Tales of the Diaspora: VS Naipaul and Jhumpa Lahiri

When VS Naipaul won the Nobel Prize in 2001, he said: “It is a great tribute to England, my home, and India, the land of my ancestors…” It is a heritage he shares with Jhumpa Lahiri, who was born in London and immigrated to America with her Indian-born parents.  “While I am American by virtue of the fact that I was raised in this country, I am Indian thanks to the efforts of two individuals,” she said, referring to her parents, in an interview with Newsweek in 2006.

They have both drawn on their heritage as writers. While he is a Nobel laureate, she won America’s prestigious Pulitzer Prize with her very first book, Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories, in 2000. Interestingly, Naipaul’s first “publishable” work, by his own account, was also a short story, called Bogart, though it appeared only in his third book, Miguel Street, after the comic novellas, The Mystic Masseur and The Suffrage of Elvira.

Lahiri has never written anything comic, but comparisons with Naipaul are inevitable – and not just because of their heritage. Both are autobiographical writers.

“I am the sum of all my books,” Naipaul declared in his Nobel Lecture. He did not set out to write about his life.  It happened by chance. He was 22 years old, an Oxford graduate working freelance for the BBC when one day while he was pecking away at the typewriter, the words suddenly came to him unbidden. He recalled the experience in his essay, Prologue to an Autobiography, in 1984:

“It is now nearly 30 years since, in a BBC room in London on an old BBC typewriter, and on smooth “non-rustle” BBC script paper, I wrote the first sentence of my first publishable book…

“It was … late one afternoon, without having any idea where I was going, and not perhaps intending to type to the end of the page, I wrote: Every morning when he got up Hat would sit on the banister of his back verandah and shout across, ‘What happening there, Bogart?’

“That was a Port of Spain memory…

“Hat was our neighbour on the street. He was a Port of Spain Indian.”

And Bogart was a distant relative who lived with the Naipauls for some time in Port of Spain before moving on to Venezuela.

Two worlds

Lahiri also had a similar experience. She told Newsweek: “When I first started writing I was not conscious that my subject was the Indian-American experience. What drew me to my craft was the desire to force the two worlds I occupied to mingle on the page as I was not brave enough, or mature enough, to allow in life.”

She could have been channelling Naipaul. Two Worlds was the title of his Nobel lecture. He recalled:

“My grandmother’s house in Chaguanas was in two parts. The front part, of bricks and plaster, was painted white. It was like a kind of Indian house, with a grand balustraded terrace on the upper floor, and a prayer-room on the floor above that. It was ambitious in its decorative detail, with lotus capitals on pillars, and sculptures of Hindu deities, all done by people working only from a memory of things in India. In Trinidad it was an architectural oddity. At the back of this house, and joined to it by an upper bridge room, was a timber building in the French Caribbean style. The entrance gate was at the side, between the two houses. It was a tall gate of corrugated iron on a wooden frame. It made for a fierce kind of privacy.

“So as a child I had this sense of two worlds, the world outside that tall corrugated-iron gate, and the world at home – or, at any rate, the world of my grandmother’s house. It was a remnant of our caste sense, the thing that excluded and shut out. In Trinidad, where as new arrivals we were a disadvantaged community, that excluding idea was a kind of protection; it enabled us – for the time being, and only for the time being – to live in our own way and according to our own rules, to live in our own fading India. It made for an extraordinary self-centredness. We looked inwards; we lived out our days; the world outside existed in a kind of darkness; we inquired about nothing…

“If it were not for the short stories my father wrote I would have known almost nothing about the general life of our Indian community. Those stories gave me more than knowledge,” he added, acknowledging his debt to his father, who was a writer and a journalist.

This is where he differs from Lahiri, who was exposed to the outside world though her parents and their immigrant-friends created their own Little India in America. She spoke about her childhood to Newsweek:

“At home I followed the customs of my parents, speaking Bengali and eating rice and dal with my fingers. These ordinary facts seemed part of a secret, utterly alien way of life, and I took pains to hide them from my American friends. For my parents, home was not our house in Rhode Island but Calcutta, where they were raised. I was aware that the things they lived for–the Nazrul songs they listened to on the reel-to-reel, the family they missed, the clothes my mother wore that were not available in any store in any mall–were at once as precious and as worthless as an outmoded currency.

“I also entered a world my parents had little knowledge or control of: school, books, music, television, things that seeped in and became a fundamental aspect of who I am. I spoke English without an accent, comprehending the language in a way my parents still do not. And yet there was evidence that I was not entirely American. In addition to my distinguishing name and looks, I did not attend Sunday school, did not know how to ice-skate, and disappeared to India for months at a time.”

