‘Mrs Sen’s’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

As someone who has led a peripatetic multicultural existence with an upbringing that spans India, Italy France and Britain, I am instinctively drawn to stories about displacement and belonging. I have a special affinity for this particular book and my PhD thesis was based on an exploration of nostalgia and belonging within Lahiri’s work. 

Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut collection of stories, published in 1999, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Hemingway/PEN Award in 2000, and several of the stories appeared in The New Yorker. The title is taken from one of the stories in the collection, which, like the other stories, examines the lives of diasporic Indians starting a new life in Seventies America when India was still very much an exotic entity and Asian groceries or communities a novelty. Lahiri writes powerfully about the immigrant experience and the difficulties of uprooting and assimilation. 

I could have happily chosen all the stories in this wonderful collection, but the one that highlights the tug of war between rooting and uprooting has to be ‘Mrs. Sen’s’. Mrs. Sen, the main protagonist in this story finds it impossible to integrate in America. Her almost petulant and childish refusal to learn to drive for instance is emblematic of her distress. A small American boy who she looks after, whilst his mother is at work witnesses her loneliness and pathetic attempts to recreate India in her new surroundings. Lahiri draws parallels between the boy’s own solitary childhood, devoid of family love with Mrs Sen’s predicament. Mrs. Sen’s home is a shrine to her Calcutta life and Lahiri skilfully expresses this through the objects in Mrs Sen’s home. Her kitchen knife, the tape of her family’s voice, the aerograms, and her saris exist in stark contrast to her American world.

Eliot’s mother nodded …looking around the room. “And that’s all…in India?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Sen replied. The mention of the word seemed to release something in her. She neatened the border of her sari where it rose diagonally across her chest. She, too, looked around the room, as if she noticed in the lampshades, in the teapot, in the shadows frozen on the carpet, something the rest of them could not. Everything is there.”

First published in Salamander magazine. Collected in Interpreter of Maladies, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999/Flamingo, 2000)

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