Jumpa talks about writing and her new novel, The Lowland.
[Photo Credit: Scott Gries]
Since childhood, Subhash had been cautious. His mother never had to run after him. He kept her company, watching as she cooked or sewed.
While Subhash stayed in clear view, Udayan was disappearing: even in their two-room house, when he was a boy, he hid compulsively, under the bed, behind the doors, in the crate where winter quilts were stored.
He played this game without announcing it, spontaneously vanishing, sneaking into the back garden, climbing into a tree, forcing their mother, when she called and he did not answer, to stop what she was doing. As she looked for him, as she humored him and called his name, Subhash saw the momentary panic in her face, that perhaps she would not find him.
When they were old enough, when they were permitted to leave the house, they were told not to lose sight of each other. Together they wandered down the winding lanes of the enclave, across the lowland, to the playing field, where they sometimes met up with other boys. They went to the mosque at the corner, to sit on the cool of its marble steps, listening to a football game on someone’s shortwave.
Eventually, they were allowed to leave the enclave and to enter the greater city. To board trams and buses by themselves. They began to linger outside Technicians’ Studio, where Bengali film stars spent their days. They caught sight of the actors and actresses as they emerged from their dressing rooms or stepped into waiting cars. Udayan was the one brave enough to ask them for autographs. He was blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving certain colors.
In spite of their differences, one was perpetually confused with the other, so that when either name was called both were conditioned to answer. They were similar enough in build to draw from a single pile of clothes. Their complexions, a light coppery compound derived from their parents, were identical. Their double-jointed fingers, the sharp cut of their features, the wavy texture of their hair.
Subhash wondered if his placid nature was regarded as a lack of inventiveness, perhaps even a failing, in his parents’ eyes. His parents did not have to worry about him, and yet they did not favor him. It became his mission to obey them, given that it wasn’t possible to surprise or impress them. That was what Udayan did.
This speaks to me. From Isaac Chotiner’s 2008 Atlantic interview with Jhumpa Lahiri:
One critic who reviewed your first book said that your prose is extremely un-self-conscious and not showy. Without making a judgment on that, do you think he was correct?
I like it to be plain. It appeals to me more. There’s form and there’s function and I have never been a fan of just form. My husband and I always have this argument because we go shopping for furniture and he always looks at chairs that are spectacular and beautiful and unusual, and I never want to get a chair if it isn’t comfortable. I don’t want to sit around and have my language just be beautiful. If you read Nabokov, who I love, the language is beautiful but it also makes the story and is an integral part of the story. Even now in my own work, I just want to get it less—get it plainer. When I rework things I try to get it as simple as I can.
Do you have any desire to write a huge, panoramic novel?
I don’t think so. I don’t think I’m an effusive writer. My writing tends not to expand but to contract. If I do write more novels, I think they’ll be more streamlined and concentrated.
That fits into what you were saying about your prose style, right?
Maybe. Yes. I don’t like excess. When a great sweeping work is great, what makes it great is that there’s no excess.
[Photo Credit: Camille Van Horne]
Books, and the stories they contained, were the only things I felt I was able to possess as a child. Even then, the possession was not literal; my father is a librarian, and perhaps because he believed in collective property, or perhaps because my parents considered buying books for me an extravagance, or perhaps because people generally acquired less then than they do now, I had almost no books to call my own. I remember coveting and eventually being permitted to own a book for the first time. I was five or six. The book was diminutive, about four inches square, and was called “You’ll Never Have to Look for Friends.” It lived among the penny candy and the Wacky Packs at the old-fashioned general store across the street from our first house in Rhode Island. The plot was trite, more an extended greeting card than a story. But I remember the excitement of watching my mother purchase it for me and of bringing it home. Inside the front cover, beneath the declaration “This book is especially for,” was a line on which to write my name. My mother did so, and also wrote the word “mother” to indicate that the book had been given to me by her, though I did not call her Mother but Ma. “Mother” was an alternate guardian. But she had given me a book that, nearly forty years later, still dwells on a bookcase in my childhood room.
Our house was not devoid of things to read, but the offerings felt scant, and were of little interest to me. There were books about China and Russia that my father read for his graduate studies in political science, and issues of Time that he read to relax. My mother owned novels and short stories and stacks of a literary magazine called Desh, but they were in Bengali, even the titles illegible to me. She kept her reading material on metal shelves in the basement, or off limits by her bedside. I remember a yellow volume of lyrics by the poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, which seemed to be a holy text to her, and a thick, fraying English dictionary with a maroon cover that was pulled out for Scrabble games. At one point, we bought the first few volumes of a set of encyclopedias that the supermarket where we shopped was promoting, but we never got them all. There was an arbitrary, haphazard quality to the books in our house, as there was to certain other aspects of our material lives. I craved the opposite: a house where books were a solid presence, piled on every surface and cheerfully lining the walls. At times, my family’s effort to fill our house with books seemed thwarted; this was the case when my father mounted rods and brackets to hold a set of olive-green shelves. Within a few days the shelves collapsed, the Sheetrocked walls of our seventies-era Colonial unable to support them.
What I really sought was a better-marked trail of my parents’ intellectual lives: bound and printed evidence of what they’d read, what had inspired and shaped their minds. A connection, via books, between them and me. But my parents did not read to me or tell me stories; my father did not read any fiction, and the stories my mother may have loved as a young girl in Calcutta were not passed down. My first experience of hearing stories aloud occurred the only time I met my maternal grandfather, when I was two, during my first visit to India. He would lie back on a bed and prop me up on his chest and invent things to tell me. I am told that the two of us stayed up long after everyone else had gone to sleep, and that my grandfather kept extending these stories, because I insisted that they not end.