Thursday, January 21, 2016


Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my favorite authors. In the backdrop of West Bengal with the tiny details that bring alive the characters (and all the associations and memories I have attached to being a Bengali), she makes me fall in love with a place where I have my roots, even though I don’t belong there. She has never belonged there either. Her father moved to the US when she was very young, and the only connection she had with India was through vacations and memories of her parents.

Around 3 years ago, she moved to Italy and started learning the Italian language. And now she has got a book published in Italian, called In Other Words. In one of her interviews she said that she borrowed experiences and journeys of her parents, her family and poured them into the stories that she wrote in English. Most of the stories she has written so far (2 books of short stories and 2 novels) are characterized by Indian diaspora, their struggles and relationships. Now as she indulges in Italian language, learns it from scratch, she feels that for the first time she is writing something for herself, looking at herself, NOT through someone else’s eyes.

I feel very close to Jhumpa Lahiri in that I don’t feel I belong anywhere. Nothing feels like home. Living in a foreign country must be a disorienting experience. While there are luxuries and comforts that make your life and lifestyle better, the experience of not living in your own country must be isolating. I am not a patriotic person per se, but I have felt moments of despair (despite all the fun) when I have travelled to other countries. At one point of time I was yearning to leave India and get a job abroad (perhaps it was the residual feeling from working in Shanghai for a bit). But over time while growing up, moving through so many cities, I have realised now that home is just where I am. I will never find it if I keep running behind it, looking for it in different places. Given a chance, I would still take up an opportunity to work abroad, but I am not hoping to find myself, or create myself, there.

Language is such a rich entity that frames your experiences and behaviour. I have come in close contact with an assortment of Indian languages like Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, Marwari, Malayalam, and of course, Bangla, my mother tongue. Language is directly correlated to your behaviour and how you see the world around you. That is why it must have felt like an experience of renaissance for Jhumpa to study Italian and emote in that language.

Language is a dividing as well as a uniting factor. I come across a Bengali and instantly develop a rapport based on our shared systems. It is also very easy to alienate someone and make them feel left out through language. I see people who continue talking in their mother tongue even if they are in company of a few who don’t understand the language. It is very rude and I despise it, but there are certain things that can be expressed only in a certain language. As soon as you translate it, the joy or the beauty of it vanishes. And it is present in each language; they are like the inside jokes that nobody else will understand.

When I visit Kolkata and people on the streets, the rickshawallah or the shopkeepers, start talking to me in Bangla, I feel uneasy. My mother tongue is very sacred to me; I speak in Bangla only with my family and really close ones. And when a stranger starts conversing in the same language, it feels like they are trespassing my space, it feels too intimate a space to share with someone I don’t know. This happens because I have not grown up hearing Bangla around me, it was always like using secret code words in public. Nobody understands what you are talking about. And when I am in Kolkata I sense that my liberty to express has been snatched away. It feels like I am in a crowded auditorium and some hidden microphone has caught my voice.

I wonder how it might be for couples who don’t share the same native language. I have experienced that before, and it didn’t feel weird, but what do you guys think? Does it matter if your partner shares your language, or comes from somewhere else?

P.S: The title of the post says 'Bangla' in Bangla script.


  1. Jhumpa Lahiri is my absolute favorite author. The way she takes you to a different place! I am always intrigued by her, so beautiful, so intelligent, but when you read her it feels like she would be a lost soul. And yet she is in so much control! One of the best contemporary authors.

    I have the exact same thing with Telugu, what you just wrote. I grew up in Delhi, where noone knew Telugu. So its become a code language for just me and my family! :)

  2. Jhumpa is a brilliant writer! I have read all her books plus some short stories published in New York Times etc. Her themes are repetitive sometimes, but storytelling is always engaging.

    Oh you speak Telugu, does your partner also speak the same language? Do you think it matters if he does or doesn't?


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