The Diasporic Identity in Jhumpa Lahiri's Work
"Our identity is at once plural and partial. Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools" - Salman Rushdie, “Imaginary Homelands"
Jhumpa Lahiri’s remarkable body of work deals with themes like identity, belonging and dislocation. Her characters, first and second-generation Indian immigrants, are caught between cultures, nations, and identities. An Indian-American herself, she is comfortable with her two identities and accepts herself as much American, as Indian. Her works constitute an integral space in Indian diasporic writings. A subgenre of Indian writings in English, this category of work focuses on the idea of exile, and how migration has led to the creation of a large body of works revolving around immigrant lives and experiences. Lahiri, however, disagrees with this categorisation of her work. In an interview with the New York Times, she says
“Writers originate from different parts of the world than the ones they end up living in, either by choice or by necessity, or by circumstances, and therefore, write about those experiences.”
But despite her apprehensions about this classification of her work as Immigrant Fiction, her writing always revolves around immigrant experiences and lives. Her characters feel alienated and lost in the new world they inhabit. They struggle to fit in and constantly long for their homeland. The first-generation immigrants she writes about, become permanent foreigners in their place of habitation. They feel rootless and homeless and are plagued by a crisis of identity and the situation of “in-betweenness.”
Her first collection of short stories titled Interpreter of Maladies won a Pulitzer Prize in the year 2000. This exceptional collection of stories spans across countries like India and America and explores the lives of Indians in exile. Her Anglo-Indian characters navigate two worlds; they negotiate between two different, yet equally strong cultures, and in that process create a space for themselves that somewhat resembles a home. Written with impeccable detail, Lahiri creates a deeply fleshed-out world where characters constantly battle with a sense of loss and belonging. The story which echoes this theme and accurately describes the immigrant experience is titled Mrs. Sen’s. The anxieties of being an Indian woman, painstakingly trying to assimilate into a foreign culture, get embodied in the figure of Mrs. Sen, a middle-aged woman who lives with her husband in an apartment in Boston. Mrs Sen dons her Indian saree and loves cooking fish because it reminds her of Kolkata and her family.
She longingly waits for letters from India and gets excited when they arrive. Sometimes, she plays audio recordings of her family members talking, and listens to songs in a language that sounds foreign to the American child narrator of the story. All these factors indicate the depth of Mrs. Sen’s yearning for her home in India. She hasn’t been able to assimilate into the American culture and finds herself stuck in Boston, without any direct contact with her home. She feels terribly lonely in her apartment where her sole companion is a little boy she babysits. Eliot, who becomes Mrs Sen’s navigator in this new world, is deeply fascinated by her life which is starkly different from the life he and his single mother lead. Alienation and estrangement are intrinsic to the immigrant experience.
Lahiri’s second short story collection titled Unaccustomed Earth is a masterpiece. This collection mainly focuses on the second/third-generation Indian immigrants living in America. Unlike their parents, these children experience a sharper pain of homelessness and dislocation. They are troubled by the feeling of “in-betweenness” as they have no place to claim as their homeland. They occupy the liminal space between two cultures and countries, and in this space strive to create a home. In an interview with Vibhuti Patel Lahiri remarks that "It's hard to have parents who consider another place "home"... we were always looking back so I never felt fully at home here." Yet India never truly felt like a home to her either because she never culturally or historically belonged to it. "We visited often but we didn't have a home. We were clutching at a world that was never fully with us"
The title of her book, ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is taken from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Custom House’ which Lahiri quotes at the beginning of the collection.
"My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth."
This epigraph suggests that the characters in these stories are all transplanted individuals who must struggle to assimilate into the unaccustomed earth of the foreign land. The title story of the novel narrates the life of Ruma and her newly widowed father who takes a break from his world tour to visit her daughter in Seattle. In the story, Ruma and her father are forced to relocate and readjust both mentally and physically.
Ruma is plagued by nostalgia and longing for her Bengali culture which was slowly slipping away from her control. She feels guilty for discarding the language that was an intrinsic part of her mother’s identity and struggles to negotiate between two cultures. She is determined to create a space for herself in this alien world against the ever-looming fear of betrayal to her own culture and heritage. Ruma’s uncultivated garden symbolically represents her feelings of rootlessness and not belonging. Her sense of alienation and isolation from her American surroundings is metaphorically represented through her unfamiliarity with the plants in her garden. Her father, a symbol of progressiveness, who has assimilated into the American culture, ironically becomes Ruma’s cultural anchor. Unlike Ruma, her father has no nostalgic connection to the Bengali language, yet he teaches Akash some Bengali words and eases Ruma’s cultural alienation. He fills Ruma’s uncultivated unaccustomed garden with both Indian and American plants and soothes Ruma’s sense of alienation and estrangement from her culture.
Jhumpa Lahiri, through this collection of short stories, problematizes the idea of “home” and contemplates what it means to belong. She explores the relationship between second-generation immigrants and their parents as they grapple with the complexities of a new world. Lahiri, in her writings, portrays the diaspora in a positive light. She celebrates the notion of transnationalism and multiculturalism. Diasporic imagination in her writings is an ongoing process of negotiation and adaptation. Immigrants leave their homeland and rebuild their lives by acclimatizing themselves to new, unfamiliar worlds and creating homes on the move. For them,
“home is no longer just one place, it is locations (Bhabha 57).”
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture.London: Routledge,1994.
Joshi, Rita. “Nations and Alienations: Diaspora in Recent Indian Fiction.” India International Centre Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 1, 2004, pp. 83–93. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23005914. Accessed 17 June 2021.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies: Stories. Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. Unaccustomed Earth. Bloomsbury, 2009.
This Night Owl Original has been authored by Chinmayee Babbal. Chinmayee is a student of English Literature at St. Stephen’s College. A hoarder of books, poetry, and music, she is an avid reader and an occasional writer.