She wrote about it all in The Namesake, her sole novel to date. Compare it with Naipaul’s early works – The Mystic Masseur (1957), The Suffrage of Elvira (1958), Miguel Street (1959) and A House for Mr Biswas (1961) – where he wrote about life in Trinidad; and differences begin to emerge.

Highflyers and the salt of the earth

The Namesake was published in 2003, four years after Interpreter of Maladies, and more than 40 years after Naipaul’s earliest works.  The world had changed meanwhile. Gogol, the protagonist of The Namesake, named after the Russian author, works on a laptop; his mother, Ashima, in her old age decides to learn how to write email so she can stay in touch with her children when she goes to India: Naipaul’s Mr Biswas and Ganesh Ramsumair, the Mystic Masseur, could not even dream of such things.

Not only has the world changed; the milieu is different too. Lahiri’s immigrants are professionally successful. Gogol’s father is a university professor with a degree from MIT, Gogol an architect who went to  Yale and Columbia, his wife, Moushumi, graduated from Brown. Kaushik, one of the principal characters in Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri’s new collection of short stories, attended Swarthmore, one of the top American liberal arts colleges, while Hema, who falls in love with him, teaches at the prestigious Wellesley College.

They could not be more different from Mr Biswas, who takes correspondence courses in writing while working as a journalist, or Ganesh Ramsumair in The Mystic Masseur, and Harbans in The Suffrage of Elvira who are not well educated and speak patois, the Caribbean dialect. Miguel Street is a collection of short stories about working class people living on a street in Port of Spain. But they can aspire and succeed.  Ganesh sets up as a masseur, then becomes rich and famous as a pundit before being elected as a lawmaker and is eventually awarded an OBE by the British government for supporting colonial rule. Harbans is a prosperous businessman who stands for election in a peasant community in The Suffrage of Elvira. But even when they are successful, they betray their peasant origins. Ganesh has problems with the cutlery when invited to dinner with the governor. Even Mr Biswas the journalist is not as comfortable with white people as Gogol, Moushumi , Hema, Kaushik and other second-generation Indian Americans in Lahiri’s stories. Some of them fall in love and intermarry with white Americans. The Trinidad Indians in Naipaul’s early works are much more insular.

Social intercourse and private lives

Naipaul’s early works, on the other hand, are alive with a sense of community that is largely missing from Lahiri’s stories. Miguel Street is all about the lives of neighbours. The Suffrage of Elvira makes fun of politics, showing the vote-buying and wheeling dealing that goes on among community leaders and election candidates. The Mystic Masseur offers similar entertainment, showing the machinations of Ganesh to become rich and famous. A House for Mr Biswas is panoramic in its range. We read about Hindu reformers, social changes, academic pressure, newspaper work, ethnic relations, getting a picture of Trinidad as a whole.

Lahiri, on the other hand, is a miniaturist. Though her theme is the immigrant experience, she concentrates on the individual. Even when her characters interact with others – and there are scenes where they meet friends and acquaintances – the focus remains on their thoughts and feelings, only briefly alighting on the friends to note their backgrounds and sometimes their characters.

There are stories where there is more than one major character. In Mrs Sen’s,  one of the stories in Interpreter of Maladies, the housewife, Mrs Sen, shares the spotlight with a boy named Adam who is left in her care every afternoon after school  till his mother picks him up after work. The story is told mainly from his perspective – but with the focus on Mrs Sen, so we come to know both of them intimately.

In Unaccustomed Earth, the title story is told from the perspective of both father and daughter. We learn as much about Ruma as about her widowed and retired father who flies up from the East Coast and visits her in Seattle. The clever use of dual perspective in this story reveals how they have grown apart. She asks him to stay with her but, at heart, she wants to live her own life with her American husband, Adam, a hedge fund manager, and her three-year-old son, Akash.  She and her father get closer only when he is about to fly back to the East Coast – and even then he does not tell her about a Bengali widow who has become his friend.

Communication gap

This reticence,this lack of communication between parents and children, husbands and wives, is a recurring theme in Lahiri’s stories. There is an aching loneliness in her characters, who are alone even when they are with others.  The Simon and Garfunkel classic, The Sound of Silence, could be her theme song. Her stories often hark back to that era, the late Sixties and early Seventies, when the great Indian exodus started, taking people like Ruma’s and Gogol’s parents to America.

The feeling of loneliness often found in Lahiri’s stories is heightened by her narrative style. There is more narrative than dialogue in her stories. Dialogue, on the contrary, fills up much of Naipaul’s early works. It is the patois spoken by his characters that gives life and zest and provides much of the fun in The Mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira and Miguel Street. Dialogue and narrative are equally important in A House for Mr Biswas.

