Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri

20 Questions with Jhumpa Lahiri
Interview by Gaiutra Bahadur
Philadelphia City Paper
September 16-23, 1999

In her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (Mariner Books), Jhumpa Lahiri chronicles the attempts of married couples, adulterous lovers and immigrants to cross borders and, as E.M. Forster wrote, “only connect.” In “This Blessed House,” a recently married couple finds Christian bric-a-brac – a 30-pound bronze bust of Christ and a 3-D postcard of St. Francis of Assisi – in their Connecticut house and also discovers the jagged outlines of each other’s personalities. In “The Third and Final Continent,” set in 1969, an Indian immigrant takes up temporary lodging with a 103-year-old woman who clings to Victorian culture. Months later, when the immigrant’s wife arrives from Calcutta, it’s the woman who bridges the gaps of an arranged marriage. Lahiri’s work has received plenty of accolades. Three of the stories were published in The New Yorker last year, and the title story was selected for the O. Henry and Best American Short Stories collections. Lahiri, 32, spoke from her home on the fringes of the East Village and Gramercy Park in Manhattan.

Q: You were born in London and raised in Rhode Island, and your parents are from Calcutta. Yet your stories are not preoccupied with issues of identity. Does identity interest you as a writer, or is it a cumbersome expectation to be “multicultural”?

A: It’s always a bad thing to try to answer people’s expectations. There hasn’t been a lot of writing from the perspective of Indian-American writers and some people will look to my writing to answer some of those questions. But I never think of self-consciously trying to answer issues of identity. I work from a character and a conflict in a character’s life.

Q: Two of your stories that are set in India, “A Real Durwan” and “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar,” are not portraits of upper-middle-class life, but of servants and marginal figures. Why did you make that choice?

A: Both of those characters came out of observation, my own observations of people when I was there. What drew me to writing about them was partly a projection of my own feelings of being marginal when there. Of not being a part of the culture. Of feeling foreign even though this was a place my parents call home and refer to in their minds as home, even though they’ve been away for 30 years.

The reason I portrayed these characters out of the fray was because I felt that. I could imagine it more easily than assuming the role of a more “ordinary,” adjusted Indian character. I didn’t have very much mobility when I was there. As a young adult and an adult, I wasn’t really able to leave on my own. I felt not only sort of alienated, but trapped.

Q: Which story was the most difficult to write and why?

A: “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” was hard. It was the first time I began to write closer to my own experience, though it’s not an autobiographical story. It took several years to come to that point of view and to feel secure working from that point of view. “The Third and Final Continent” was difficult, because it was written from the point of view of a man and in the first person, which seemed like an extra step. There was the added challenge of writing something based in real life. It was based on my father’s past. There was the challenge of working with real facts and preserving truth, yet having to disguise them to make it fiction.

Q: Did being a second-generation American play a role in your aspiring to be a writer?

A: It didn’t make me want to be a writer so much as it made me want to write. To seek solace through observation and recording my impressions in a space that was very much my own, on the page. That’s the place where I answered only to myself, from a very young age.

One of the things I was always aware of growing up was conflicting expectations. I was expected to be Indian by Indians and American by Americans. I didn’t feel equipped even as a child to fully participate in things. In the act of writing, it was more justified to withdraw into myself and have that be a vital experience, rather than just feeling neglected or left out.

© Philadelphia City Paper. All rights reserved.

The Professor of Light

Caught Between Worlds, Shadows and Light: The Professor of Light
by Marina Budhos
Review by Gaiutra Bahadur
Newsday

DON’T LOOK BACK, if you’re racing, pursued by the flames of Sodom and Gomorrah. Or you’ll be turned into a pillar of salt. Don’t look back, if you’re Orpheus on the threshold of escape, holding your Eurydice by the hand, leading her out from captivity in the Underworld. Steal a peek of your beloved, and the game will be up. She’ll fall back into the abyss. Whether it’s horror or longing that compels the glance, fight it, or the costs will be tragic.

