Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words is a metaphor for hope and struggle | Book Review

Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words is an honest book and her first autobiographical work.

Jhumpa Lahiri has a Pultizer Prize, besides many other awards. And when you are an award winning writer, every word from your pen is minutely critiqued. And you are under constant pressure to write something meaningful, because you are aware that your word is being taken seriously and scrutinized. So, then you really have no freedom to express. That’s what I have always felt, about the award-winning writers, not that I have an award but having an opinion needs no award, right?

And Jhumpa expresses the same in her latest book In Other Words from Penguin. The book is her maiden attempt at writing in Italian, a language she learnt with much hard work and struggle. Some copies are bilingual, on one side you have Lahiri’s writing in Italian with English translatins on the facing page. The copy that I read was an English translation by Ann Goldstein from Penguin India.

Jhumpa explains that writing in a language which isn’t her native or mother tongue or the one that has brought her awards, sets her free from any sort of expectation. A liberating experience. At the same time, she has to really work hard to acquire it and master it enough to be able to write in it. A struggle.

To master Italian she observes a ‘self-imposed exile’, she stops reading writing or even talking in English. It gradually becomes an obsession.  “I’ve never tried to do anything this demanding as a writer. I find that my project is so arduous that it seems sadistic,” she writes. You feel happy when she achieves small milestones, and sad when she experiences the blocks. When she feels disheartened, you feel the same. She shows that because of your skin-colour you can automatically become an outsider or an insider to a geographical area.

Sample this scene: “My husband’s name is Alberto. For him, it’s enough to extend his hand, to say, ‘A pleasure, I’m Alberto.’ Because of his looks, because of his name, everyone thinks he’s Italian. When I do the same thing, the same people say, in English, ‘Nice to meet you.’ When I continue to speak in Italian, they ask me: ‘How is it that you speak Italian so well?’ and I have to provide an explanation, I have to say why. The fact that I speak Italian seems to them unusual. No one asks my husband that question.” Despite the fact that her Italian is better than her husband’s.

The book is a nice read. You will be able to relate to her struggle. It is a metaphor for acquiring a new skill, a new language, a new identity. It is a metaphor for victory. It is a beacon of hope: there is no age to learn if you have the will. It talks about her struggle to fit-in as her Benagli parents shift to the Americas. It also touches upon themes such as displacement, identity, and more. Also, has a bit about her family and how as a family they help each other.

The translation renders this book into something which has nice, easy and simple English sentences. Some have found it wanting depth and lyrical quality for this reason. But for me, that was the beauty of the text. It’s simple, raw and lovely. Lahiri avoided translating it to English herself because she might have tried to iron the raw edges. It’s an honest book and her first autobiographical work.