Now that the buzz of the daughter’s wedding is gone from the bonnet and customary passing of the thanksgiving cooking tradition handed over, changed a few lives with the High school bioinformatics program, the Christmas break handily worked out, the new year resolution promptly broken and the trip to Italy under the Tiber (that’s another story, let me know if you wish to hear dear readers) I thought of relaxing myself with an evening of words with Jhumpa of the Lahiri fame. Being Bengali we have a certain unnatural (did you say?) pride in our prowess with the written word. And the lady has certainly proven herself with awards. She has the Pulitzer, her novel has been made into a movie and she has been chosen to join the Barrack Obama administration!! All in space of a few years! You have to agree dear readers with my expectation of a fabulous evening full of inspiring tit bits that I could pick up about writing. I recharged the camera, sharpened my pencils and thought about what I would wear.
This was important to think about. There would be members of the Indian community I was sure. Easy for you to sneer! You see the alternative choices in life have left my connections with the Indian community (at best) tenuous. Every time I appear- which is very rare, people either shy away very noticeably or they associate because they have to. Some say a hello and then start to talk to my husband as if I did not exist. So I become like the saran wrap that gets discarded and usually waft away. Being two decades older than my husband who grew up in the community as a second generation does tend to have an effect one way or another. To be intentionally annoying I chose the jeggings my daughter bought for me with a flattering blue top. A pair of stunning silver earings from Bhopal, India , silver neck piece and make up. Hiding all the wrinkles becomes important and the eyes …not to forget the damned bags under the eyes!
Let me just say I looked good especially with my lost weight and all. Quite the cougar that I am. Still tingling from the rejuvenating green tea and the last facebook chats with friends and family, I breezed off to our by now regular, UB distinguished speaker series. Jhumpa Lahiri. She was born Nilanjana Sudeshna but chose Jhumpa. You see Rinku? That is my daughter who has a “good name” and a “house name” like all good Bengali girls. Just making a point…JUST making a point.
Of course the foyer was full of important members of the community complete with badges of honor. You see “they” had been invited to the reception as some of them gleefully informed us. My entire get-up/make up was shot. WE of course had not been invited and did not have the famous badge of such dubious honor! I was given the cellophane treatment which I accepted and spying the mentor who had helped me get my green card wa-ay back I beat a quick and invisible retreat much to my dear husband’s consternation. After so-o many months of hibernation I felt the lights were a bit too bright. There were some audible breaths I chose to ignore. And then they were off! We got to our regular floor seats being season ticket holders and settled in. My neighbor (seat) asked me if I had read Jhumpa’s books and I kind of hummed and hawed a bit…but had to kind of admit I had not. It seemed blasphemous. Me being Indian and all. They had read everything. I offered… I have seen the movie! Thinking that might help. It did not. Withering looks and muttered exclamations about comparing the book to the movie settled that one. The nerve! Dang! This was not looking good.
The introductions were made with an accent. The words were good and pedantic and very onerous like all good Indian speechifyers. It was going to be an interview. Two upholstered brown sofas had been placed on stage with a very iffy bright flower arrangement on the table on a nice looking carpet. Very homely I thought. Maybe the flowers were trying to offset the blistery cold wind blowing outside. I missed the usual golden castrated Buffalo on stage though and the lady who interprets in sign language was palpably absent. I know it is a side issue but I think of these things you know. She has become part of the speaker series experience and I missed her! Everything was not ticketyboo! Ominous!
Jhumpa (I can call her that, she is ten years younger)walks in diffidently , shakes hands with the other lady and sits down, head turned , without once smiling at us or looking to see if we were there at all. It was like the entire audience was made of cellophane. She stole my pet theory and mass produced it! Just ignored everyone. She has on her high boots with the pearl necklace set from India and hair clipped behind. Very proper and unlike her web pages which has her looking sultry and stunning. She looked tired. Then began the interview. She did not know how and why she wrote or why and how the books got as much acclaim. Perhaps she was being modest. She answered most questions with either she did not know or one liners. When asked about process, she said she did not have one but should. When asked who she modeled Gogol from “The Namesake” on she said it was partly her and mostly fiction. Ashima was partly her mom and partly a composite of others she knew. She spoke a lot about Bengal which by all she said, I gathered her relationship to be pretty feeble. She has three Masters while figuring herself out and when asked why she really could not tell other than she did what was expected and had started working on her PhD which never got completed or some such. She encouraged everyone to plod on. PLOD on??? Dear lady… I am a nondescript cockroach who scribbles nonsense and hopes to get one reader to read. I soar every time I write; I exult every time I get published. I am nothing and I tingle …..You have a Pulitzer and you plod? Now I know what I am doing wrong. I need to plod!
The one point that absolutely got me going was her nebulous affirmation of arranged marriages. Where she gave the usual pip about it being a way of people getting together and how it did not matter how you began but how you lived it. About how she had seen many love marriages begin well but end bad and vice versa for arranged etc etc. Not once did she mention that even if a commitment made out of love is a mistake…. it is everyone’s right to make their own mistake. As long as one starts out on a journey with honesty and the correct motives it matters little how it ends. The fear of the future cannot be the correct incentive for either abdication or inaction. This is not to say that there cannot be multiple choices and approaches to commitments in life, but how can one discount the loftiest reason? How can one discount the best? Regardless of outcome, one is poorer to have never “fallen in” love at all. Above all I wish my children love.
The one point I thought she handled well was about religion. There was no coy-ness or the usual political hoo haa. A breath of fresh air and absolutely in keeping with some modern Bengali families. When asked how she would bring up her kids with mixed religions, she simply said she was not religious. That was something I could hold on to.
They showed a clip from the movie and I cringed. The lady shown was definitely NOT Bengali by any stretch of the imagination. The perceptions were not from Bengal but may have been something she saw in her immediate family. I started to actually feel sorry for the dear girl and felt her lack of identity. I have struggled forever with wondering if I should force my culture upon my children and have actually not done so. It may or not work out for my kids in their future but I feel that without the support of the village around culture is not so easy to import and gavage. Maybe the kids will not thank me for this and maybe they will blame me for not having taught them much about Bengal and being Bengali. If I knew all the answers I too would write a book dammit! All I can do is vent out my frustrations at the sourness of the grapes I swallowed wholesale tonight. They were going cheap and looked good at the gate. I grabbed too many too fast and am paying for my greed!
This article was published in "The Indian American"-RDR