Jhumpa Lahiri’s first book is a collection of short stories. It has already won several prizes: the Pulitzer 2000 for fiction, the New Yorker for best first book and the PEN/Hemingway award. Praise from Amy Tan is quoted on the cover, as it was on the cover of Gish Jen’s Who’s lrish? Tan and Jen both write about first and second-generation Chinese Americans, and are upbeat on the whole, sometimes relentlessly so. With a few exceptions Lahiri’s characters are Indians in America, most of whom are temporary residents or, in some cases, first-generation Americans. Lahiri is funny and sharp and ironical, but kind too, and the undertow in her stories is melancholy – which makes her more endearing. She writes a lot about disappointment: not so much with America – though that occasionally figures – as with people.
The main thing wrong with America is an excess of privacy – or, seen from the opposite angle, the lack of communal life. Lahiri’s Indians miss the close community of a large extended family, and the only very slightly less tight-knit community of neighbours. Two of Lahiri’s stories show what’s missing. Both are set in Calcutta, both in lower-middle-class blocks of flats where only a few residents have telephones or running water, but everyone knows everyone else and interferes in their lives, mostly with the very best intentions. In spite of the current wave of Indian fiction in English, this particular dingy, busy, urban milieu is not a familiar one for English readers, and Lahiri doesn’t just evoke it with all its sounds, smells, messes, rituals, habits and violent changes of atmosphere caused by switches in the weather from stifling heat to drenching rain: she explains, without ever being caught at it, and with an economy bordering on the furtive, how the system works. So in ‘A Real Durwan’, we can understand why and how the loopy old woman who sweeps the communal stairs and sleeps on the floor under the letter boxes by the main entrance comes to be sacked and turned out of the building, even though the residents have always looked after and protected her.
‘The Treatment of Bibi Haldar’ is the same story in reverse. Bibi is the epileptic niece of a chemist who has a shop and a flat in a tenement block. She is desperate to marry, and the other inhabitants, at any rate the female ones, do their best to find her a husband – which under the circumstances is difficult. They fail, but somehow or other – presumably during a fit – Bibi gets pregnant. She does not remember how it happened, or who could have made it happen. But she never has another fit: sex was the cure, as she always thought it would be. Because of the disgrace, though, her uncle and aunt disappear from Calcutta without giving their new address. The other tenants look after Bibi. She is not stupid. She starts a pharmacy business with her uncle’s remaindered stock, and brings up her child. It’s a modest success story, though not the most successful story in the collection.
The title story is also set in India, but it is just as much a tale of culture shock as the ones that deal with the adaptation problems of Indians – usually brides, wives or graduate students – newly arrived in the States. In this story, a very young, very Americanised couple of Indians from New Brunswick are touring India with their three children and a driver/guide called Mr Kapasi. Mrs Das wears a sleeveless top with a big strawberry printed on the chest, a mini miniskirt, very high-heeled wobbly sandals, and sunglasses perched on top of her head like a tiara. Mr Das and the children wear shorts, sneakers and shiny sun visors. Mrs Das is always either fussing with the children’s hair or painting her nails in the back of the car and complaining that it hasn’t got air-conditioning. Lahiri pays attention, in a manner somewhere between a fashion editor’s and a psychiatrist’s, to the texture of her characters’ make-up, the datability of their clothes, the blemishes in their grooming: biscuit crumbs left in the corners of someone’s mouth, for instance. Her women share these awarenesses of hers; they are also great shoppers, for underwear or fish.
In this story, though, it is not Mr and Mrs Das who suffer culture shock, but their guide. Mr Kapasi is taking them to see the Sun Temple at Konarak. He is an educated man. Monstrous doctors’ bills for a child with cancer (who has since died) have forced him to abandon his teaching career in order to work as an interpreter in a doctor’s practice: he knows a large number of Indian languages as well as a few foreign ones. At weekends he takes tourists to see the sights. He is in his forties, and both a bit shocked by and a bit taken with 28-year-old Mrs Das. Suddenly she tells him that one of her little boys is a bastard.
‘I beg your pardon, Mrs Das, but why have you told me this information? ...’
‘Don’t you realise what it means for me to tell you?’
‘What does it mean?’
‘It means that I’m tired of feeling so terrible all the time. Eight years, Mr Kapasi, I’ve been in pain eight years. I was hoping you could help me feel better, say the right thing. Suggest some kind of remedy.’
