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A Foreign Homeland - Capturing Indians Through A Diasporic Lens

Priyadarshini Chatterjee May 6, 20172 Responses

"When I first started writing I was not conscious that my subject was the Indian-American experience. What drew me to my craft was the desire to force the two worlds I occupied to mingle on the page as I was not brave enough, or mature enough, to allow in life."

- Jhumpa Lahiri



About India, a renowned American travelogue says-


"India is the cradle of the human race, the birth place of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend and the great grandmother of tradition. "


Thus, it is quite natural to find most people much interested about knowing what India is all about. So, it is no wonder that writers of the Indian Diaspora have been at the center stage, mainly because of the theoretical formulation being generated by their works. Why does Indian Diaspora literature serve as a better means to easily understand India than simple Indian literature? It is through this portrayal that people all across the globe come to know India from an outsider’s viewpoint. It serves as a channel that strengthens the bonds between the different states in India and of this nation with relation of other countries at large. However, that is where the questions arise: Staying rooted abroad and being of Indian origin, how accurately can a writer of the Indian diaspora portray the Indian culture and tradition? Is it truly possible for someone, although of Indian origin, to live in an entirely different kind of world and write about the completely different norms, conventions and cultural values of so vast a country as India?


Jhumpa Lahiri is one of the most eminent as well as one of the most controversial writers of Indian Diaspora. She is well known for works like Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, The Lowland and Unaccustomed Earth. Born in London, and brought up in the USA, Nilanjana Sudeshna Lahiri a.k.a. Jhumpa Lahiri is the daughter of Bengali immigrants from the state of West Bengal. Lahiri’s mother wanted her children to grow up knowing their Bengali heritage and her family often visited relatives in Kolkata. Therefore, one should not be surprised to find that most of her works deal with the dilemmas faced by Non Resident Indians. The stories of Interpreter of Maladies (1999) (her debut short story collection), deal with sensitive issues in the lives of Indians or Indian immigrants such as marital difficulties or the breach of link between the first and the second generation of U.S. immigrants. On the other hand, Lahiri’s The Namesake (2003) (her most celebrated work till date) deals with the inter-generational and cultural gap and conflict between the Calcutta-born parents who have immigrated to the U.S. and their children Gogol and Sonia.


Lahiri’s narrative technique is characterized by her use of simple diction and her protagonists are mostly Indian emigrants to America who have to constantly move to and fro between the cultural values of their motherland and their adopted homeland. Most of her writings are evidently autobiographical, often based upon her own experiences as well as on those of her parents and acquaintances. She also draws largely from the lives of those she knows in the Bengali community and her vivid descriptive narration of Bengali customs, beliefs and traditions stand testimony to that.


Critics and readers have often criticized her works and according to them Lahiri had "not paint[ed] Indians in a more positive light." Many have even gone to the extent of stating that Lahiri "has portrayed India in [an] unclear, untrue and faulty manner…" Although her protagonists are painted with typical Indian-ness, somehow they always tend to have an alien flavour. Even though it is completely unjust to compare Lahiri’s works with that of Tagore, the comparison becomes inevitable as soon as the issue of portraying the Bengali culture and values is raised.


Tagore’s characters are typically Bengali – they perfectly fit into the imaginations of our minds when we utter the word "Bengali". On the other hand, Lahiri’s protagonists demand time to fit into our imagination – they require too much convincing and at times, Indian readers find it difficult to identify themselves with the characters of Lahiri. Of course such comparisons become absurd because of certain simple reasons. Firstly, Lahiri is a post-colonial writer of Diaspora literature unlike Tagore and thus, that non-Indian flavour which characterizes most of her protagonists is justified. Secondly, unlike Lahiri, Tagore was born and brought up in a typical Bengali bourgeois family and therefore was a part of the very Bengali culture and traditions which form the majority of his works. Hence, as far as portraying the Indian or Bengali culture is concerned, Lahiri’s writings are bound to be "faulty". It is of course a painstaking work to imagine and describe one’s own motherland where he or she was neither born nor brought up. It is Jhumpa Lahiri’s courage to attempt writing on such a brave topic that deserves esteem. Her usage of certain terms and phrases in her works make them appear more Indian or rather, absolutely Indian – "aloo gobi ", "bidi " (Indian cigarette made of tobacco wrapped in tendu leaves), "Durga Pujo" (note the typical Bengali pronunciation of the word "Puja " which means "worship" or "festival"), "pantua " (a traditional deep-fried Indian confection), "payesh " (a Bengali rice pudding) and so on.


To conclude, it should be said that to compare the works of one writer with that of another is unfair. Every author is has his or her own unique writing technique. If Jhumpa Lahiri has an altogether foreign perspective of portraying her Indian protagonists, that is simply another way of looking at us Indians, her own way of representing India. Her works have helped in many ways and have been a powerful network connecting the entire globe to India. They have helped in the circulation of information about the traditions, cultures, myths, values and conventions of India, especially those of the Bengali community. To estimate the extent of Indian-ness of her works, Jhumpa Lahiri’s own words can be quoted:


"Some Indians will come up and say that a story [from her works] reminded them of something very specific to their experience which may or may not be the case for non-Indians. "

  • Varun
    Varun Chawla

    Well written. An outsider's perspective sometimes does not truly reflect and capture the core identity of the people it looks to portray but at the same time it might put into perspective and highlight parts of their identity that they are not aware of on a conscious level or something which they fail to acknowledge deliberately.

  • Celine-C-Antara
    Antara Kumar

    A wonderful read! Thanks for authoring it.