Monday, 5 July 2010

Girls from Good Families, and the Stories They Write: Jhumpa Lahiri and Anita Rau Badami

Jhumpa Lahiri's short story collection Unaccustomed Earth kept me up reading over the weekend, and this despite the fact that I'd read four of the eight stories previously in The New Yorker. The book continues to explore a circle of character types she has written about before: upper middle-class, educated Indians and their children living in the United States. Full of carefully-observed detail, the stories present the dramas that resonate with those of many of the people who read The New Yorker. Children succeed or fail disastrously, parents die, love comes or does not: there must be tens of thousands of intelligent readers who can sympathize with Lahiri's people.

Politics, societal conflict, even professional and intellectual struggles are largely absent from this world, and as I read I found myself comparing the stories with Anita Rau Badami's three novels, particularly her last one Can You Hear the Night Bird Call? Badami was born and educated in India, unlike Lahiri who is North-American born, but many of her characters come from the same world as Lahiri's. Her people also sometimes feel caught between two worlds, and they try to make good lives for themselves, too.

A major--and telling difference--is the way the Badami wants to understand how her characters fit into a world much larger than the one of intimate relationships which Lahiri almost always favours. Night Bird is the best example of this, because its three women characters are caught up in Hindu-Sikh conflicts that permeate a good part of Indian politics, and spill over tragically into North America. At the heart--and the end--of the novel is the Air India disaster, which until 9/11 had the unhappy distinction of being the world's most fatal civilian terrorist attack.

Outside events only intrude into Lahiri's stories once: Unaccustomed Earth contains a reference to the 2004 tsunami. It seems Lahiri is a little uncomfortable about that even. “The real event just sort of caught my character in there,” she told one interviewer. “I don’t tackle major global events. I don’t like to read about something—an event, a cataclysm—in fiction for the sake of reading it." Better to turn to non-fiction for accounts of events, she said: "that’s what good nonfiction is for. And I think that the fact there is a major global event in (my) book—I don’t know if it was okay or not.”"

I would say it most definitely is okay. In fact, the reference is masterfully set in context, and opens up Lahiri's fictional world so that it resonates far beyond the lives of her well-brought up characters. In the future, I hope she continues to tell us stories about how the people she imagines fit into a world wider than one of good schools, deadly but well-managed illness and love which sometimes is arranged and sometimes is not.

And the word is that Badami will have a book out soon: I'm looking forward that one a lot.

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