She is looking for an analyst. (Lahiri does not say this. It has to be inferred. She leaves a lot of inferring to the reader: it is an essential part of her style.) But poor Mr Kapasi was looking for a friend – a friend, not a flirtation, let alone a quick lay – a pen-friend to correspond with across the ocean. So when the piece of paper with his address on it blows out of Mrs Das’s hand (the Das’s were going to send him copies of their holiday photos), he lets it blow away. Lahiri’s touch is lighter than the wind that snatches the bit of paper: to describe her manner is to distort it; even quoting seems overemphatic.
The two most successful and most touching stories, ‘Sexy’ and ‘Mrs Sen’s’, are set in the States and hinge on child-minding. In both cases the child is a cool, stoical little boy, impervious to the unhappiness of the woman who looks after him. In ‘Sexy’ the woman is called Miranda, a 22-year-old from Michigan who has come to Boston to work in the fund-raising department of a radio station ‘surrounded by people who spent all day on the phone, soliciting pledges’. She is having an affair with a charming, married Indian academic who picked her up by the cosmetics counter in Filene’s department store. One day, Miranda’s Indian friend and colleague Laxmi asks her to mind her cousin’s little boy: the cousin’s husband has left her; she is passing through Boston on her way back to her family, and Laxmi wants to take her out for a treat to cheer her up. Miranda’s hesitant, gingerly attitude to the inscrutable seven-year-old Rohin is so deftly conveyed that you feel her anxiety trembling in your own body all through their perfectly banal exchanges. Rohin examines Miranda’s wardrobe and coaxes her into putting on a slinky dress she bought with her lover in mind. ‘You’re sexy,’ he says; and when she asks him what he thinks the word means, he says: ‘It means loving someone you don’t know.’ Soon afterwards, he falls asleep. Miranda begins to cry, and it doesn’t wake him. ‘She guessed that he was used to it now, the sound of a woman crying.’ She decides to end her love affair. It’s all very quietly done.
In ‘Mrs Sen’s’, the wife of an Indian mathematics teacher at an American university answers an advertisement for someone to look after a child in the afternoons. Eleven-year-old Eliot has to come to her house after school, because she can’t drive. She is trying to learn, but too nervous to get the hang of it: so she cannot go to the seaside stall where they sell really fresh fish. The fish difficulty is her obsession, the symbol of her dépaysement (you infer): in India, she was able to buy really fresh fish every day. Mr Sen drives her when he can, but when his duties at the university prevent him, she weeps: ‘Tell me, Eliot. Is it too much to ask?’
She also weeps for her niece: ‘My sister has had a baby. By the time I see her, depending if Mr Sen gets his tenure, she will be three years old. Her own aunt will be a stranger. If we sit side by side on a train, she will not know my face.’ She puts away the letter, then places a hand on Eliot’s head.
‘Do you miss your mother, Eliot, these afternoons with me?’
The thought had never occurred to him.
‘You must miss her. When I think of you, only a boy, separated from your mother for so much of the day, I am ashamed.’
‘I see her at night.’
‘When I was your age I was without knowing that one day I would be so far. You are wiser than that, Eliot. You already taste the way things must be.’
It is typical of Lahiri that she doesn’t overdo Mrs Sen’s Bengali inflections.
One day the fishmonger rings to say he has some particularly fine halibut. Mrs Sen sets off alone in the car with Eliot. They hit a telegraph pole. Neither is really hurt. But Eliot’s mother decides he’s old enough to look after himself until she comes home in the evening. Mrs Sen, you realise, will never adapt.
The next story, ‘This Blessed House’, is about a beautiful young Indian bride who is ‘completing her master’s thesis at Stanford, a study of an Irish poet whom Sanjeev’ – her husband – ‘had never heard of’. She has adapted only too well. Nicknamed ‘Twinkle’, she is so self-assured and boisterous that one ought to hate her; but Lahiri conveys her irresistible charm with such skill that one doesn’t. Not many writers are good at conveying charm (as opposed to its effect on other characters). Tolstoy did with Natasha in War and Peace. Which is not to compare Lahiri to Tolstoy: but she has the gift of making her characters lovable (i.e. making one feel with them and take their side); and also the gift of shaping a story line and bringing out the plot with subtle changes of tempo and colour so that one wants to know what happens next.