Jhumpa Lahiri will not play along. It’s a Sunday afternoon and she’s up on stage in front of about 450 people at a Toronto Public Library event, answering questions from journalist Tina Srebotnjak: politely, about her new novel, The Lowland; guardedly, about her life.
Last year Lahiri, who had lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., for many years, moved with her husband and two children to Rome, and Srebotnjak is assuming an air of gal-pal familiarity. “How lovely – Brooklyn! Rome!” she exclaims. As the audience chortles with delight, Lahiri simply stares at Srebotnjak, waiting politely for the moment to pass.
Lahiri has never been good at the jaunty chit-chat that’s now demanded of authors. “Public life is not something that seems remotely normal to me,” she explains the next day, tucked away in a boardroom of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. “I think I’m very much a romantic idealist type, when it comes to literature. I still believe a book should speak for itself. I don’t believe there should be an author photo, or anything like that.”
Sitting here now, in a camel-coloured jacket, flower-patterned blouse and three-quarter-length black pants, she has an almost girlish air. Her hair falls casually to her shoulders; her lips are red. As she picks up a copy of The Lowland and flips it over, her eyes fall on her own author photo. It shows someone more severe: Her hair is pulled back, her makeup is in a muted palette.
“I mean, there are incredible photographs of writers that I like. I had that postcard of Virginia Woolf’s face in my dorm room for years, you know? But it wasn’t part of the book, it wasn’t slapped on the back of To the Lighthouse – and it didn’t matter.”
But Lahiri’s life and her literature have always been twinned, perhaps more than most authors, since the landscape she tills in her books seems to have been seeded by her family history. Born in London and raised by Bengali parents in Rhode Island from the age of two, Lahiri, 46, has written four books that are, broadly speaking, about the experience of immigrants being absorbed – to a greater or lesser degree – into America.
Still, she’s grown weary of questions about how much is drawn from her own life. “Would one ask: Well, John Updike, you write about divorce, tell me about your divorces, how were they for you? I mean, you don’t go there. I wouldn’t go there.”
This much she will say: The Lowland, which is Lahiri’s first novel to be short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, was inspired by a horrific incident she heard about as a child. Or, rather, overheard about. During a visit to her father’s old South Calcutta neighbourhood of Tollygunge in the early 1970s, hushed voices among the grownups spoke of a double execution that had taken place nearby: Two brothers gunned down by the local police, their parents forced to watch.
The brothers had been suspected of being Naxalites, members of a Maoist land-reform movement that was crushed by the Indian authorities. In the mid-1990s, as she began to dedicate more time to writing, Lahiri asked her father to tell her about the incident, and also spoke with family members who had been connected to the movement.
She wrote a scene envisioning the killing, but couldn’t find a way to turn it into a novel until 10 years later. By then, she had three books under her belt, and was herself a mother of two young children.
The Lowland gives us two brothers, born 15 months apart, whose lives follow divergent paths. (And if you wish to avoid a couple of plot spoilers, skip to the next paragraph.) While Udayan, brash and idealistic, becomes a Naxalite, his older brother Subhash moves to the northeastern United States to study marine chemistry. After Udayan’s death, his young widow Gauri marries Subhash and moves with him to the U.S., where she gives birth to her daughter Bela.
While Subhash becomes a doting father, Gauri is drawn instead to philosophy, particularly the study of time. She compares Nietzsche’s and Schopenhauer’s concepts of circular time, muses about Descartes’s belief that “time was a form of sustenance,” finds herself haunted by both the past and the possibilities in the future. But then, time has its way with all of the characters in The Lowland.
“I write these things without really understanding why or where it’s coming from,” explains Lahiri.
Still, she will say this about time, and the way immigrants carry the past with them: “I was raised with a sense of an ‘elsewhere’ – both geographically and temporally speaking. That the other life existed in this other dimension, almost. So I was always very aware of our day-to-day life in America, sort of 1974, whatever – and then meanwhile a 1964 or a 1954 that was sort of there also. Because [my parents] would talk about it, they would miss it, they would yearn for it.”
Conversely, growing up without any extended family members around was “profoundly distressing.” She looks up, taking in the brown panelling and oddly sterile faux Group of Seven paintings in this boardroom. “It was sort of like this room, like ‘Where’s our past?’ Because I think kids understand the past through people. Grandparents. ‘Oh, tell me, what was it like when you went to school?’ ‘Oh, when I went to school we had desks like this.’ Those are the kinds of things that make time register for children, and I didn’t have that, because it was just my parents and me. It was like time had stopped. And I do think for many immigrants time does sort of stop in a fundamental sense. You sort of reset your clock.”
Now, moving to Rome, she and her husband have done the same to their own children (though they have kept their house in Brooklyn). While Lahiri believes The Lowland represents the natural conclusion to a 15-year period – writing about educated Bengali-Americans living in the northeastern U.S. – the underlying themes will remain pillars of her work.
“I don’t think dislocation will go away,” she insists. “I think my move to Rome has come out of a desire to go deeper into that experience, in some way.”
She speaks of her house in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, that she and her husband had settled into around the time she began writing The Lowland six years ago. “I was always fascinated, going to the homes of my American friends,” she says. “They were messy, there was stuff everything, there were so many books, things, you know – a life lived fully, in every sense of the word, and I was very aware of this, and I remember my own family’s life had this sort of barren, strange quality. And I grew up and then I got married, I had kids, I got a house, a house filled with things.
“And now, I feel so happy to be in Rome, in a rented apartment, which is lovely but it has that sort of strange quality. It’s not really our stuff, there are this many books on the bookshelf – ” she holds her hands about half a metre apart “ – and yet I find it suddenly so liberating.”