Displaced Passions

Jhumpa Lahiri is, and is not, an old-fashioned writer. She is too natural to be anyone’s imitator. Yet the kind of relationship she invites readers into can feel familiar from some of the books we were drawn into long ago, when we were first learning about the good company reading can provide. Among the pleasingly varied, carefully sequenced notes struck in Interpreter of Maladies (1999), Lahiri’s first collection of stories, there are a couple of almost mythical-feeling character studies, painful in content but comic in execution, of unlucky Calcutta women and their watchful neighbors. A scene at an ancient temple casts judgment on a heedlessly selfish young Indian-American mother revisiting the old country. There are trysts and marriages: the flaming and fizzling of a Boston public radio worker’s affair with an unavailable Indian husband, a young couple undone by a stillbirth, a Hartford housewarming thrown by mismatched newlyweds, one stodgy and the other chic and carefree.

The stories have grace and poignancy and for someone so young they show an unusual, appealingly unshowy degree of prowess. In retrospect, though, they feel like stars on the far edge of the galaxy that it has been Lahiri’s real obsession to map. She has traced and retraced the arc of a quite specific generation of Bengalis who emigrated to the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. In the last story in Interpreter of Maladies, and at greater length and depth in her 2003 novel The Namesake, Lahiri showed how it was young, stoic male students who arrived first. As the men went for their advanced degrees in fields like engineering and microbiology and stayed on to take jobs, young women from India flew over to accompany them, sometimes following through on an arranged marriage. Once here, in the early days, the wives had little besides frugal homemaking to occupy the endless hours they spent alone. They suffered terribly at first from loneliness, and from the devastating absence of anything they could recognize from their youth.

As Lahiri has continued to describe this generation in her fiction, sometimes in stories that look back at the period through the eyes of their American children, they seem to have faced little in the way of real danger or want. Still, their journey must have been a mind-bender, an adventure the likes of which the children will never know—and, because of the greater cultural distance back then, a trauma, beyond the power of words to describe, whose fallout in the children’s lives both parents and children have trouble grasping. Occasionally, the parents (or if not the parents, some friend or colleague in their sprawling, painstakingly gathered orbit of fellow stranded Bengalis) had come from a wealthy household staffed by servants. Others, though, might have left behind homes with an outhouse out back, or never before eaten at a table. In many a case, their hearts weighed heavily with duty to their own parents in India, an ache compounded by guilt …

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