The Western canon offers many examples of the dangers of looking back, and it is this anxiety about memory that animates “The Professor of Light,” Marina Budhos’ lyrical but schematic second novel. Her characters, immigrants to successful addresses in the First World, wrestle against the impulse to cultivate “home” and its habits, once permanently abroad.

For Warren Singh, a philosophy professor in New York City and the novel’s namesake, the claims of the past are psychological blocks to achieving his ambition: to write the definitive book about the dual nature of light, as both matter and energy.

The past asserts itself through ever more insistent letters from his mother and sisters in Guyana – the second poorest country, after Haiti, in the Western Hemisphere and a place that some might argue is its own Underworld of political burlesque and economic need, its own Sodom and Gomorrah of racial sins.

Warren’s relatives report, in blue aerograms “sliding through the mail slot with a scary hiss,” that the house is falling apart. That, in a country “that once shimmered with green paddy fields,” there is no rice to buy. That they never receive the money he sends to the village gas station. And that his brother Joseph (once upon a time, his partner in dissecting Descartes) is close to death.

If it were not for Sonia, his Jewish-American wife, the letters would pile up unanswered in the room where he paces, mulling over the paradox of light and wishing he could disentangle himself from his roots long enough for sustained flights of scientific inquiry.

Soon, the letters arrive with coaxing gifts: guavas wrapped in pink tissue, pillows embroidered by Singh’s sisters, glass bangles for his teenage daughter, Meggie, the book’s narrator.

The plot, or what there is of plot in this highly meditative novel, unfolds over several summer holidays in England with Warren’s favorite sister, Inez. Married to a dry Englishman, Inez has become a caricature of English propriety, “hushing the sunny vowels of her accent,” hating the way that Guyanese men wear their shirts to show their curly black hair and dismissing them as “rum-headed fellows” who “don’t know how to get on with their lives.”

“I didn’t come to England to listen to their stories and moan about the old country,” she declares. “I married a good man.”

In one of the novel’s most vivid scenes, two of those “rum-headed fellows,” childhood friends whom Warren rediscovers quite by accident at a cricket game, come like a cyclone into Inez’ home. Liquor cabinets fly open. Talk alive with old times and dialect flows like rum. Much that is English – the porcelain miniatures of Big Ben and the London Bridge and the meticulously kept flower beds – is ruined. And, in the end, as Inez had predicted, they demand money, leaving Warren to conclude: “The people from my past, they want so much. They want more than I can give.”

The reasons for the Singhs’ denial of the past, ironically, lie exactly there. Even before Warren, bound for the United States, says goodbye to his weeping mother on their veranda, “leaving” is central to his identity. He is a descendant of Indian indentured laborers in the former British colonies of the Caribbean. “They say,” Inez tells her young niece, “that every season when the old folks plant their seed cane in the fields, they remember their lost homes in India and weep tears of longing, which mingle in the earth. The rum they brew muddles their children’s heads and makes them slow-footed and melancholy, so they can never leave home.”

The ancestors conspire to keep their offspring close. The Singhs’ mother, in Budhos’ poetic idiom, ties red ribbons around her daughters’ waists. She sends letters that weigh like stones in the pockets of her son Joseph, then a government worker in Aruba, to force him home.

She buries an egg under the steps every time her daughter Didi, a beauty in love with the wrong man, looks wistfully beyond their yard. Those eggs hatch into “half-born bird-ghosts” that push through the earth, rising to “let out their fury on those of us who dare run away and live out our dreams.”

This image of the bird-ghost recurs throughout “The Professor of Light,” a book that gains its momentum not from character or plot, but from the progress of a series of ideas and symbols, chief among them: light.

It is held up as an ideal, both particle and wave, in a fictional world charged by many opposites (flesh and intellect, roots and flight, man and woman, superstition and reason). It is even able to serve as a metaphor for transnational identity.

