Getting Accustomed to Lahiri’s Earth

To write about an author who is the toast of readers, critics (mostly, though there are some who are hostile) and adjudicators of literary prizes the world over, could well be seen as adding seasoning to a pot of stew that needs nothing more, in the hope that the aroma wafting out will attract visitors into a small wayside stall, except that I wouldn’t have added my two pence worth at all if it hadn’t been for a cloyingly approbative article I read a few days ago through an online reading group I subscribe to and then, a random search threw up another, a review of the author’s first book – Interpreter of Maladies – that was so vicious, it left me out of breath.

I have read all three of Lahiri’s books. As a reader I have traveled with her into her world, within the jackets of her books. Lahiri’s world is physically vastly different from the one I grew up in. Yet, each and every character comes across as real; as true as the people I could encounter in Gariahat or Jodhpur Park or even Cornwalis Street in North Calcutta.  Or for that matter in any of the Bengali Association gatherings in Bombay, Bangalore, Delhi, Sydney, Singapore, New Jersey… This is so because, somewhere, despite the different levels of prosperity, westernisation and sophistication, the different life styles and habits, the Bengaliness of their (Lahiri’s Bengali’s) being has remained, even among those who rarely speak the language.

The idea of Lahiri the author and Lahiri the persona that comes through from the various interviews that I have read of her, gives me a sense of this very Bengaliness of her being. Despite, not being an Indian – she is an American citizen, and can we please respect that instead of literally lassoing her in as a fellow Indian?! – and despite never having lived here, apart from the few holidays she may have spent with her parents as a child, and despite writing in English, I get a distinct sense that her characters could just as well populate Bengali stories in Bengali settings, with minor changes here and there. This feeling came through very strongly in her latest book – Unaccustomed Earth – which is by far the most American - because of the characters - of her three books!

I have actually met and interacted with people who are like her characters in their passions, desires, hopes and fears, as well as their frustrations, privations, vanities and idiosyncrasies.  This is of course my point of view. As a reader I am entitled to draw parallels between Lahiri’s characters and the ones of flesh and bone that I have encountered. In her stories I often felt that however superficially dissimilar the characters, situations and settings may be, they are the one and same with those who remained in the original country. I have never had any bone to pick as far as the truth within her stories is concerned, nor with the facts from which her fiction grows. After this point however I confess to a problem.

 Lahiri is a vastly gifted writer, no doubts about that. Her style is elegant and classical, her prose lucid. She remains aloof from her characters, neither judging nor defending them. In her very first book itself she displayed a maturity in her writing that many older writers do not possess. But by the time I got to her third book, the narrowness of her scope was beginning to get to me. I mean how many stories can you read about one community in one country with their established set of conflicts and issues, which are not after all soul searing?  This was when I began to feel that I was watching a very long television saga, that though interesting, was recasting the same set of people over and over, even to the point of having the same eye colour  – green/gray green/coin coloured.  

I enjoy Lahiri’s prose too much to dismiss her as a good but limited writer, apart from the fact that it is early yet. Besides, when I place her three books side by side, I can clearly see Lahiri’s progress as a writer. The area of her interest and subject matter may have remained the same, but her sensibilities have deepened around them; her art has uncovered layers like the gentle and skilled hands of an expert archaeologist working for years on the same stretch of earth.

Thus as a reader, while I have certainly grown accustomed to lahiri’s earth, and at times have wearied of it a little, I do look forward to more stories from her. I only wish she would expand her horizon more, sooner than later; for Lahiri’s earth beckons so!

As for the two articles that made me sit up and put in my bit, here they are, judge for yourself:

An unkind and quite unjustified review of Jhumpa Lahiri here: http://www.cosmoetica.com/B413-DES348.htm.

And this grovellingly worshipful piece: http://www.hindustantimes.com/StoryPage/StoryPage.aspx?id=edeefac4-6691-4dc1-aea9-551a205880c0

Postscript to My Previous Post – “Was I Really…”

In my previous post I had written “Most of them (poetry competitions) require entry fees, which incidentally are not unaffordable, despite being on the steep side when converted into Indian rupees. Poetry competitions provide a great platform for unknown voices.”

The “them” should include both fiction and poetry competitions. I’d also like to reiterate that they provide a great platform for unknown and struggling literary and poetic voices. Besides, who couldn’t do with a bit more moolah in this very upwardly mobile and expensive world that we all live in these days, eh?

Honestly speaking, I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t desire some moolah after all from my writing. Despite the fact that writing is an all consuming passion for me; without my writing I would not be me, but a bewildered woman going through the motions of earthly existence.

Talking of money brings me to the affordability bit about the fee based literary competitions that abound: the affordability of most literary competitions is relative to your personal priorities. You could spend that money elsewhere or save it, but you don’t when you believe that here is a good clean way to challenge the writer within and see what you can come up with. Fiction and poetry competitions give the challenge (of writing) a certain legitimacy; they goad you into treating your muse more professionally (yes, that also means more respectfully thank you!) , at least for that particular competition entry! To make matters better, there are good competitions around that are completely free -  God bless those benevolent madcaps who organise/sponsor literary competitions for the benefit of writers for free.

