Jhumpa Lahiri has been a writer whom I have always adored as someone who pens down the emotions of an identity crisis, displacement and lack of belongingness in her works. In other words, is a book with the same feelings though it is autobiographical work that covers the journey of Jumpa learning a new language- Italian. She has a long courtship with the language and finds herself experimenting, being frustrated and trying again to get hold of the language deeply loved by her.
About the author
Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London and raised in Rhode Island. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and author of two previous books. Her debut collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Award and The New Yorker Debut of the Year. Her novel The Namesake was a New York Times Notable Book, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist and was selected as one of the best books of the year by USA Today and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Premise of the book
Language and authors share a deep relationship. It is like the paintbrush for a painter, piano for a pianist and writers can do little without this tool. We are usually provided with this tool at a very young age in the form of our mother tongue or some other language which becomes a part of us, like our mother tongue. For Indians, the other language is usually English. Jhumpa Lahiri was brought up in America while her parents are Bengali. She is well-versed in English and an accomplished writer. However, she has a certain urge inside her to learn Italian.
Learning a language is easier when you are young and you live in that particular surrounding but as we grow old, our capacity to learn a new language reduces substantially. This is not related to our age, it is rather related to our willingness to learn, to let go of our ego and relearn after making mistakes. Lahiri’s romance for Italian begins on a post-college visit to Florence and she attempts to continue the language through private tutors in America.
‘Very wisely, Jhumpa Lahiri compares her journey of learning Italian to swimming a secluded and unknown lake in a strange surrounding. You swim around the shallow waters of the lake, but too afraid to go in its depth but when some people join you, you are less afraid to cross the lake and gradually start crossing it on your own. Learning Italian for her was like that. She started swimming around the corner with the help of a dictionary but she is unable to swim in deep waters so she shifts to Rome to be around people who can help explore the deep waters of Italian.
Jhumpa Lahiri in Rome
I choose Rome. A city that has fascinated me since I was a child, that conquered me immediately. I have no friends yet in Rome. But I’m not going there to visit someone. I’m going in order to change course, and to reach the Italian language. In Rome, Italian can be with me every day, every minute. It will always be present,relevant. It will stop being a light switch to turn on occassionally and then turn off.Jhumpa Lhiri on shifting to Rome
In Rome, she gradually starts using the dictionary less often and manages with her memory and constant practice. It frustrates her at times that she cannot speak Italian without mistakes but she picks herself up and tries again. Lahiri starts keeping a diary in which she writes words/sentences she does not understand and starts the meaning of Italian words in Italian instead of English to make herself better.
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There is pain in every joy. In every violent passion a dark side.
In America, although I speak English like a native, although I’m considered an American writer, I meet the same wall as in Italian but for a different reason. I can’t avoid the wall even in India, in Calcutta, in the city of my so-called mother tongue. When I answer in Bengali, they express the same surprsie as certain Italians, certain Americans. No one, anywhere, assumes that I speak the languages that are a part of me.Jhumpa Lahiri on the wall of languages
Jhumpa Lahiri again questions the sense of identity that comes with language, She is an Indian but can’t speak Bengali fluently. She knows English but isn’t supposed to know because she is an Indian and definitely not Italian because she is supposed not to know it. This is something that we all face if we migrate from one place to another and keep on searching for a home. Lahiri also searches for a home.
These three languages form a triangle in her life; a complex shape. The base, the stronger part is made of English while the other two sides are made of Bengali and Italian. The last two languages make her triangle complete but they are also the weakest part of the triangle being held on English and would crumble if she won’t make consistent efforts.
Writing a book in Italian
Her love for Italian finally materializes as she is eventually able to write a book in Italian after much patience and practice. This book is a result of the diary she used to maintain while learning. This book is bilingual and Italian text, written by Jhumpa Lahiri is on the left side while the translated text is on the right, translation done by Ann Goldstein.
Jhumpa avoided translating the book to avoid falling in the pit of producing a perfect while comparing her Italian work to her stronger language, English.
I really loved her work. It is an honest attempt, a clear work of art where learning a language is a symbolic gesture to finding an identity. This is a clear vision of finding a new medium of expression while having a hold over another form. It is like shedding your old skin and identity and finding a new one.
Do you love learning new languages?
How many languages can you speak?