Jhumpa Lahiri’s Once in a Lifetime

16May06

Jhumpa Lahiri's short story Once in a Lifetime was recently published by The New Yorker.

When I first read The Interpreter of Maladies, what struck me most about Jhumpa Lahiri was her outlook on (what I would term) the Alien-Land phenomenon. It's the tendency of people to continue to obsessively associate themselves to the orthodoxy of their origins with an intense stress on retaining their ancestral identity even though they have been living away from their native for ages – a perceived alienation in their present country of citizenship.

Lahiri too was brought up under the supervision of a mother who wanted her to be raised more as a stereotype Indian rather than a cult American. And a lot of her expressions in most of her works reflect her American-Indian perspectives.

Once in a Lifetime is another such story where Lahiri couples the disposition typical of an Indian family as seen through the eyes of a young Bengali girl, Hema, who narrates to her friend the common memories of their childhood that moved from Cambridge to Calcutta and back to Cambridge.

It was 1974. I was six years old. You were nine. Through Hema's re-telling of her memories, Lahiri often brings up aspects of a cross-cultural sensitivity which was deficient in Hema's mother. When Hema feels ashamed for having slept with her parents, rather than sleeping in her own room, as her mother thought it to be a cruel American culture to let a child sleep alone, or when her mother is shocked to hear her counterpart traveling First Class in flight, we see a depiction of a cultural displacement as perceived by the Indian parents.

Lahiri is known to give careful attention to the most intricate of details in her stories. Her fluent style of describing the minutest details, like ever-continuing strands of a noodle, starting from the color of the pillows to the mood of an individual at a given point in the story comes to the fore when she describes the arrival of the family at Hema's place.

Hema is weary with mixed feelings about the family's coming back, as she had to forego her room for her friend until they moved into their own apartment coupled with juvenile speculations of sharing the living rooms to the dining table with the visitors. Lahiri spins a fine metaphor around this feeling of weariness when Hema says, Though you had all just flown halfway across the world, it was I who felt weary, despite my nap. Hema is an embodiment of a Lahiri-like personality questioning her parent's conventional wisdom and eventually living her own way, but none of the other characters seem to be making any kind of an impact. But nevertheless, Lahiri deserves the credit for handling a web of characters with characteristic ease within the tiny span of the short story.

Though not of the kind that would kindle any deep rooted sentiment, the story is filled with an amalgamation of Indian culture and the American reality, with a touch of an emotional satire towards the end, that pokes a tiny hollow into your heart even as you finish reading it.

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10 Responses to “Jhumpa Lahiri’s Once in a Lifetime

  1. 1 mahen

    So, books’ellam padikkira… hmmm :)

  2. 2 mahen

    I mean short stories, books, blah blah blah…

  3. 3 Jax

    It’s the tendency of people to continue to obsessively associate themselves to the orthodoxy of their origins with an intense stress on retaining their ancestral identity even though they have been living away from their native for ages – a perceived alienation in their present country of citizenship

    I remember reading once, A man without a past is a man without a future.

  4. Though it is not a very touching story, but in the short scope of a short story, it brilliantly depicts the different shades of the life of cross-cultured people. Sometimes, only a simple web of relations and emotion is sufficient to describe the most complex transition of the life.

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