How To Solve The Problem Of Udayan: Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Lowland’

Nandini Dhar

Nandini mostly spends her time talking about things over which she has no control. What else can one do!

 

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I have ambivalent feelings about Jhumpa Lahiri. Whenever my colleagues, students, friends, neighbors find out that I am Bengali, they say, “Oh, I’veread Jhumpa Lahiri.” I dread the question that immediately follows – “ So what do you think about her?” As if I hold some special magic to understanding Jhumpa’s fiction, because we both happen to be Bengali. Never mind the fact that she grew up in Boston and I in Kolkata. But I’m not surprised. Before Jhumpa burst onto the literary scenario, it was Bharati Mukherjee. And I would take Jhumpa Lahiri over Bharati Mukherjee any day of the week. Although I hate Jhumpa Lahiri. I hate Jhumpa Lahiri because of the fact that I am expected to know her. I hate Jhumpa Lahiri because in every photograph I’ve seen of her, she comes across as mass-culturally beautiful, accomplished and sophisticated. In many pictures, she looks distinctly white. I have never met Jhumpa Lahiri, so I have no idea how she looks in real life. But she is marketed in a certain way. And it is specifically this marketing of South Asian women writers in the Euro-American market that I have come to resent. Jhumpa Lahiri is a brand unto herself, and I detest everything that comes with that branding.

Yet my feelings about Jhumpa Lahiri as a writer are far more complicated. Unlike a lot of South Asian diasporic women writers who came before her, Lahiri writes about the everyday middle-class Bengali immigrants and their children with a kind of complexity not predicated on binaries. Hers is not a world of the “east” versus the “west,” the “First World” versus the “Third World”, the “native” versus the “immigrant.” Her narratives are not plot-heavy. Instead, they chart out in detail the melancholy and boredom in the lives of professional, middle-class Bengali immigrants. In lots of ways, Jhumpa Lahiri has provided me with the permission to write well-crafted stories where “nothing happens.”

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