Geography at a glance

July 4, 2021

Making a voyage between two languages, Lahiri’s new novel provides a memorable glimpse of the curiosities defined by geographical boundaries

Geography  at a glance

In a lyrical piece published in The Guardian, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri asserts that writing in Italian offers her an opportunity to flee from her triumphs and failures with regard to English. According to Lahiri, liberating herself from the shackles of the English language enables her to systematically obliterate and reconstruct herself and explore new creative vistas.

Imbued with the same phoenix-like metamorphosis, Whereabouts signifies a new direction in Lahiri’s work. It reflects a far deeper engagement with Italian than what her ardent readers have witnessed before. After the American-born author embarked upon a life-altering love affair with her ‘escape language’, she produced two works of non-fiction that were translated into English by others. Whereabouts has a separate etymology as it was originally conceived in Italian as Dove mi Trovo before being reimagined and reconstructed by the author in English. As a result, the novel seems to enjoy two lives conferred by the same creative mind – one in the language of its birth, the other in that of its rebirth. In traversing both languages, Lahiri combines the creative spirit of Italian with the syntax of English and gains the freedom to redefine the parameters of her fiction.

The impulse to break barriers invites mixed reactions. At first, the author’s disregard for narrative cohesion might come across as a nasty surprise. Readers who have discovered the novel after reading a series of carefully selected excerpts in the New Yorker earlier this year might be dismayed by the fragmented vignettes that have been stitched together to form Whereabouts. This technique marks a radical departure from Lahiri’s earlier work that sculpts fully-fledged fictional worlds in spare, clinical prose.

It will be difficult for a reader to savour the essence of the novel without relinquishing their old link with Lahiri’s work. The author’s new book pursues a different literary path that can be likened to cobblestones running along with an untamed garden rather than a paved street. Once we make it through the narrative, we find that the excerpts in the New Yorker do a great disservice as they unwittingly build expectations of a linear progression of events.

The beauty of Whereabouts springs from its splintered accounts, which examine the unnamed narrator’s attempts to survive in a city that alienates and beckons her in equal measure. By recording the experiences of an unmarried, middle-aged university professor and writer, the author offers a moving meditation on how geography can liberate and confine us in unexpected ways. The choice of anonymity elevates the narrative from a specific tale of a known city to a commentary on the universality of the urban experience.

Whereabouts contains an epigraph from Italo Svevo that laments the ambiguity involved in changing one’s surroundings. As per the opening quote, change as a whole is an unsettling prospect and it isn’t “greater when [we] leave a place tied to memories, grief, or happiness”. Upon closer scrutiny, the epigraph conveys the narrator’s complex equation with the unnamed locale and acts as the emotional thrust of the novel. Embroiled in an ongoing tussle between detachment and belonging, the narrator struggles to locate herself within a city that is her own.

It will be difficult for a reader to savour the essence of the novel without relinquishing their old link with Lahiri’s work. The author’s new book pursues a different literary path that can be likened to cobblestones running along with an untamed garden rather than a paved street.

Using landmarks across the metropolis as headings for each vignette, Lahiri sparks a conversation between the narrator and her surroundings. As an interlocutor, the city compels the narrator to question her sense of place, revisit past traumas and examine her deepest dilemmas. At the same time, the city offers consolation in a distressed hour and makes her feel less alone. These contradictions fuel the novel in lieu of an airtight plot.

The prose has a slow, meditative quality that lends the narrative a much-needed interiority. This device opens the portals to the narrator’s mind and allows her to benefit from a three-dimensionality that would be lost if the story had been filtered through a third-person narrative perspective. The facets of the narrator’s life gradually unravel in forty-six vignettes while we discover the conflicting push and pull of her surroundings.

With each sketch, we are drawn into the life of an independent woman who has skilfully avoided any restrictive alliances. But the city weighs her down and serves as a cold reminder of her inadequacies. She thrives in its troubled environs by relying on her solitude, which has “become [her] trade” as it “requires a certain discipline”. Urban solitude is essentially a myth - a lie that we tell ourselves to placate our restless souls. Although the narrator is reluctant to engage on a deeper level with people and the city, she wanders through its streets as an observer who eavesdrops on conversations and remains a relentless people-watcher. Documenting conversations overheard on the street and fashioning backstories for strangers allows the narrator to sustain the illusion that she isn’t alienated.

At times, her near-voyeuristic interest in people threatens to reduce her to a mere bystander who vicariously experiences the city’s unique flavours. Yet, Lahiri’s narrator remains at the fulcrum of the city’s story. The nameless metropolis is the backdrop of her imperfect relationships, family history, and deep-rooted anxieties. As she distractedly drifts through the city, she encounters ex-lovers, neighbours and friends who bind her to her roots and memories.

Her past trauma and existing psychological demons also chain her to the city. From the outset, the narrator reveals her searing obsession with death. The theme recurs in subsequent sketches and is presented as a heightened reflection of the narrator’s personal woes at a crucial threshold in life. A range of vignettes unearth the lingering effect of her father’s demise, an unhappy childhood, a strained relationship with her mother and an overpowering sense of despair.

Regardless of the uneasy solitude that defines her bond with the city, the narrator struggles to escape its clutches and succumbs to its unusual trance. Even so, her perspective evolves and she steadily realises that our connection with cities is forever intricate and intense and cannot be easily comprehended.

Whereabouts is fundamentally distinct from Lahiri’s earlier work. It tackles the familiar themes of alienation and belonging from a new vantage point. The narrator also bears traces of the protagonists who populated Lahiri’s previous novels. She shares with Gauri Mitra in The Lowland a preoccupation with her past and derives a perpetual sense of “foreignness” from Ashima Ganguli in The Namesake.

Moving beyond existing constraints, Whereabouts is little more than a linguistic experiment. Making a voyage between two languages, Lahiri’s new novel provides a memorable, meaningful glimpse of the curiosities and constraints defined by geographical boundaries.


Author: Jhumpa Lahiri

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Pages: 168

Price: Rs 1,391

The reviewer is a   freelance journalist and the author of      Typically Tanya

Geography at a glance