As Meggie Singh, a young woman with multicultural credentials much like the author’s, says, summing up the novel’s overarching conceit: “It’s like this. My dad always taught me that we were in between. He’s Indian from the West Indies and my mother is not. We live in the States, but we come here every summer to be with Uncle Tom and Aunt Inez and George and Timmy. Light is like that. Here and there. In between.”

© Newsday. All rights reserved.

Cookin’ with Chutney

By Gaiutra Bahadur
Newsday

UNDER THE elevated tracks of the J train – in a squat warehouse across from a Queens branch of the U.S. Post Office – midnight means the swish of hips against hips, feet pounding the floor and hands writhing in mock Bharata Natyam, an Indian classical dance form.

The doors open at 9:30 p.m. at Calypsocity, a 4-year-old nightclub set amid a sprawl of working-class houses in Richmond Hill. But until the neighborhood sleeps, bouncer Anand Goswami stands by the door, brawny arms hanging idly at his sides, ready to begin the business of frisking for weapons. In August, the city raided Calypsocity and issued summonses for overcrowding and disorderly conduct. It’s not quite the image of intrigue that Peter Gatien, the don of Manhattan’s night scene indicted on drug conspiracy charges last year, brought to his clubs, the Tunnel and Limelight.

But the club’s location on Jamaica Avenue, in an otherwise sedate patch of frame houses and sycamore trees, has made it necessary for Goswami to keep a vigilant edge. Calypsocity has raised the ire of some neighbors, who say it brings unwelcome rowdiness to the area. Mary Ann Carey, district manager for Community Board 9, even tried – unsuccessfully – to get its liquor license revoked.

Mohan Jaikaran, the Trinidad-born owner of Calypsocity, sees the complaints as an inevitable reaction to changes in the demographics of Richmond Hill, once a German and Irish stronghold and now adamantly Caribbean. For him, as for his gatekeeper Goswami, running a regulation nightclub has become a matter of cultural pride.

Inside, the amplifiers pump out song after song, switching from hip-hop to soca (a hybrid of soul music and calypso) as if to lure patrons with the insistent beat. And, sure enough, as the first two hours wane, the patrons come. They come in staggered fashion: couples, posses of young men with slicked-back hair and silver rings in their pierced lobes, groups of women wearing DKNY fashions, brown spice lipstick and high heels. They fill the hundred or so gray formica tables and stand on the sidelines of the dance floor, against the blue-black of the walls, striking poses.

“Wherever you go, there are always eyes following you,” says Mala, a regular who didn’t want her last name used. Like all clubs, Calypsocity is a place set aside for being publicly sexy. When they move their bodies, one hand twisting high over their heads and one hand on their swinging hips, the dancers know they’re on display.

At Calypsocity, the dance floor becomes an ethnic stage every weekend. For a generation of immigrants in New York City, it becomes a tight and sweaty space to flaunt the fact that they are cultural hybrids.

A little past midnight the DJ spins music that has a complicated pedigree. Its hot-hot-hot rhythms show the influence of hip-hop on a Caribbean art form with roots in India. The music is the perfect pulsing symbol for a group of New York’s newest arrivals, who have their own complicated pedigree. In the 1990s, the third-largest group of immigrants to New York City came from Guyana, a former British colony at the northern tip of South America. About 100,000 Guyanese – equivalent to about 10 percent of Guyana’s population – live in Queens, in the neighborhoods of Ozone Park, Jamaica, Corona, Queens Village, Far Rockaway and especially Richmond Hill.

In the past decade and a half, the main thoroughfare in Richmond Hill – Liberty Avenue – has become a feast of the foreign. As immigrants from Guyana and from Trinidad – its cousin in the Caribbean – bought modest houses in the neighborhood, tiny replicas of their West Indian past started to spring up along the avenue.

In 1977, a year after leaving her town of Port Mourant in Guyana, Joyce Jarbandan and her sister opened the first West Indian grocery in New York City at 124-02 Liberty Ave. “This was a lonely area,” she says. “There was nobody around but us.”

