Pic: The Telegraph, UK
Pic: The Telegraph, UK

Italy, an exotic land for many, can also be an exile for a few. Jhumpa Lahiri, the celebrated author of The Lowland, The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies, discovered a feeling of exile while living in Rome, Italy. It was this sense which egged her on to master–she considers herself still a novice–the Italian language. She had learnt the language for many years in Brooklyn, New York when tutors came to her home to teach.

Her fascination with the Italian language was the real inspiration that prompted here to write In Other Words. The book has been brilliantly translated by Ann Goldstein, an editor at the New Yorker. Goldstein has effectively kept the nuances of an essentially Jhumpa Lahiri-language intact. The emotions, felt and later conveyed, are typically Lahiriesque.

In Other Words is where the author finds herself at the vortex of a triangle–one of the languages. Bengali, the language bequeathed by her parents, English, a language she was taught in and has so eloquently mastered, and her recent love, Italian. The book, in mere 200-odd pages, effectively encapsulates Lahiri’s labours of love at her attempts to gain mastery over a foreign language.

In the year 1997, I had the opportunity to travel to Italy along with my parents. Unlike Lahiri who had stayed there for a couple of years, I stayed in Italy for three days, as part of a trans-Europe whirlwind tour. I too fell in love with the city of Rome. That’s where the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica lies. Like Lahiri, I too had visited Florence and Venice, besides Rome. But unlike Lahiri, I never felt the urge to learn the Italian language. I had done a preliminary course in the French language before our trip. Frankly there is a lot of kinship between these two languages–French and Italian. Maybe because France and Italy are neighbouring countries. A lot of world classical literature has originated in France. Whereas a majority of Renaissance art has originated in Italy.

Where all her other novels are the amalgam of fact and fiction in equal measure, this book is purely autobiographical. It’s her own voice here which speaks, feels and transports her readers to her sense of alienation, which also marks a new beginning in her life and career. English as a language, she has imbibed in a pre-natal bond (since they belong to the Indian diaspora, living for years in the US), but Italian she fell in love with, wrote her first story in that language which was eventually published in a reputed Italian daily.

The book itself is as charming as the cover, which shows the author, sitting pensively–in a library, perhaps–with a book open in front. Blithe, sensitive, existential. I have read all her books and I am no exception. Hardly so. In all her highly-acclaimed works of fiction, she had delved deep into the conscious of her characters and portrayed them in a diffusive halo. Here, as a departure, she has plunged headlong into her own psyche and has thrown up questions which many would identify with.

We are aware of the importance of learning languages. It makes us smarter, more brilliant. But to have published an entire book of non-fiction in a newly acquired diction is a feat in itself. Lahiri knows it and is quite humble in her acknowledgement. She just had to know and read Dante and Petrarch in the original. I have known many non-Bengali Indians as well as non-Indians who had learnt Bengali in order to be able to read Tagore in the original. Translated works are the works of the translator. The flavour and cadence of the original text gets lost in translation. But not all of us are equipped with the knowledge of many languages. So, in order to satiate our hunger and thirst to read world literature, we have to rely on good translations.

In Other Words justifies Lahiri’s quest to achieve perfection. In this case, another language–Italian. It becomes evident that she does not abstain from challenges, in fact, she loves them. It is extremely readable, beneficial for those readers who want to know more about this versatile author. In many ways, the book marks a milestone in Lahiri’s career as well as followers of her oeuvre.

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