There is a charming persistence to the chronicler Jhumpa Lahiri’s writings. Her eye and interests rest on things and events that do not interest many writers, especially those from the Subcontinent. Admittedly, Interpreter of Maladies (Harper Collins, 1999) is languid, and stubbornly refuses to probe any of its characters in depth, but because it moves like a home video, slowly through the lives of the Sen and the Dixit families in downtown America, it fulfills the promise of readability.
The success of Maladies lies in providing the North American readers with a panoramic view of the life of two South Asian families, who have for more than two decades lived unobtrusively amidst them. Now that their prosperity can no longer be ignored — remember, even Bill Clinton made a pilgrimage to the Subcontinent—Americans have decided that they are now curious about all these engineers and academics who have suddenly burst into the scene, no longer slinking into a tenement in Jackson Heights, but commanding prime property in Summit, New Jersey. Who are these people—Ms Lahiri provides the readable guide, and this explains the Pulitzer.
Lahiri has a unique advantage in that, although she was raised in an Indian family, she can write from the perspective of an American writer. Her eyes therefore catch nuances that escape both the India-born and the American writer. She unravels the lives of an Indian household from the perspective of an enlightened second generation, much like she might have done for her curious American friends in college. She tells stories that have quaint locations and settings, yet her main characters and their life problems are strikingly familiar to the American audience.
There is a lot to be learnt from Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. They are excellent chroniclers. They know the market they write for, and are not sidetracked. Most of all, they do not believe that all fiction should dazzle, and that words should leap off the page with clever alliterations and cleverer metaphors. Sometimes one wishes that the Subcontinent could produce such chroniclers too, to do for us what Ms Lahiri has done for her North American clientele. It would be good to have someone writing with a dogged eye and a capable pen, who could settle her/his gaze on different communities and cultures that are part of , say, South Asian metros. Someone who would write less about tortured childhood, or torn identity in a caste-based society, someone less self-involved, more willing to observe and take notes.
Will this mundane stuff, without angst and vivid pictures of tourist hot spots, sell? The answer is an unequivocal yes, and that it will sell in our South Asian cities without having first to receive an imprimatur from the Booker or the Pulitzer. It will sell because, like in America, there exists in our metros a large English-speaking readership, not even necessarily the class elite, which is unaware of the diversity of its city, which is removed from the reality of so many sectors and communities. This readership, too, like its American counterpart, likes to read, can buy a book, and is curious about its surroundings. It would like to know about the Bangladeshi immigrants living in trans-Jamuna colonies without having to make friends with them.
A writer does not need a crisis of identity to write like Lahiri; although longing for one´s homeland helps to sell a book. One needs to have the maturity to look beyond the “troubled self”. It´s not easy, because the cities of the Subcontinent are more like a conglomeration of small towns built like fortresses, ready for war. An environment that breeds infatuation with the self, and leads to novels based on the narrow premise that a reader will be interested in the eternal verities that the main character spouts.
The chronicler´s craft lies in the unerring eye, which manages to catch the essence of what it is to be human, by describing characters that do not fidget and obsess, and are beautifully real. R. K. Narayan created Malgudi. Today a writer does not have to aim that high. In truth, a writer, if he wants to sell, should not even try and recreate a world, all . he needs is to observe patiently, and reproduce simply. Or she.