Now, more than a dozen West Indian shops line Liberty Avenue, their shelves stocked with Sanatogen Tonic Wine, Ovaltine, Seven Seas Cod Liver Oil and Birds Custard Powder – all British brand-name goods coveted as signs of prosperity in the poor villages of Guyana. Tall rods of sugarcane rest against freezers filled with fish from the Caribbean: hassah, gilbacka, bangamary and salt fish. There is a mosque and a Hindu temple in Richmond Hill. The neighborhood is that hidden nook of America, where an employee of McDonald’s may say, “Wan arda a fries to go,” when taking an order in the inflections of Berbice, a region in Guyana. Walking along, it is possible to imagine being in another country – that the plane flights that brought these Indo-Caribbeans to Queens in the past two decades were only flights of fancy.

“They come from Bombay. They come from Bihar,” sings Sharlene Boodram, above the steady beat of Indian drums. “They take up de bundle and boarded de ship. One hundred and fifty years ago was de trip.” Boodram’s recorded teenage voice fills Calypsocity as she belts out a song that touches on the ancestry of almost every patron in the club.

Boodram describes their passage to the former British colonies of Guyana and Trinidad as indentured laborers: “No room for our comfort, so little to eat. Sickness take them, some die in defeat. The rights for their freedom, they lose on de ship.”

On their arrival in the West Indies, the great-great-grandparents of the Calypsocity clubgoers survived floggings, wretched quarters and vagrancy laws that tied them to plantations. They were, as emissaries from Abolition societies in England saw it, virtual slaves.

In Guyana today, about 50 percent of the population traces its history back to India, mainly the northern region of Bihar, where the Hindi dialect Bhojpuri is spoken. About 45 percent of the population is African. After being freed in 1833, black Guyanese fled the rural sugarcane estates for the town and never returned, while the Indians still remain in villages in large numbers.

For 26 years after independence, the Indian political party languished underground, after the CIA engineered the ouster of its socialist leader, Cheddi Jagan, and installed Forbes Burnham, head of the black political party, as president. Through the continued fiasco of rigged elections, he maintained a rule that systematically discriminated against the Indians in the civil service, armed forces and higher education. This and the terrible poverty the country slipped into during his regime led to a mass migration of Indo-Guyanese to the United States, starting in the early 1980s.

“They struggle for respect. They struggle for rights,” continues the Sharlene Boodram song, the first on her Indian Arrival cassette, distributed by Jamaican Me Crazy (JMC) records in Richmond Hill.

“One hundred and fifty years ago. Remember the fight. They salvaged a language, a culture alive. Through the voice of our ancestors cry out, Chalo” – “let’s go” in Hindi.

Boodram lives in Trinidad, and her pop-history tune tells the story of the first departure of Indians to her island nation in the Caribbean. The indentured servants brought with them a body of Bhojpuri folk songs: bawdy wedding songs, seasonal and birth songs and devotional hymns. As the Indo-Caribbeans lost their Hindi dialect over the decades, these songs became bastardized, with slurred and surmised pronunciations. They also became faster, as traditional Indian instruments (the harmonium, the tassa, dholak and tabla drums and the dandtal, a metal rod struck by a U-shaped clapper) blended with African-inspired bongos and congas. The music became known as chutney, after the hot relish used to spice up food.

In the past decade or two, chutney has co-opted the electric guitars and synthesizers of Caribbean soca to become a new hyphenated musical style. Chutney-soca blends the Creole dialect Indo-Caribbeans adopted from their African countrymen with bits and pieces of Bhojpuri Hindi, and it blends the musical instruments of Africa, India and the West.

“Chalo, Chalo,” Boodram gives the dance floor at Calypsocity a chant. In its rhythms, chutney contains the jolt of both Chalos in the Indo-Caribbean past – in one century, to the West Indies on ships curving around the Cape in Africa from ports in India, and in the next, to the United States on Boeings headed to Kennedy Airport from tarmacs in Guyana and Trinidad.
It’s the music of a double diaspora.