Cultural, Linguistic and Social Resistance in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “In Other Words”

Hemant Gahlot

- Hemant Gahlot

Professor of EnglishGovt Madhav Science College, Ujjain

Resistance could be inward as well as outward. Both have some certain motif. An outward resistance could be rejection of some traits that exist in the outer world but would not coincide with the likes and dislikes or expectations of an individual. Likewise, the inward resistance can be typified by rejection or avoidance of a thing that does not go well with the conscience or the inner world of a person because of preferences, perceptions or typical idiosyncrasies of an individual living in a particular type of a social or cultural setup. In a society where the world is envisaged as ‘global village,’ circumstances do keep taking turns that move the hinges of a personality framework thereby causing untoward outcomes out of a simple pattern of life. One such product of a cosmopolitan culture is Nilanjana Sudeshana Jhumpa Lahiri.
Popularly known as Jhumpa Lahiri, she is an American author of Indian origin whose parents migrated from Kolkata, India, to London, UK. Her very first novel “The Namesake,” on the lives, perspectives, troubles and tribulations of an Indian couple who migrated to the US,  caught the attention of avid film-makers like Meera Nair, who made a movie in 2007 by the same name that stood the test of time, money and popularity in an unprecedented manner, nationally as well as internationally. Beginning with “The Interpreter of Maladies” that spells her signature Bengali background in short stories where her protagonists as well as sundry characters allow the readers to have a glimpse of representation of cultural, social and linguistic resistance perpetuated throughout in their mundane actions.
With the publication of “In Other Words,” Lahiri has brought about a subtle analysis of the layers of resistance one undergoes in an alien land. A short but powerful narrative deftly deals with the moments of her Italian rendezvous narrating events that uphold the tantrum of resistance by an individual forced (sometimes by one’s own queer choices) to live in an unfamiliar linguistic and geographical terrain. A language, specially a foreign language, resists throughout the process of learning, whatever be the cause. We know that our mother tongue interferes with whichever new language we try to acquire. Our socio-linguistic background also provides us with the kind of resistance that hampers the learning of a foreign language. So it was with Jhumpa Lahiri too. During her first encounter with a home tutor in Brooklyn, she finds it a difficult task to begin learning a new language with a tutor. She was then a grown up woman expecting her first baby and already an established writer of fiction in English who had married an American and been living in the western hemisphere since her childhood. She attended Italian lessons at home. Participated in literary festivals in Rome with a poor command of the language she adored but that whole endeavour proved insufficient to her expectation. With two more home tutors in a span of some five years and lots of literary writings and publications, she finally concedes to the idea that to perfect her Italian she must go to Italy.
In fact, it was her love for Italian that pushed her towards relocating herself in Rome with her family. ‘In Other Words” is an exploration in the linguistic, social, cultural and personal, rather familial resistance experienced by an individual, both as a real as well as a fictional character. It is an interesting tale unfolding Lahiri’s marathon efforts made by her in learning the Italian Language.  
The first chapter is an analogy between the learning of language with the process of swimming. The first attempt (in swimming) is slow but consistent and requires some encouragement, which she obtains from two friends in her fictional world. Although, these two friends accompany her in crossing the lake – (symbolically the learning of Italian,) but soon she realizes that she alone has to make her umpteen efforts for crossing the lake. As the realization dawns upon her, she musters up all the strength and finally reaches the other shore where a single cottage awaits her. This single cottage – the Italian language – is her object of exploration and she has reached there with commitment and conviction of a learner. The whole narrative is a landmark of her expressive prowess:
“I arrive on the other side: I’ve made it with no trouble. I see the cottage, until now distant, just steps from me. I see the small, faraway silhouettes of my husband, my children. They seem unreachable, but I know they’re not. After a crossing, the known shore becomes the opposite side: here becomes there. Charged with energy, I cross the lake again. I’m elated.” (In Other Words, 4-5)
This autobiographical work is full of Lahiri’s personal experiences in learning a foreign tongue through which she reveals the perils of migration with a deep understanding and unprecedented intensity. It would be worth mentioning here that Lahiri’s fascination for Italian was not a new fangled obsession for the sake of becoming bi or trilingual only. The true mastery of the language escaped her for nearly twenty years until she decided that she would cross the Atlantic to fulfil her dream of learning Italian first hand.
The first encounter of resistance is explored in the chapter entitled ‘Exile.’ As pointed out earlier, Lahiri’s migration leading to linguistic dilemma had been an ingrained experience embedded in her very genes. To this, she refers in the beginning of the chapter recalling Dante’s patient wait for nine years for speaking to Beatrice and Ovid’s* exile to linguistically alien land. Of her own Bengali mother who, residing in the USA, always composed her poems in Bengali. This made her second language acquisition not only necessary but also inevitable to the extent that during the process of learning her second language became her first language of expression. But this was not the end of things for Ms. Lahiri. The love at first sight with Italian began back in 1994 during a visit to Florence with her sister but found culmination some decades later in her determination to learn the language in its natural environment. Lahiri abhors self-learning because it ‘seems detached, wrong. As if I were studying a musical instrument without ever playing it.’ (23) The strong urge to be well versed in Italian takes her where the language is actually being used i.e. to Italy because ‘to learn a language, to feel connected to it, you have to have a dialogue, however childlike, however imperfect.’ (25) Lahiri’s fascination for the language finds free expression throughout the book. She perceives her love for Italian as infatuation which ‘will become a devotion, an obsession,’ (17) And the simple reason behind this attachment is this that Italian seems to her like ‘a language with which I have to have a relationship. It’s like a person met one day by chance, with whom I immediately feel a connection, of whom I feel fond. ... I realize that there is a space inside me to welcome it.’ (16-17) Consequently, whenever she thinks of Italy, she hears ‘certain words, certain phrases.’ (18) She calls herself a ‘linguistic pilgrim to Rome,’ and prepares herself to face the challenges of learning Italian to the extent of attaining expertise like the natives or at least close to them. The early phase of resistance is battled out with slow but sincere and industrious efforts. ‘I read slowly, painstakingly. With difficulty. Every page seems to have a light covering of mist. The obstacles stimulate me. Every new construction seems a marvel. Every unknown word a jewel.’ (38)
*Ovid’s language of exile (imposed by the emperor) was Latin which he not only adopted to his own poetic purposes (a poet par excellence as he was) but also perfected both the elegiac couplet and the hexameter as all-purpose meter and as an instrument of fluent communication.
The linguistic resistance she experienced during her visits to the literary festivals in Rome and during her learning sessions with three different home-tutors at three different time- spans comes to a halt at the end of the first week in Via Giulia. The action is sudden, spontaneous and largely overwhelming too. Here is how she narrates it: “That Saturday I do something strange, unexpected. I write my diary in Italian. I do it almost automatically, spontaneously. I do it because when I take the pen in my hand, I no longer hear English in my brain. ... I write in a terrible, embarrassing Italian full of mistakes. Without correcting, without a dictionary, by instinct alone. I grope my way like a child, like a semi-literate. I am ashamed of writing like this. I don’t understand this mysterious impulse, which emerges out of nowhere. I can’t stop.” (56-57)
It was like melting of the ice of unfamiliarity. Real acquaintance, polishing, and refining the linguistic variations was still a little distant to her. But she left no stone unturned – she would wake up in the middle of the night, compose a paragraph or so in Italian and continue her uphill task with her innermost strength with renewed energy. It was like passing through a sweeping transition, a drastic state of groping in the dark. But the road ahead was full of rewards and hence a suitable catalyst to keep her working.
Right from her childhood, she belonged only to her words. Uprooted from her culture and country of origin, her very existence depended solely on the existence of the words. A word to Lahiri is equivalent to life, “What does a word mean? And a life? In the end, it seems to me, the same thing. Just as a word can have many dimensions, many nuances, great complexity, so too can a person, a life. Because ultimately the meaning of word, like that of a person, is boundless, ineffable.” (84)
When a person is endowed with such great passion for words and writing, a linguistic resistance, howsoever hard, cannot be a hindrance in achieving the desired goals. On the contrary, greater the resistance, harder the effort to overcome it. Language is the tool through which she expects to attain the perfection and grandeur in her works. And despite all the innovations in the field of language learning, one is always short of reaching to the heart of the language, specially a foreign language. If the objective is to gain commercial aims fulfilled, a foreign language can be learned and applied to the purposes with some ease, but if one is to write a literary piece in a foreign language, it requires a lot more than mere understanding of the syntax and semantics of the target language. Even after years of working with it what one gets to is a petite understanding of the subtle nuances of expressions that would make an impact on the readers. A complete perspective, an entire landscape always eludes even the most ardent connoisseurs and most dedicated learner. Lahiri states that she devoted almost half her life to learning Italian but all she could lay her hands on was a small patch of linguistic skills. The main course of the language was still far from her reach. She confessed that almost halfway through the book, which she wrote in Italian: “I can skirt the boundary of Italian, but the interior of the language escapes me. I don’t see the secret pathways, the concealed layers. The hidden levels. The subterranean part.” (90)
Another instance of linguistic resistance is gently touched upon by the author when she contemplates the translation of her first book in Italian into English. Initially she thought she, being a bilingual or rather trilingual, would be the most natural person to translate her book herself. But soon realizes that this is not her realm of choice because, “On one hand, the translation doesn’t sound good. It seems insipid, dull, incapable of expressing my new thoughts. On the other, I’m overwhelmed by the richness, the suppleness of my English. Suddenly thousands of words, nuances, come to me. A solid ground, no hesitations. I don’t need a dictionary; in English I don’t have to clamber uphill. This old knowledge, this skill, depresses me.” (112) In fact, her own efficiency in English becomes a barrier to her and she had to resist its coming to the fore during her Italian adventure. She further explains that: “Compared with Italian, English seems overbearing, domineering, full of itself. I have the impression that English has been in captivity and, having just been released, is furious.” (113) The efforts made by her bear fruits and she learns that while attending a literary festival in Capri where she makes a presentation in Italian and is being translated into English for the benefit of the audience. “Listening to my interpreter, I trust my Italian for the first time. Although he’ll (Italian) remain forever the younger brother, the little guy  pulls through. Thanks to the firstborn (English) I can see the second – listen to him, even admire him a little.” (116 Italics mine)