Mr Biswas comes closest to Lahiri’s characters in being at odds with his in-laws with whom he is forced to live most of his life, all the time yearning to have a house of his own, which he cannot afford until late in his life. Most of the characters in Naipaul’s other early works are comfortable in their skin unlike Lahiri’s protagonists.

“Lahiri has a minor genius for chronicling depression,” says Sarah Kerr in her review of Unaccustomed Earth in the New York Review of Books. Naipaul has it,too: it is there in A House for Mr Biswas and more pronounced in his later, bleaker novels such as Half a Life and Magic Seeds. But A House for Mr Biswas is the exception among his early works in dwelling on alienation and a sense of displacement, which are manifest in Lahiri’s stories.

“Torn between two worlds” – that famous phrase of Matthew Arnold’s sums up Lahiri’s immigrants. The Namesake opens with a pregnant Ashima, about to give birth to Gogol, craving for jhalmuri  in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Alone in her apartment, with her husband at work, she makes her own, mixing Rice Krispies with peanuts. But it does not taste like the real thing. Time and again, we see how homesick immigrants re-create little reminders of home. However, those little reminders feel alien to their children, who feel more at home in their parents’ adopted land. This creates tension. Gogol feels the weight of his parents’ disapproval when he has a relationship with Ruth, a girl he meets at college, and later with Maxine.

Such cultural tensions and conflicts are absent from Naipaul’s early works. Mr Biswas’ relationship with his son, Anand, is strained at times but it springs from how they see each other and has nothing to do with cultural differences.

Hindu ceremonies

Paradoxically, the Hindu, Indian element is more pronounced in Naipaul, who did not visit India until becoming famous as a writer, than in Lahiri, who accompanied her parents on their trips to Calcutta in her childhood.

Lahiri does write about Indian customs and ceremonies. She describes the “rice ceremony” , as she calls it – the mukhebhat or annaprasan – when a Bengali baby is fed rice for the first time. She describes the wedding of Gogol and Moushumi when one of their parents’ friends acts as the priest in a traditional Hindu ceremony.

However, such ceremonies are described in greater detail by Naipaul. The Mystic Masseur contains amusing accounts of the sacred thread ceremony and the dowry system. Ganesh as a schoolboy has his head shaven during his initation ceremony as a Brahmin. Then he walks out of his parents’ house with a saffron bundle and a staff pretending to be going to Benares as part of the ritual. But he carries on with the playacting and walks so far that Dookhie the shopkeeper runs after him and tells him not to be silly, that he cannot walk all the way to Benares. Later, when Ganesh comes to marry the shopkeeper Ramlogan’s daughter, he refuses to eat until he gets a far bigger dowry than his father-in-law was prepared to pay.

Ganesh and his wife, Leela, develop a close relationship, however, understanding each other all too well, that eludes Mr Biswas and his wife, Shama, until long after marriage.

World without love?

That kind of intimacy is seldom seen in Lahiri’s stories. Ruma wonders if her father ever loved her mother. The Indians even when they emigrate to America retain their inhibitions: they are not demonstrative of their affections. Their children, growing up in America, mistake this for a lack of affection. Ruma’s father can show his feelings for her only by first urging her to resume her promising legal career and not spend her days as a housewife – and then by helping her with the housework and creating a little garden for her new home. Lahiri’s men – the first-generation immigrants – are providers: practical, successful, highly educated and building a new life for themselves and their families in America. Time and again we see the parents helping their children financially. The fathers do not have the time to look into the inner lives of their families. In Hell- Heaven, a short story in Unaccustomed Earth, it is the daughter who learns her mother was once in love with one of her father’s Indian friends and came close to committing suicide; her father never finds out. It does not matter: their marriage endures.

It is the children who have relationship problems. There is the cultural conflict – and a communication gap with their parents. Gogol hates his name, which is neither Indian nor American, and eventually changes his name to Nikhil by a legal decree. On his fourteenth birthday, his father presented him with a book by Gogol but could not tell him why he was named after the Russian writer. Many years later, Ashoke tells his son how he miraculously survived a railway accident in India while reading a book by Gogol — and that was why he named him Gogol. Gogol and his parents eventually reach some kind of understanding, but there are others who are estranged for life. Kaushik in Unaccustomed Earth grows distant from his father on his mother’s death. In Only Goodness, another story from Unaccustomed Earth, Rahul is cut off from his parents after becoming an alcoholic.

