My journey was marked by names and crowds — names that recalled to memory crossings down the same tracks, years ago, crowds whose masked mishmash of sounds and smells and speech fuelled my escape into Jhumpa Lahiri’s masterful prose. That of Lahiri’s narrator, in contrast, was enfolded in wide-open space, enclosed by emptiness, devoid of a single name.
She is 45, beautiful, contemplative — a voyeur of other people’s thoughts, fascinated to presume — alone, both rueful and protective of her solitude.The novel itself sets out as an anonymous ode to an unnamed city, recording with loving attention the intimate, unconquerable features of its streets and sidewalks. But, it becomes much more — at once a guided tour of a would-be everywoman’s mind and an exercise in linguistic alchemy.
I follow the narrator through bookstores, coffee bars and theatres, each location a breadcrumb on a fragmented memory trail. I follow her also to dinner parties and country retreats, through petty hostilities and casual musings, to baptisms and graveyards. I become privy to her home, her dread at the moment of waking, and her resentment of spring.
Lahiri’s words, spare though they are, create a world worth a thousand pictures. Here, clouds are masses of jellyfish, the sea magnificent in its restless, perpetual agitation, and hotels are parking garages designed for human beings. A world of generous gazes and routine spectacles, where intimacies are imposed and indisputable, and painted nature trembles with life.
Beautiful though the world Lahiri crafts through words is, the one I find myself inhabiting is also just of words. There is something of the transmutative in the novel’s deployment of language. The sentences stretch, explicitly and subliminally, the limits of what words can mean and do. The title, so obviously evocative of place, comes to encompass space and time, seasons and states of being, nostalgia and remembrances of the future.
The narrator, like Lahiri, loves words. She is at home with phrases you or I would rather our lives steered clear of — at sea, adrift, bewildered, uprooted. These words, she confesses without guilt, are her abode, her only foothold. And Lahiri certainly is surefooted, in translating as much as in her writing, prompting deep dives out of oneself and into the heart of anxious emotion, only to return to impassive reflection in the space of a conjunction.
Whereabouts has everything to recommend itself. It is penned by a celebrated writer, and born of a love of two literary languages — one of my favourite moments in the novel is a parenthetical interlude that breaks the translator’s fourth wall to reflect on the polysemic joys of jewellery boxes. A slim, elegant, memorable book.
Yet, what endeared it to me most was that it was a novel to get lost and liberated in, to belong to when I couldn’t belong to where I was. A novel whose pages echoed my struggle for escape. It is an ethereal world I was transported to, the shadow of an idea; yet, nothing could feel more solid, more real.
Suvanshkriti Singh is a freelancer
Whereabouts Jhumpa Lahiri Penguin Random House Pp 163, Rs 499