On Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing has an indescribable quality. By now I have read a few of her books – Low Lands and Unaccustomed Earth – and have started developing an understanding of her style. Until I read her I used to see her as a high brow author, but Low Land changed my opinion about her.

The sentences are utterly simple – they are not necessarily short and mechanical but fluid and what some would say casual. There is very little formality about how she describes things and even when it comes to the technical aspects of her language. She doesn’t use the semi colon (in fact, nowadays many authors have done away with it); two complete clauses are separated by a comma instead. (I still use it.) I have even found the first letter of a proper noun not capitalized on an occasion. (Was it she or her proof reader?)

It is how one would write a diary, personal recordings not meant to be shared with the larger world. But I think this languid and casual style endears her to her readers – and she has a huge fan following particularly among women readers.

But it’s not just the sentences which read fluid; her narrative also moves in a free-flowing manner. It takes her narrative lot of time, events (some creating a coherent form, some random) to shape up. You will not find any narrative trick employed to make her stories unique. She has an old fashioned and simple storytelling style.

Another thing with Lahiri is her books are promoted as Indo American affairs dealing with the lives of second generation Bengali migrants to the US, but they are more American and less Indian.  Her characters’ lives in India is mostly the backstory and their lives in America form the frontal narrative.

A recurring subtheme of her stories is how the first generation migrants hold on to their native values and try to bring up their children based on them but as the families move into the second generation, particularly after the children grow up a little, the native values slowly make way for American values.

Lahiri has talked at length on this in her Clothing of Books about how when she was a child growing up in the US her mother used to force Indian clothes and ways on her but when she grew up she just shoke off the cloak to fully embrace the culture of the land her parents had adopted a generation back, America.

Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri

A book cover is the unsung hero of a book – because we don’t realize that designing a book cover is a great and very difficult art to practice. Jhumpa Lahiri in her book Clothing of Books deals with this aspect of books – and takes us behind the scenes to reveal how book cover designs are conjured up, how different designs work in different cultures and how sometimes book covers can be utterly shallow.

She starts the book by telling how as a child when she would visit India on vacation with her parents, she liked the sartorial discipline of her cousins – who always went to their school wearing uniforms unlike a young Jhumpa, who, back in the US, wasn’t burdened down by any uniform by her school – she preferred the lack of freedom her cousins had to the freedom she had back in the US. She grew up in an immigrant Bengali family and her mother was very keen on Jhumpa sticking to Indian clothes and culture while Jhumpa wanted to be American.

After establishing the importance of the outer appearance and its connection with what lies inside (or what it covers) through an autobiographical chapter, she moves to the role a cover plays for a book. She says a cover comes when a book is finished (from a writer’s perspective) and it is time for it to come into the world. A cover gives a book independence and freedom of its own. It tells her that her work is finished and now the publisher’s work starts. For the publishing house it signals the arrival of a book; for her it’s the farewell. She also tells how she reacted to various covers of her book and informs she approved some of them when approached by her publishers for approval with liking them.

When it comes to her books, her publishers readily commission covers with stereotypical references to India, like elephant, hennaed hands etc overlooking the fact that larger parts of her books are set in America. Once when she complained to her publisher about a cover of her book which had an Indian building in it saying it was too exotic for a book whose larger part was set in the US, the publisher replaced the Indian building with the American flag!

Where the book disappoints is it is only centered around Jhumpa whereas I had expected it to tell about covers of famous books by other writers and provide a wider perspective on book covers instead of only an individualistic view.