It is their assimilation into American society that paradoxically exacerbates the problems for the children. Gogol mixes easily with Maxine and her parents. But when his father dies, he shuts her out of his life, drawn by a sense of duty to his mother. He marries Moushumi: it is a match encouraged by their mothers. But after marriage Moushumi meets up again with Dimitri, who unknown to her parents first fondled her when she was a teenager – and this time they start an affair. It wrecks her marriage. Infidelity and secret lives feature in Lahiri’s stories. Hema in Unaccustomed Earth recalls an affair she had with a married man with whom she went to Rome; but her family did not know about him; they thought she had gone to Rome to present a paper at a conference.

In her themes, Lahiri is closer to Naipaul’s later works. Infidelity and estrangement feature prominently in his latest novel, Magic Seeds, and its precursor, Half a Life. The immigrant experience she writes about is explored in detail in The Enigma of Arrival, where Naipaul writes about leaving Trinidad and building a new life for himself as a writer in England. The leisurely narrative, rich in detail about the English countryside, is as introspective as Lahiri’s stories. Lahiri can be wonderfully evocative. She captures the faded elegance of the house in North Calcutta where Ashima’s parents live. With a few deft brush strokes she shows Ashima’s artist father painting at dawn on the rooftop, capturing the early morning light.

The Indian connection is fading, however. The stories in Unaccustomed Earth are set in America, Italy and a Thai beach resort on the eve of the tsunami that struck on December 26, 2004. That marks a departure from Interpreter of Maladies, which included several stories set in India, and The Namesake, which covered both India and America. “I feel Indian not because of the time I’ve spent in India or because of my genetic composition but rather because of my parents’ steadfast presence in my life,” said Lahiri, who is married to a Guatamalan Greek journalist, in an interview with Newsweek two years ago. “I can see a day coming when my American side, lacking the counterpoint India has until now maintained, begins to gain ascendancy and weight.”

India, on the other hand, features in Naipaul’s most recent novels: Magic Seeds and Half a Life.

The iconoclast and the lover of classics

He is also openly more ambitious as a writer.”Writing has always to be new;  every talent is always burning itself out,” he says in his essay, Reading and Writing. The novel as an art form has lost the freshness it had in the 19th century, he adds. He is not afraid to try something new. The Enigma of Arrival is very different from his early novels. Something strange happens in Half a Life. After a chronological account of Willie Chandran’s life from his Indian childhood to his student days in London and departure for Africa with his newfound love Ana, the couple’s life in Africa is described in just a couple of pages. Naipaul writes: “He stayed for eighteen years.” And then Willie tells Ana, “I am going to leave you.” The scene then shifts to Berlin, where Willie joins his sister Sarojini and tells her about his life with Ana. Their life together is described in flashback. Naipaul is not only bold in his approach; he is also an iconoclast. In an interview with Farrukh Dhondy published in the Literary Review, he poured scorn on writers like Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy, claiming they were read only because England became a colonial  power.

Lahiri is  more respectful of tradition. In an interview with the Atlantic magazine in March 2008, a month before the publication of Unaccustomed Earth, she said: I’ve always loved Chekhov and Tolstoy, but lately it’s been Hardy. He’s one of those novelists whose work I always go to. I will never get tired of those novels. The complete worlds that he creates—they are so focused and compelling…There is a balance between the human drama and the world around it, and that interchange is so beautifully done. I also like learning things in those books—about the agricultural society, the hay, the farm—I love that…  That connection to the land and how rooted it is. I’ve also been reading Hawthorne. That’s how I got the title for this book.”

Unaccustomed Earth takes its title from a passage in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s essay, The Custom-House, which is also quoted as the epigraph:

“Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children had other birthplaces, and so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.”

These words about the need to move on and build new lives in new lands goes to the heart of the immigrant experience narrated by Lahiri.

But she cannot imagine herself writing a panoramic novel, she said in the same interview.”I don’t think I’m an effusive writer. My writing tends not to expand but to contract. If I do write more novels, I think they’ll be more streamlined and concentrated,” she said. “I don’t like excess. When a great sweeping work is great, what makes it great is that there’s no excess.”

“I like it to be plain,” she said about her style. “It appeals to me more. There’s form and there’s function and I have never been a fan of just form. My husband and I always have this argument because we go shopping for furniture and he always looks at chairs that are spectacular and beautiful and unusual, and I never want to get a chair if it isn’t comfortable. I don’t want to sit around and have my language just be beautiful. If you read Nabokov, who I love, the language is beautiful but it also makes the story and is an integral part of the story. Even now in my own work, I just want to get it less—get it plainer. When I rework things I try to get it as simple as I can.”

She may like to be plain and simple, but she knows how to strike a chord with the readers: we are drawn into the world she has created, just as we laugh at the antics of The Mystic Masseur and are moved by the burning ambition in A House for Mr Biswas. This is a gift shared by Lahiri and Naipaul. They are marvellous storytellers, eloquent witnesses to the Indian diaspora.

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