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Natália Peťková on Whereabouts
17 November, 2023
Nilanjana Sudeshna “Jhumpa” Lahiri is a Bengali American author of novels, short stories and essays. She writes in English and, more recently, in Italian. Lahiri was born in London to Indian immigrant parent. Her family moved to the United States when she was three and Lahiri has been quoted saying she saying about America “I wasn’t born here, but I might as well have been”.
Her work is largely autobiographical and frequently draws upon her own experiences as well as those of her parents, friends, acquaintances, and others in
the Bengali communities with which she is familiar. Lahiri examines her characters’ struggles, anxieties, and biases to chronicle the nuances and details
of immigrant psychology and behaviour.
Whereabouts was first written in Italian, Lahiri’s second book in the language. She translated it herself. The novel follows a female narrator as she moves around an unnamed Italian city, likely Rome, over a period of several months. She considers herself perhaps less as a stranger to the culture and the language although, than as a passenger of sorts.
Given that I am always coming and going, my thoughts can’t manage to settledown here. (p. 9)
Because when all is said and done the setting doesn’t matter: the space, the walls, the light. It makes no difference whether I’m under a clear blue sky or caught in the rain or swimming in the transparent sea in summer. […] I’ve never stayed still, I’ve always been moving, that’s all I’ve ever been doing. Always waiting either to get somewhere or to come back. Or to escape. I keep packing and unpacking the small suitcase at my feet. (p.153)
She moves through the city with apparent ease but in solitude. She has an uneasy relationship to her own solitude but admires other women’s independence. From what others say of her, she too is perceived as independent yet wanted by some, like her mother to remain solitary. Talking about the daughter of friends:
She drinks a glass of pomegranate juice. It looks like a glass of blood, though I don’t tell her that. She says she’s hungry and ask for a Cornett. She splits it in half, then divides one of the pieces. She takes a small bite, then arranges the rest of the pieces on her napkin.
People turn to look at hier as we’re sitting in the piazza but she doesn’t pay them heed. She’s fluent in the language her parents struggles to speak. She doesn’t look like a tourist or a foreigner, she’s the type that fits in anywhere. (p.17)
She’s already brave enough to stand up to authority and she’s determined to make a life for herself here. I am fond of this girl, her grit inspires me. At the same time I think about myself back then and feel depressed. (…) I didn’t know love at her age. (p.17)
But I can’t stand my stepmother, she has no life, no voice of her won. My mom was basically the same, that’s why my dad left her. That dynamic doesn’t work anymore. I want to be a strong woman independent, like you. (p.18)
Reading the book, I thought about the link between independence and solitude? Was one the price for the other? And what they feel like in the body – is independence necessarily comfortable? Always? Or is it being alert, anxious even sometimes?
No-one keeps this woman company: no caregiver, no friend, n husband. And I bet she knows that in twenty years, when I happen to be in a waiting room like this one for some reason or other, I won’t have anyone sitting besides me, either. (p.19)
Physical pleasure, notably that of resting, for oneself is presented as emancipatory, the ultimate act of independence. It is noteworthy I found that this is accessible everywhere and at all times.
Today an elegant woman about my age walks into the room. She looks like a foreigner. I bet she’s in the city by chance, maybe tagging along behind her husband, who’s here for work and busy all day. (…) She’s not moved by the beauty of this room. She takes advantage of it to restore her energy. She closes her eyes and stretches out on the bench without paying any attention to me. She lies down on her back, her eyes closed. That’s how she manges to fully inhabit and possess this room, crossing a certain threshold I’ve aways respected. (p.31)
At the theatre:
A man takes a picture of his wife, as if she were the queen. I try to step out of the way but we’re crammed together, its too late. Im caught in the charade, I play a part in it, albeit as an extra. (p.59)
I take advantage of a long weekend in the fall and leave the city to clear my head, to enjoy the waning warmth in a nearby town and escape the daily routine. I arrive in a split, peaceful spot. The arrangement are to my liking: the quiet hotel, the tasty breakfast, the pool that’s empty until noon. The only problem is that here, too, I feel pressure to do zhnqt everyone else does. (…) But I am not up for ay of that, I’d rather sleep, take it in the fresh air, swim a few laps before the kids start jumping in. (p.83)
By the sea:
Though we are crowded together, I feel separate from the group, excluded from their enduring, unquestioned bonds. On the other hand, I feel obligates to pay attention to people I barely know. (p.93)
Something is telling me to push past the barrier of my life. (p.133)
Link between solitude and independence. – her father is impenetrable – does not give of himself. The feminine as the more porous?