Lahiri reading falls short of expectations

When the austere Jhumpa Lahiri, dressed in black from blazer to boot save a colored scarf knotted around her neck, approached the podium at the MainStage of the ’62 Center a little after eight on Saturday night, a sold-out crowd stared at her from the three tiers of seats, waiting to be spellbound.

As Ilona Bell, professor of English, enumerated in her introduction, Lahiri is a leviathan of literary success: her 1999 debut book of short stories The Interpreter of Maladies made her the first Indian woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and her 2003 novel The Namesake was on The New York Times best-seller list for many weeks. The novel was also the kickoff work in the Williams Reads program last year, and the author received an honorary degree from the College in 2005.

Lahiri read a portion of a story titled “Hell-Heaven” from her upcoming work of short stories, The Unaccustomed Earth, which is due to be released in the spring. In the story, first published in The New Yorker in 2004, a woman remembers a time in her childhood when her Bengali family befriends a man of the same heritage after moving to Cambridge, Mass.

After the reading, Lahiri sat down with Bell for a freeform conversation on the writer’s life and works. Bell first compared “Hell-Heaven” with “Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” one of Lahiri’s stories from Maladies in which a Pakistani expatriate befriends an Indian family living in Boston and dines with them each evening, capturing the heart of the family’s young daughter.

After Bell pointed out that Lahiri’s stories are “surprisingly secular,” Lahiri explained that the reason was that her parents did not believe in organized religion. “I have no religious sensibility as a result,” she said. “My parents are who they are.”

Lahiri’s fascination with her family and the lives of her parents has indeed informed upon her fiction, often literally. Speaking about The Namesake, she explained that the protagonist’s father, Ashoke Ganguli, was partly inspired by her own father, and that the pivotal train crash of his youth was the experience of her father’s cousin.

Her work in general, Lahiri explained, derives from the atmosphere she grew up in during the 1970s: cadres of prototypical Bengali families with two children that flocked together in lieu of the family left behind in India. “I take a strand from real life and infuse it with things that I can invent,” she said.

After attending undergraduate university at Barnard, Lahiri took a year off and began to write fiction before beginning her three masters degrees in creative writing, English and comparative literature, and her Ph.D. in Renaissance studies. Because her father was an academic librarian, Lahiri was born into the world of academia and stayed in school as a result of not knowing what else to do. During this time, Lahiri dabbled in fiction writing and was encouraged by a professor who respected her other pursuits but constantly reminded her: “Just don’t forget you’re a fiction writer.”

Unfortunately, the evening fell flat after the commencement of Lahiri’s discussion with Bell. A prevalence of unanswerable questions (“Can we talk about your four advanced degrees?”; “Can you do an impression of a Bengali accent in English for us?”) and a general lack of conversational chemistry between the two turned the hour into largely a mundane reiteration of minor facts and ruminations that did not effectively enrich understanding of Lahiri’s works.

The freestyle interview format did not seem to suit either participant – Bell’s questions produced lackluster answers from Lahiri that did not manage to demonstrate the literary self-awareness one might expect from someone with four advanced degrees in literature. When asked what she conceives of as the difference between the short story and novel forms, Lahiri appeared to find the question irrelevant, and stated that besides the amount of compression, she sees no difference.

As Jhumpa Lahiri crafts words beautifully on the page and is a real joy to read, it is unexpected to have to report that the evening was a disappointment. When an audience member asked her opinion of the film version of The Namesake, Lahiri shrugged and explained that it had never concerned her much because its quality was irrelevant since the movie could never rupture the integrity of the book itself.

By that logic, let it be said that despite how jarringly blasé the evening was, we can still hope that Lahiri’s next book will recover the eminence of her words, which she momentarily lost on the stage Saturday night.

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