Jhumpa and me

The magnificently talented Jhumpa Lahiri was interviewed yesterday at the Isabel Bader Theatre about her most recent book, “The Lowland.” Interviewer Tina Srebotnjak posed questions about identity and the sense of displacement or alienation that are themes in so much of Ms. Lahiri’s work.

Ms. Lahiri was born in London, England, into an academic Bengali family that moved to Rhode Island when she was two years old. As a child, she felt her parents discouraged her from seeing herself as American. This seems to have contributed to the sense of displacement which has played out in her writing. Her parents’ feelings are not uncommon amongst immigrant parents: “This is what you have come from,” they seem to say. “These foods. These traditions. These ways of thinking. Don’t forget.”

A friend whose life somewhat parallels Ms. Lahiri’s—she too was born into a recently immigrated Indian academic family and raised in North America—said of her, “Her sense of displacement seems out of proportion to her lived experience.”

We are the same age, Ms. Lahiri and I. Born to a Bengali mother and an American father, I was raised in India. As Jhumpa made long visits to her grandparents in Kolkata, so I spent long holidays also in Kolkata with my Bengali grandparents and relatives, and in Los Angeles with my American grandparents. Our annual pilgrimage to the US Consulate in Bombay for Thanksgiving was our single “American” cultural experience. And yet, it contributed strongly to my developing sense of identity.

I immigrated to the US with my family when I was fourteen. I too struggled to fit in, to find my place both in India and in the US. Yet I am now a happy combination of Indian, Bengali (which is not entirely the same as Indian), American, Californian (which is not entirely the same as American), and now Canadian. For the places we live in, our traditions, our friendships, our communities, all play a role in our ever-evolving sense of identity, of belonging.

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