A Love Story for the Ages (On Reading “In Other Words” by Jhumpa Lahiri)

Southern Sun Hotel, Sandton, Joburg (April 2016)

Southern Sun Hotel, Sandton, Joburg (April 2016)

“In this period of silence, of linguistic isolation, only a book can reassure me. Books are the best means – private, discreet, reliable – of overcoming reality. (Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words)

Before I got married I talked about books through Seriously Planning and my bookclub and during conversations with friends and my family over teatime and meals. I still do those things, but now book chats with my parents happen over Whatsapp and Skype and I shake my husband awake in the middle of the night to talk about what I’m feeling and experiencing through the written word.  These conversations are important to me because they help me understand what I’m reading and by extension, myself, better.  But even with these conversations, still, whenever I read a book I must tell you, my Seriously Planning friends, about it. I’m not sure why – but I can’t keep thoughts about books to myself, and the conversations we have and the reading experiences that emerge from this blog brings me so much joy. Sometimes I’m angry, sometimes I’m hopeful, but most recently as I’ve read “Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest book “In Other Words” I’ve been emotional and grateful.

Though I’ve always loved Jhumpa Lahiri’s books and loved her last book “The Lowland”, for me “In Other Words” surpasses her previous work. This book is a treasure and a gift and I savoured every word of the read. It is about Lahiri’s relationship with Italian over the past twenty years as she’s studied the language and about the 2 year period in which Lahiri lived in Rome in order to learn Italian better. It is written in Italian by Lahiri and is translated into English by Ann Goldstein, and so although it is Lahiri’s fifth book, in many ways it also marks her debut as a new writer.

At its core, it is a love story and an exploration of identity, belonging, dislocation and estrangement. These are themes that run through Lahiri’s other books, but this book deals with these themes much more directly because it is an exploration of Lahiri’s courtship and unfolding relationship with Italian. There is no plot or characters to explain Lahiri’s thoughts and perspectives, we get her views and perspectives directly. The book starts with Lahiri purchasing her first Italian dictionary in 1994 and then goes through different aspects and stages of her love story with Italian. She describes the way Italian makes her feel, she describes finding teachers and how learning Italian makes her feel stupid and humiliated, she describes reading in Italian and the feeling of accomplishment she experiences when she finishes a book, she describes the exhilaration and challenge of writing in Italian and remembering and understanding new words, she explores her relationship and connection to Italian, Bengali and English and so much more. In sum she explains an entire courtship over the course of the book.

From start to finish, I loved this book. I recognise the feeling Lahiri describes of longing, of staring at a locked door and wanting it desperately to open because I feel the same way about Urdu. I love the sound of Urdu words, I love the saltiness and poetry of the language, I love the cadence of conversation, I love everything about it. I know the feeling of loving a language and wanting it to be a part of you, and feeling frustrated at how stupid and humiliated the process of learning can make you feel. Lahiri is a braver learner than I, and I admire her dedication and persistence and commitment to the language and the way she is continually reading, writing and speaking, but even without her courage, I identify with the experience of loving and language and wanting to claim it as your own.

Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t in fact return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world even at my desk.  In the end, I realize that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile. (Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words)

I also loved her reflections on family and identity and belonging. This book made me think about how language evokes memory and culture, it made me reflect on what it means to live in a place separate from your linguistic roots, and how sometimes we feel connected to language because it connects us to those we love. It articulated some of my own feelings about the meaning of home and identity and dislocation because though our stories are not at all the same, I hold multiple identities. I did not grow up in the same country in which I was born or that I live in now, and a lot of what she said about English, belonging and never quite feeling like you have a homeland resonated. When I am homesick for my parents, hearing Urdu or a dialect that my family speaks brings me back to myself, and when I was reading this book I called home a lot because the process of reading made me miss my family, and my dad in particular, intensely.

But even if you’ve never moved and your family has lived in the same place for generations, this book is interesting because in it Lahiri explores what writing is and what it means to write, and describes the freedom she feels in discovering herself as a new writer again without an extensive vocabulary without authority and command of language to support her journey.

There is so much that is discussed in this book, and I finished the book with pages and pages of notes of quotes and reflections on this read. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that has spoke to me so deeply, and it felt bittersweet to reach the end of the English portion of this book. If you’ve read it or are planning on reading it, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Till next time.

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One thought on “A Love Story for the Ages (On Reading “In Other Words” by Jhumpa Lahiri)

  1. Sudhir Kumar says:

    Many thanks Shagufta, this is a brilliant reflection as it talked to me like the book ‘In Other Words’. A couple of aspects needs to be reiterated, perhaps it will act as a catharsis for me. The issue of living on fringes in terms of language made a chord with me as I felt same during last 7-8 years of my international assignment. You really do not belong to the place n you are not at core but at fringe but it also gives you some sort of comfort zone as you are on fringes. Also it raises another point that if you do not have any point of origin ( with which you are connected) it will give a sense of afloat when current Hubble-bubble of current times is over in twilight years. Currently I see my parents especially my father always want to go back to the place where he spent his working years and had roots but which means being away from his kids. The point I am highlighting is he has a reference point but how about people like us who lived on fringes in different parts of world. Of course Lahiri has also highlighted that she went to an unknown path from her comfort zone to purse her love. Brilliant blog.

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