The cultural resistance involving a bonding with the Italian is brought to fore in the chapter entitled ‘Second Exile,’  which is about what she felt when she came back to America after a year’s stay in Rome. This one-year association with Italian generated in her a close-knit relationship with the language to the extent that she began considering it her ‘second child,’ first being the English. In America she felt like she is alienated in the absence of Italian and a new fear gripped her of losing the control and attachment with the language that she  so desperately learned, published and nourished as her own. Lahiri’s encounter with a journalist from Milan provides her with an opportunity of actually understanding her connection with Italian.  “In America, my Italian sounds jarring, transplanted. The manner of speaking, the sounds, the rhythms, the cadences seem uprooted, out of place. The words seem irrelevant, without a meaningful presence. They seem like castaways, nomads.” (120) This psychological distance is actually annoying and frustrating as well, although, it was not something new to Lahiri. She recalls how her parents felt when they had first landed in America and would read a letter that came from home written in Bengali, a hundred times before they put it back in a safe place because, “When the language one identifies with is far away, one does everything to keep it alive. Because words bring back everything, the place, the people, the life, the streets, the light, the sky, the flowers, the sounds.” (121) However, the occasions of going away from her native language occurs not once but many a times, so much so that she feels exiled forever.
“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.” (124)
The physical appearance of a person at times reveals his/her cultural upbringing too. Lahiri’s rendezvous with Italian brought her to such cultural and social confrontations that hit her hard for her uncompromising love for the language. Once, while she was visiting a departmental store she tried to explain things in Italian to the salesperson who, despite her fluent Italian took her to be foreigner, though her husband, Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, an American journalist of Guatemalan and Greek descent and who sparsely speaks Italian, is oftentimes taken to be a native because of his name and his looks. She felt the same estrangement in America as well as in India for different reasons. While her physical demeanour becomes a barrier in Italy, her name creates the same kind of ripple in America – Jhumpa Lahiri – all the rough and tough consonants, difficult to be pronounced easily.  Thus, the cultural benchmarks over which she has no control whatsoever also produce resistance in achieving her goals of obtaining a native or equal-to-native identification in a foreign land. One interesting anecdote will bring the point home, which occurred in Flaminio neighbourhood in Rome at the time of presenting her latest novel in a bookstore. “Before the presentation begins, a man whom my husband and I have just met asks if I am going to make the presentation in English. When I answer, in Italian, that I intend to do it in Italian, he asks if I learned the language from my husband.” (132) An unseen wall always stands between her and the rest of the world whether in America, Italy or India exerting a resistance which she alone can handle in her own unique way – by writing consistently and continuously what she feels at the core of her heart, to express her deep, inner voices and exist in words. She gave vent to this paranoia in a very subtle manner in the following lines:
“I’m a writer: I identify myself completely with language, I work with it. And yet the wall keeps me at a distance, separates me. The wall is inevitable. It surrounds me wherever I go, so that I wonder if the wall is me.
I write in order to break down the wall, to express myself in a pure way. When I write, my appearance, my name, have nothing to do with it. I am heard without being seen, without prejudices, without a filter. I am invisible. I become my words, and the words become me.” (133)
This linguistic resistance, however, proved benevolent in some ways too. For once, it provided Lahiri an opportunity to see herself differently, or to be more precise, to see her own desired image of a person who was a little upset with her bilingual status. With Bengali as her mother tongue and English, her stepmother, she found Italian – the language she desired and adopted. Within this triangle, English remains her base – the foundation of her linguistic preferences while Bengali and Italian form the two arms of the structure. The former is a fixed point while the later may, someday under altered conditions, abandon her. Yet, the clearly distinct and correct voice of English, her stepmother will always be there. Adversity is the best teacher and Lahiri’s Rome venture did bring the essence of the maxim home. Although, everyone is aware of the troubles and travails of venturing into an unknown land, Lahiri was no exception. Sheila Pierce narrated in her article on Jhumpa Lahiri that during her Rome sojourn Lahiri too experienced occasional racial discrimination. She recalls Lahiri telling her that a native stranger in Rome at a traffic signal, after rolling down his car window, had yelled at her, “Go wash yourself!” (Financial Times: May 22, 2015) Apart from trifles like these Lahiri’s venture into the world of Italian words and narrative exploration was a journey of accomplishing a deep desire to be able to express herself in a language she so dearly loved and adopted for her literary pursuits.  The resistance she faced made her stronger in acquiring the skills to the extent that it culminated into writing a book of international calibre with thumping applause amongst the Italian readership and scholarship. ‘In Other Words’ has become a sought after work in Italian as well as in American academics wherever the twain of English and Italian languages meet.

Lahiri Jhumpa, In Other Words first published in Italian as In alter parole by  Guanda, Milan 2015, Tran by Ann Goldstein, first published in India by Hamish Hamilton, by Penguin Books India 2016. for Financial Times, May 22, 2015

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