Do I sound like a competition gadfly, forever buzzing around most irritatingly, in search of that literary lottery? Far from it. I do read  and collect information about competitions, but when it comes to using that information for my own good, I usually have cold feet. I either don’t have or can’t come up with something appropriate; that apart, time is a major deterrent. I never seem to be able to procrastinate my way into finishing my work on time. (Incidentally there’s an on-line course that teaches you to procrastinate your way into writing that book, but right now I can’t remember who the author/teacher is or was.) Also the fee factor means I get to choose only one or two from the competition buffet. I am sure many writers feel the same way. Nevertheless, if a fellow writer were to ask me, I would say go for the competitions. Submit as many as you possibly can.

It’s not just about winning the competition. Once you commit yourself to one, it gives you a sense of purpose, however temporary, in your solitary writing life. Work gets done within a fixed frame of time. You are forced to read and re-read your work keenly to catch those typos and other editing ghouls that always sneak in, even when the work seems as polished as a mirror. By sticking to the given word limit - this is true for fiction mostly, though some poetry competitions also mention word counts – you get the opportunity to be unsentimental and practical about the fluff and flab in your work. All in all I feel that the whole exercise helps in toning up the writer, which may or may not produce immediate lucrative short term results, but in the long term, actually helps to push you closer to your writing goals; much more than you can possibly imagine!

Was I really a ‘finalist’ in that international poetry contest?

Given how crowded and competitive the writing world is, it certainly isn’t a bad thing to be an also ran; seriously speaking. Unless of course, your ego has an appetite that would put Gargantua to shame! So why am I looking at this gift horse in the mouth?

The ‘gift horse’ I am referring to came packaged in direct mail from the editor’s desk. There is nothing wrong here. Poetry journals hold competitions all the time. Most of them require entry fees, which incidentally are not unaffordable, despite being on the steep side when converted into Indian rupees. Poetry competitions provide a great platform for unknown voices. Afterwards, the organizers and/or poetry editors are completely justified in soliciting submissions/entries for their next competition.  All of it is perfectly reasonable. And, in this case it was a well known and prestigious magazine, that you’d be proud to be published in, prize or no prize. So why am I cribbing?

I am cribbing because the editor referred to me as a finalist.

At first glance I was flattered, despite the letter being a “form” letter in a classic direct mail package comprising the letter, the offer coupon where you tick your choice, a pre-paid self addressed envelope and the product/service information leaflet, which in this case was about the competition and the prize winners and merit list.

To further clarify, here’s the first part of the letter:

Dear Finalist, (this part was italicized and in bold in the original letter)

Thanks for your participation, XYZ (the competition) was a tremendous success, with thousands of entries from dozens of countries. From Iceland to etc. etc. etc. XYZ was a truly global celebration of the art of poetry. You’ll be pleased to know that you were a Finalist in the competition, one of the top 5% of an outstanding international field! “(This whole line was italicized and ‘finalist’ was in bold in the original. Further, my name was not mentioned anywhere, indeed the editor regretted not being able to write personally to everyone in the third paragraph of the letter and reassured me that my entry was “read with care and appreciation”).

Lastly, the editor went on to say “And, although this particular entry did not win a prize this time round, I hope you will do us the honor of taking part in this remarkable international event again in the future. Next year could be your year!”  The whole thing read like pure advertising copy; as if the editor had hired a PR firm or ad agency to promote the competition and magazine.

Once again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with hiring an agency or using ad copy language in the promotional material. Except that I have an ideal in my head about how  a poetry magazine that I respect ought to project itself. A straight forward approach, without flattery definitely would have  worked for me. 

What’s more, the editor did write a personal email to me, because I had queried regarding the receipt of my entry and fee. The editor’s response dropped into my in-box after a couple of months (of my query), right after the results were out and on the very day I received my snail mail direct mail. His email to me read -  “We received your entry in good order. If you included a self-addressed envelope with the entry, you should get the contest results shortly. I can say that your entry did not win a prize this time, but I personally read your entry and appreciated it very much. Hope to see you again next year. Thanks!” Nowhere did he mention that I was a finalist.

I am perfectly happy with his email response. I have no problems whatsoever not even making it to the final round. It’s okay to be edged out by better poems. Poets and writers who are genuinely committed to their craft take rejections in their stride and work harder. It’s just that I don’t like being “comforted and consoled” and encouraged to submit again in this manner.  I want to respect my editors (and readers too) as much as I want them to respect me. I don’t submit to magazines I don’t enjoy reading. And, I don’t participate in contests organized by magazines or institutions I don’t respect. All I can say is that it takes something as seemingly insignificant as a word – “finalist” – to leave a bad taste in the mouth, simply because it wasn’t the truth.