"I like the books, I leaf through catalogues of art exhibits in the city. I ignore the books I brought to keep me company. I always prefer being surrounded by things that don't belong to me." - Jhumpa Lahiri, Whereabouts
Jhumpa Lahiri's Whereabouts is quite unlike her other books, and I prepared to rip my heart out of my chest as I pre-ordered it. But this book isn't about the South Asian diaspora, human suffering, or themes Lahiri usually explores. It talks about the other kind of suffering — loneliness. The protagonist has no name; she could be from any city in Italy and is in her 40s. The pages let you take a peek into her life. It felt like I was reading someone's diary and not in the wrong way.
Originally written in Italian by Lahiri as Dove Mi Trovo (2018), which loosely translates to 'where am I' or 'where I find myself at', she also translated it. The 46 chapters of the book are short, with some chapters only half a page. Even if you pluck a random chapter from the book, you can read nothing more than terrestrial vignettes from the protagonist's life. The chapters are named 'At the Supermarket', 'In Bed', 'At his Place', 'In the Bookstore', and every chapter has a mood. The protagonist wonders about ex-lovers, her therapist, her friend's daughter, etc. In 'On the Street', she bumps into someone she has a history with; he accompanies her to lingerie shops, they grab coffee sometimes, and the other times, their lives keep them busy. Their encounters are fleeting, and I like that they offer the readers nothing more than a momentary respite. There's no drama here if you're looking for one.
Most chapters are structured similarly. The protagonist often thinks out loud. In 'At My Mother's', she writes, "What does she make of my solitary life? Would she have liked a couple of grandchildren and an attentive son-in-law? Certainly, that's what she had in mind." Her relationship with her parents seems strained. While in most chapters, she wonders about life as a matter of fact or as an afterthought; the tone is slightly different in the chapters about her mom and dad — perhaps it's guilt-induced. The character is equal parts detached and melancholy. You'd wonder if she is computing the possibilities of her life. Or, if she prefers her solitary life, it offers her the luxury of doing things on her terms. Something that a life with a partner and kids may not extend. But, this character values freedom, even if she is seldom lonely. And that's that!
Words in Whereabouts carry weight. They don't take you someplace else. But they are familiar and bring you a step closer to Lahiri. The protagonist could be like your neighbour (or even you) and one that keeps to herself. You could be caught up in your daily grind but still have a dekko at her life from your window. Nothing much has changed. And that's comforting.
You can order the book on Amazon here.