Note: This post contains spoilers for both Whereabouts and Gun Island.
I am an ardent admirer of Indian fiction, and have often engaged with works emphasising a Bengali diaspora in their writing. Finishing Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts, though, paralysed me with displeasure – the intended monotony in the novel lulled me into a realm of lethargy. Through all the reviews and blurbs of and on the novel, I expected my patience to be key in anticipating the climax of the novel. By the end of a few hundred pages, I was still anticipating, only more bored and discontent with the book cover I once found pretty. My subsequent read was to be of Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island, which includes a Bengali diaspora too. Even though Whereabouts validated my pessimism around the impact of these diasporas in recent works of Indian fiction, Ghosh’s Gun Island, in an intrinsically antonymous manner, enthralled me with adoration for works set in India.
My primary liking of Ghosh’s novel also stems from a sense of relief, having been disappointed by Lahiri. I began reading Whereabouts as a method to verify my opinion on Lahiri’s writing, having read The Namesake three years ago. I remember passionately advertising my absolute admiration for the richness in her writing in that novel, and how I thought she brought about the idea of a lost familial bond, simultaneously as Gogol (the protagonist of The Namesake) experiences a transience of his culture. Magnificently written, it is still able to render contemplations about my engagement with my culture. My name isn’t very common, and neither was Gogol’s in the novel – and in North America where they often struggle to spell it, I deliberate the need to employ a westernised substitution; Dave, perhaps. Gogol wasn’t shy in displaying his frustration to his parents, and as he matured, he grew to regret it. Respect is paramount in Indian culture. I fear a similar disobedience to my culture when my temper doesn’t comply with my patience before my parents. I feel horrible. The Namesake in its writing was able to call me out and simultaneously force me to interrogate my behaviour. Lahiri was excellent in sketching that idea.
The issue in Whereabouts, especially when compared to The Namesake or Gun Island was the absence of engaging sentences. Yes, the novel was intentionally monotonous to represent the tedium of routine, however, it creates this exhausting anticipation within the reader, since they cannot engage with the book. The sentence structure was identical and repetitive: simple observations made by the nameless woman, with brief moments of thought. That’s it. Even when the climax is introduced, Lahiri doesn’t enforce a radical change in the sentence structure. Gun Island was inherently different in this matter. Ghosh’s tone for each character was visibly unique, and the distinction was consistent. In doing so, Ghosh ensures dramatic exclamations, abrupt pauses and a juxtaposition of stichomythia and enjambment to challenge the reader’s flow – to keep them engaged.
After reading around ten pages of Whereabouts, the reader grows to know what to expect in terms of writing. In that moment of anticipation, Lahiri had an excellent opportunity to surprise the reader by varying the structure– one which would’ve had me adore the novel. I was disappointed, naturally, when the variation was lacking. She did not resolve my disappointment, either, as she seemed to have over-established the attached boredom to routine. Her point was made after twenty-odd pages. Given the length of the novel, she could’ve used that as the preface to her climax, in order to make the novel more effective in its delivery.
The simplicity of the plot is reassuring, but we must understand that a more ‘predictable’ book, even if comforting, will lack richness. At no point does Lahiri’s novel make the reader uneasy. The narration is simple. But in doing so, her novel testifies the need for novels to make the reader anxious. In this situation, I am not referring to a general discomfort, restlessness or horror (as is the case with mystery or thriller novels), but the ability of the novel in its writing to leave you guessing of what to expect. You shouldn’t be able to guess the style of writing in the succeeding pages.
That’s why I feel in Whereabouts, the execution of the plot completely betrays its potential. Exploring the crisis of one feeling lost at home (essentially a familiar setting) by forgetting directions around town – is what appears to be a metaphorical representation of a ‘one losing their path’. In theory, this is an excellent idea. It’s just not carried out well. Occurring in a three-part sense of rising action, climax and falling action, the plot isn’t hard to track. But that’s all the plot has to offer: the ability to simply know what’s going on at any point in the novel without difficulty. Indian fiction has seen the theme of identity be pivotal in novels, stemming largely from the idea of surmounting colonialism. She does highlight the anxiety of being a foreigner to your culture, but only temporarily. Thus, the simplicity of the plot in Lahiri’s latest novel is such that it reduces an identity anxiety to simply a momentary trouble, occurring to eliminate monotony from one’s routine.
Ghosh, in his trademark manner, possesses the reader through the nuances of the plot. A wonderful play on migration, elucidated through the themes of illicit immigration and his protagonist’s journey through various countries to examine a legend, his novel transports the reader into thought about appearing realities. Ghosh’s Italian woman, Cinta, is one of my favourite literary characters. So humanely inquisitive, dazed as she ages, yet she retains an outlook for mysterious possibilities through the eccentric journeys which the protagonist, Dutta, involves her in. She, too, experiences monotony in her routine. Perhaps not of the same extent as Lahiri’s character, but enough to have her crave Dutta’s absurd curiosities about Bengali legends. Unlike Lahiri, Ghosh doesn’t make monotony the sole theme within the plot. It is imperative in driving the curiosity of the characters but it allows for the maintenance of the reader’s curiosity too.
The ability of an author of a similar pedigree as Lahiri to craft a work in the same year (2018) with such different, improved nuances, elaborates on the novel’s inability to impose a sense of awe. Ghosh’s Gun Island genuinely possessed me. I couldn’t escape its details or prevent myself from thinking about it.
The plot was engaging; the allusion to the ancient mythology of a gun merchant living on an island of snakes was incredible. Very wittily, Ghosh makes the myth an obsession of Dutta. But the detail in which he explores that story in the novel is enough to convince the reader of his obsession with the myth. Dutta in this novel seems possessed by this legend, and also the anxiety of his relationship with every other character, and I was poetically bewitched by his story. There’s a certain fruitfulness to analysing Ghosh’s novel. Especially since the novel is narrated through Dutta’s perspective, you’re introduced to his anxiety in great depth. In studying his behaviour, it becomes evident that he’s a very relatable individual. He’s nervous about love, about his work and frightened by stories of gore – as one would normally be. It’s a subtle detail which provides great power to the novel. The normalcy of such panic throughout the novel infuses a nervousness within the reader – I couldn’t refuse feeling so, and in that mood I was able to truly grasp the ghastly nature of illicit immigration, climate change and the eccentric exploration of the legend.
The language was challenging too – needing me to constantly rely on my dictionary, and it required a constant stream of analysis to fruitfully excavate its sincerity. The nature of Whereabouts was so frail that it was difficult to not forget it. Even the introduction of Gun Island holds enough power to make you forget the intricacy of Lahiri’s writing in Whereabouts.
Even if all authors have a forgetful work, I think the nature of Whereabouts in being so is intriguing. The Bengali diasporas may be recurrent in Lahiri’s works but her calibre is such that she should have a greater command over its execution, having won coveted awards for works with them. I’m not asking for a preaching of Ghosh either, rather calling for the acknowledgement of his magnificent command over language. Especially in the execution of Bengali characters, accompanied by an Italian setting, Ghosh renders a response within the reader which forces them to evaluate beyond just that. Lahiri lacks that disruptive sentiment. For a novel titled Whereabouts, commenting on one losing their path, the novel aptly ‘loses’ the reader when navigating through their lens, and is unable to evoke any strong or noteworthy reactions to the novel’s denouement.