Originally written in Italian in 2018 and translated into English in 2020, Whereabouts is a testament to Jhumpa Lahiri’s literary prowess. Anyone who’s familiar with Lahiri’s fiction knows that her stories do not stray far from home — the Indianness is situated in close-knit family dramas, an itch for the homeland left behind, and a reconciliation of the dichotomous self. Though Lahiri identifies herself as an American and writes exclusively in English (and now Italian), her stories carry the Bengali identity across shores and maybe that’s why the translations of her books in the language work so well.
When compared to her previous works of fiction, Whereabouts is remarkably different in its content, form, and style. With every release, she triumphs as an author, and Whereabouts could very well be an introduction to Jhumpa Lahiri 2.0. The cover, premise, and style of writing herald the extraordinary shift in her craft — this is a version that we have never witnessed before. Unlike the commotion in her “Indian” stories, Whereabouts is marked by long stretches of silence. The novel almost feels like a physical journey that the author took to move away from the confusion of youth and settle into the quiet that comes with age.
The anonymous, middle-aged narrator lives in a nameless city in Italy. All we know about her is that she is a single, childless, middle-aged woman who teaches English at a university. At the first look, she seems to be content with her life apart from the infrequent instances when she runs into families during a grocery trip or lunch hour and wonders what it would be like to have one of her own. Every summer, tourists flock to her city, which makes it easier for her to eavesdrop on strangers and imagine their lives while she enjoys the recluse of her own.
These moments that she spends by herself, unbeknownst to the world and almost make-believe in its nature, is far more enjoyable to her than the company of her friends and colleagues. She bumps into former lovers during grocery runs and observes them with their children — these are kind, decent men and she fondly remembers the time that they had spent together. She visits her mother every few weeks but this audience doesn’t bring her comfort.
She’s reminded of her parents’ joyless marriage and the freedom that eluded her mother. She wants to believe that unlike her mother she’s free from being chained down to her circumstances, without perhaps realizing that she’s inherited her solitude from her mother. The narrator’s world arouses a sense of bottomless serenity but you still feel the tug of something amiss — that despite everything, she’s a creature plagued by a certain sadness.
What she lacks in human companionship, the narrator makes up in hoarding. She relies on her book of poetry and the couch in her living room to affirm her existence. The sparseness of her life in the way of humans (or even pets) and the clutter of material goods in her repertoire give life to her loneliness — the narrator sleeps with her lights on, orders food for one, finds herself alone at baptisms and weddings, and on some days struggles to get out of bed.
Whereabouts is about solitude that ever so often borders on loneliness. It evokes a sense of wistful urban loneliness that is an unbearable mix of freedom and terror. Yet the protagonist is not alone in her predicament; she mirrors all of us who regret and live in the past while being hopeful and terrified of the future, without realizing how quickly the present is passing us by. This feeling is especially searing while living through an age of a global pandemic — we are confined to our homes with nostalgia and wishful thinking for a crutch. As the world slowly returns to normalcy, we remember a year of solitude that forced us to accept ourselves for who we are and find contentment in our own company. It almost feels as if the novel (first published in 2018) prophesized a time in human history where loneliness would be chronic and we would travel only as far as the nearest deli or greengrocer’s.
The most remarkable thing about Whereabouts is that Lahiri makes no attempt in filling up the silences — as if to remind us that life will present us with more silence than we would care for, and there’s no way out other than making peace with it. The prose flows and Lahiri’s writing (the translation, too) is exquisite. Her words seep into your bones and settle into your marrow — as you read, you realize that this is a book that you will remember for years to come. There’s no hurry to bid goodbye to our odd narrator; however the book and the narrator’s time in her beloved city, just like every good thing, must come to an end. Whereabouts leaves an indelible impression on your very being and you know something within you has shifted forever.
In a crisp, elegant sentence Lahiri conveys what Whereabouts is, “Solitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect.” — a meditation seeking and an exercise in taking, holding, and having ourselves as we are.
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