for two years, and while I was aware of the level of difference between the ”I“ looking out of my neighbor‘s eyes and the ”I“ in mine, I didn’t understand it nearly as well as I do having read Lahiri‘s story.
Lahiri is a shape-shifter: She writes with equal ease from the male and female points of view, as child and adult, and from Eastern and Western perspectives (both of which she naturally inherits, having been born in London and raised in Rhode Island in an Indian immigrant family). There’s never a sense that she‘s drawing on her life experience for material; rather, her characters and situations are fully imagined, with the buoyancy of myth. (The story in the collection that is the most like a modern short story, ”Sexy,“ also happens to be the one that appeared in The New Yorker, suggesting the presence of a heavy editorial hand.)
All that said, Lahiri’s stories are not about culture clash. They‘re about the stress fractures caused by forward momentum. Immigration is a factor in this great human movement through history. Even when the focus of her attention is on the denizens of a neighborhood, or an apartment building, or a couple in a new house, Lahiri’s world-view is large.
She writes of people leaving home, people whose transitional circumstances have given them a heightened awareness of the brilliance of the world. In ”Mrs. Sen‘s,“ an American boy sheds the last skin of childhood while his baby a sitter, a newly arrived Indian housewife, learns to buy food and drive a car, their developmental phases moving in and out of sync. The woman and the child are equally fragile, brave and frustrated, characters that meet at a juncture when each is faced with the necessity of shouldering an enormous burden of disappointment. These lives are ordinary, and frightening, and in the juxtaposition of the Indian wife and the all-American boy, these two illuminate each other; they make each other breathtaking.
These are stories not of displaced persons, but of people who have set out on a course, through choice or fate; they are old-fashioned immigrants and adventurers, these characters, which is why this book is pure classic American fiction.
Lahiri’s writing is not stylish: You could retell any of her stories any number of ways and they would retain their power, so rooted are they in the circumstances, events, gestures and characters of her invention. This is unusual in a literary era when good writing has become something of a parlor trick, but there‘s little decoration to Lahiri’s prose, nor is it sleek and elegant. Her sentences are free of unnecessary tension, trim but not taut. She never overreaches for a description. Her dialogue gets things done. And she never once lapses clever or sentimental. Her economy is such that whole relationships can be summarized by gestures. For instance, take the hostile kindnesses that define the relationship between a mother and a son-in-law: ”She . . . knit him a beige and brown scarf, presenting it to him without the least bit of ceremony, as if he had only dropped it and hadn‘t noticed.“
On the surface, Lahiri uses the same vocabulary as contemporary realism: people cooking, hanging posters, couples not speaking while they eat. It is familiar, nearly transparent stuff. But her power of thought is so great that the mere words melt away at the reader’s touch like a wax mold used to make a bronze image. What‘s left is indelible, and seems to have been there always.
In the story ”A Temporary Matter,“ a couple who have lost a child to miscarriage haunt their unhappy household estranged from one another. When their neighborhood experiences a series of power outages, they begin to use the darkness to tell each other secrets about themselves, from petty betrayals to true feelings about each other. (”On the third night, she told him that once after a lecture they’d attended, she let him speak to the chairman of his department without telling him that he had a dab of pate on his chin.“) This ”game“ gives their relationship the unexpected structure of a fairy tale, and this new format causes unexpected things to happen between them. They aren‘t saved by any means, but their grief is enlivened, their disaffection banished, by this new sense of a story unfolding, of the weight the situation has suddenly lent to their most ordinary thoughts and words.
In ”The Third and Final Continent,“ which is the diciest story in the collection and the most unexpectedly rewarding, a deceptively dislikable narrator turns around and gives voice to exactly what makes the world go ’round, when he says, ”There are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.“ Is this not a summary of what compels and impels us, as individuals and as a collective, to press forward in ways large and small? Is this world not terrifying and gorgeous? Through Jhumpa Lahiri‘s many pairs of open eyes, it is.