In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
My Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
A few months back, I began planning for a vacation to a foreign country, tentatively scheduled for March/ April. This time suited me professionally as my work commitments were a tad less tight. My brother, who generally makes it to these family vacations, was not to make it this time due to his other engagements. The trip was planned and I was all ready to take off. Just a week before I was scheduled to fly, my brother called up and with reference to the trip, asked simply this one question, “Would you be able to manage the language there?” I was about to fly to a country where English was hardly spoken in day-to-day life.
Words. Language encircling Words. Dialects categorizing Words. Usage validating Words. There is something about Words. No. Everything is about Words.
The world revolves around communication and the words imparting that communication, veracity or futility. Words can make or break people. Words can as easily make or break nations. A toddler speaks his own words and a soldier speaks his own; why, even a mute speaks his words which we only sometimes get and sometimes, don’t.
I have always opened the gates of my heart to words; a flood of them, incessantly pounding my being, never getting tired of their various forms and sounds. So, when I came across this book, whose blurb read as the journey of a reputed Anglophone writer attempting to write in a new language, Italian, it captivated my interest like a fresh breeze coming from an unknown terrain, holding a luscious, familiar scent in its caress.
I read most of this book when I was on my vacation and it was no coincidence. Reading Lahiri’s struggle with finding an opening into Italian, however inconsequential, was an endearing experience when placed alongside my own, real-life struggles on getting my very basic, trivial requirements past a lady at the supermarket or the gentleman on the ticket counter. Lahiri narrates her painstaking journey with the beginner’s doubts of the worth of the expedition, followed by the intermediate’s apprehensions of the relevance of the exercises and culminated by the advanced’s solace of the fruitfulness of the outcome. Amid keeping diaries and taking notes, conversing with locals and shunning English altogether, she attempts to shed the skin of security that being a well-known writer drapes around the bones. She trounces assertiveness for ignorance; friends for teachers. She even surrenders critique and editing for flow; a flow which alone can anoint her Italian writing with a gravitas worth mentioning.
“My knowledge of English is both an advantage and a hindrance. I rewrite everything like a lunatic until it satisfies me, while in Italian, like a soldier in the desert, I have to simply keep going.”
During my interactions with the locals at my vacation destination, I realized that speaking was so much more difficult than writing. Unlike writing which shields the written words from an immediate onslaught of reactions, thereby providing the writer a reasonably lengthy supportive environment to breathe life into a creation, speaking dismantles all defences by eliciting responses much before even a line has been uttered, sending the speaker into a conscious shell of reconsideration and mild self-reproach. The responses I received, despite being enquiring, and not contemptuous, in nature, decelerated my casual attempts to learn the language. So, I could well imagine the roadblocks, even those not mentioned in this book, that must have rocked Lahiri’s conscious, and most certainly, more vigorous attempts to learn the language.
With help from professionals and locals, libraries and thesauruses, family and friends and above all, self-drive, she slowly finds her feet, adding one word to another, substituting a phrase here and there and manages to write two short stories in Italian (which are included in this book). While the stories are part autobiographical in nature, the fictionalization is rather apparent.
Having reached this stage of her journey, she is suddenly besieged by a terrifying thought; her ambiguity as a native. She bares her bruises to expose a fear, that which freezes the bottom of a ship that leaves a comfortable shore for unknown waters for a short time. The shore does not own up the ship anymore while the waters are aware of the ship’s temporary visit. Where does the ship belong?
“My writing in Italian is, just like a bridge, something constructed, fragile. It might collapse at any moment, leaving me in danger. English flows under my feet. I’m aware of it: an undeniable presence, even if I try to avoid it. Like the water in Venice, it remains the stronger, more natural element, the element that forever threatens to swallow me. Paradoxically, I could survive without any doubt in English; I wouldn’t drown. And yet, because I don’t want any contact with the water, I build bridges.”
Perhaps she may find the answer, just like she found the word – (v.) sondare (to probe, to explore).
[Image courtesy http://www.returnofkings.com]
I am reading one of Lahiri’s books in the near future and this provides some irreplaceable insight into her as a writer and person. I think it is fascinating that you were able to parallel your own journey, both to a new physical place and one within language, with hers. Fantastic review and recommendation!
Thank you for your generous words. Yes, I suppose teaming the read with my own expedition gave me a perspective that was clearer than otherwise. The time and place does matter, in a small but substantial way, isn’t it?
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