‘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)

‘Unaccustomed Earth’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

I’m aware that Jhumpa Lahiri isn’t fashionable these days, but her stories weren’t built to be fashionable – ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is about a dad who goes to stay with his daughter and then, like, he mows the lawn. When I first read it years ago, I was struck by two things – first, Lahiri’s even-handed, neutral narration and second, the sheer amount of detail about domestic lives. Both these things would suggest something beyond boring but instead, they make way for real depth of emotion. There’s bravery in being able to go full pelt for forty pages with the interactions of two or three people in suburban Seattle. I have to admit, I’m not sure how it would hold up to a revisit but when I first read it, almost fifteen years ago, I found it incredibly impressive.

First published in Unaccustomed Earth, Knopf/Bloomsbury, 2008. Excerpted here in the New York Times

‘In the Sun’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

A story for July
 
Lahiri’s short fiction collection Interpreter of Maladies is so beautiful and elegant, but I’ve chosen ‘Whereabouts’ for this list.
 
Presented as a novel, I prefer to see the book as a series of vignettes. Over a year, an unnamed woman wanders in an unnamed European city. Each chapter is named after a location she’s visited: from the coffee bar to the supermarket, book shop to bed, her balcony to the sea. The primary relationship is between the protagonist and the place she lives. They’re in constant conversation. 
 
‘In the Sun’ describes one of the first warm days of summer:

“A splendid Saturday…a dash of elegance to how people dress: the bold shade of a jacket, a bright scarf, the tight lines of a dress… the piazza becomes a beach on days like this, and a sense of well-being, of euphoria, permeates the air.”

Taken from Whereabouts, Bloomsbury, 2021. An extract from the book is available to read online here

‘Hema and Kaushik’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

This collection is so dear to me, partly because it was one of the first times I read stories in which I met characters with a similar (although not identical) cultural heritage to myself; at times, I felt like they were going through things I had gone through and this feeling was strange, unsettling but also weirdly reassuring. I love the whole book, but ‘Hema and Kaushik’, one of the saddest star-crossed love stories of all time (I would go as far as saying), is the one that haunts me the most. The first time I read it, I was wretched afterwards; tears down my face without even realising. It is almost impossibly beautiful to me. So elegantly written, so brilliantly weaved, as of course it would be by Jhumpa Lahiri. So tragic, yet so contained. Just perfect.

First published in Unaccustomed Earth, Bloomsbury, 2008

‘The Boundary’ by Jhumpa Lahiri, translated by the author

In 2015, Jhumpa Lahiri took the radical decision to no longer write in English, and to choose Italian instead – a language she had been studying since her undergraduate years and in which she believes to be “a tougher, freer writer”. Following the publication of her 2015 language memoir, In Altre Parole (In Other Words), she wrote a novel entitled Dove Mi Trovo which she translated as Whereabouts in May 2021. Leaving behind detailed descriptions of Bengali American life, Lahiri’s Italian texts are more impressionistic and meditative. They contain nameless and wandering characters and take place in unidentified locations. And yet, the themes of identity and otherness continue to dominate her writing, as ‘The Boundary’, her latest Italian short story, demonstrates. The story, which she translated herself for the New Yorker, and which will be contained in her upcoming collection of Italian stories, is narrated by a teenager whose immigrant parents are the caretakers for a holiday house in Italy. 

First Published The New Yorker, January 2018, and available to read to subscribers here

‘Hell-Heaven’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

She is such an important short story writer, really very dexterous and able with a few strokes to make a story feel perfectly polished and neat. Yet this was one of the first and few stories in first person, told by a narrator looking back in time, that I think I read of hers (it came out in the New Yorker before being included in the book, and I was immediately moved and affected by it). I love the way Jhumpa Lahiri can convey pain and suffering beneath surface elegance – the woman wearing a lilac raincoat (chic, carefully chosen, belted and fitted of course) while standing in her backyard about to immolate herself. The story also offers such an honest and unsparing look at some of the dynamics of pseudo-family, community as family, immigration as a bond. That felt really new at the time though I think a lot of writers since have taken this in different directions.

First published in The New Yorker, May 24, 2004, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Unaccustomed Earth, Knopf/Bloomsbury, 2009

‘Once in a Lifetime’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

Like Keegan’s work, Lahiri’s elegant prose often describes the chasm that exists between parents and children and between men and women. Her stories frequently examine this disconnect as it occurs among Bengali parents and their Bengali-American offspring. The span of her inter-generational stories and the sense they convey of this chasm of understanding is pure heartbreak. I find the attention she brings to bodies in relation to one another and in relation to space very moving and her use of physical detail (the way a spray of perfume temporarily darkens the narrator’s clothing at the beginning of this story, for example) is extremely evocative. There’s a beautiful coda to ‘Once in a Lifetime’ in the final story in this collection. 

First published in The New Yorker in April, 2006, and available online here. Collected in Unaccustomed Earth, Bloomsbury, 2008

‘Mrs. Sen’s’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

The story of Mrs. Sen centers around a lonely woman, known to most as the “professor’s wife”. She relies on letters from home and on food preparation to feel at home in a foreign land. Mrs. Sen doesn’t have a child of her own but she looks after someone else’s child and, perhaps because I was pregnant at the time of reading it, I felt the character’s loneliness quite viscerally. It was the summer of 1999, while on a holiday in Kingston, Jamaica that I read this story as well as the others in Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies. I was so enthralled by the stories that I began reading them out loud. Food in ‘Mrs Sen’s’ serves as a metaphor for the condition of migration and diaspora and the culinary descriptions were what struck me the most as I rolled the words around on my tongue. Mrs. Sen “… took whole vegetables between her hands and hacked them apart: cauliflower, cabbage, butternut squash. She split things in half, then quarters, speedily producing florets, cubes, slices, and shreds. She could peel a potato in seconds. At times she sat cross-legged, at times with legs splayed, surrounded by an array of colanders and shallow bowls of water in which she immersed her chopped ingredients.”

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

‘Only Goodness’ by Jhumpa Lahiri / ‘Evolution of My Brother’ by Jenny Zhang

Lahiri and Zhang write in contrasting styles: Lahiri’s is sparsely elegant and coolly restrained whilst Zhang’s sentences spark and flow with an at times lurid emotionality, a frank and unbridled access to humour and pain. These two stories centre upon difficult brothers and the older sisters who love and come to be hurt and puzzled by them. Both stories arrive at devastation in their own messy, specific ways, but overlap in articulating the genealogy of siblinghood from shared traumas and a mutual understanding of otherness, to the slow-burning heartbreak of estrangement.

‘Only Goodness’ from Unaccustomed Earth, Knopf/Bloomsbury, 2008. Also available as a digital single from Bloomsbury. ‘Evolution of My Brother’ first published in Rookie Mag, 2011. Collected in Sour Heart, Lenny/Bloomsbury 2017

‘A Temporary Matter’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

This is another story about husbands and wives and how they succeed and fail to communicate with each other. I read this at a period in my life when I’d begun to think all relationships between men and women were doomed (this tends to happen when you’re about 25). Like Roberts, Lahiri explores the slowly disintegrating marriage between a South-Indian couple in the USA through the use of ordinary, domestic detail. She shifts subtly between the two perspectives, employing a light-touch on a heavy subject. It’s a beautiful portrait of a couple in crisis that quietly suggests that there are some things that no marriage can overcome.

First published in The New Yorker, April 20, 1998. Collected in The Interpreter of Maladies, Houghton Mifflin/Flamingo, 1999