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The writer’s love affair with language that Jhumpa Lahiri portrays in her newest book In Other Words, can have a parallel in love in the real world.
Love comes in various forms, and in differing shapes and sizes – the infatuation of early love, the young love full of passion and intensity, and the love of companionship – comfortable and wordless.
In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri takes the reader through all these stages of love and more. It is the love affair of a writer with a language – a love that develops from an attraction to an obsession to a comradeship.
After a visit to Florence, Lahiri is drawn to the Italian language and obsesses over mastering it and making it her first language. She does not understand the reason for the attraction, but she is possessed by the need to ‘possess’ the language and make it her own. For a person who thinks in English, it means a paradigm shift in her thought process.
The book, written as a series of short chapters akin to diary entries, makes the reader a part of the process she follows – the tutors, the notebooks and diaries, her struggles with grammar, her failed attempts at conversing with Italians, her mistakes and lessons learnt. It is a journey that spans not months, but years.
A parallel can be drawn with the often repeated storyline of lovers brought together repeatedly by fate, except that all this happens in real-life. After repeated visits to Italy, mostly for work, she decides to make a permanent move to the land, family in tow, to learn and live the language.
The first half of the book is engaging. Anyone who has passionately pursued learning anything new – a new art form, a new script, a new language, etc. can identify with the obsession of the author. She likens it to the addition of a new member to the family, one learns new things about him/her every day and slowly develops a maternal feeling towards it.
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The brilliance wanes in the second half, where a comfort develops with the language. You expect the chapters to get deeper and more meaningful. Many chapters leave you wishing there had been more about the thoughts and incidents expressed, than a superficial touch-and-go. In an attempt to be detailed, the chapters becomes repetitive, not unlike a diary where the same thoughts are phrased and re-phrased in various ways.
But unlike a diary, there is no emotion. Unlike a memoir, it’s not personal, it is detached. Everything is recorded in a monotone, a continuous narration, not unlike how one might read out the Constitution.
This came across to me a little strange, considering that Italians are some of the most passionate people in the world, and the fact that this book was originally written in Italian language and translated into English. One would imagine that some of that passion would filter into her writing, but no. The book became predictable and a tad tedious and I completed it only to keep up my personal record of never having left a book unfinished, however boring. It pales in comparison to her other works and will appeal to a certain niche of the readers – language lovers.
Read it if you ‘have’ to because it is Jhumpa Lahiri, but don’t expect to go gaga over how amazing a work it is, because this in not like anything she has written before. Read it with the same emotion that it is written with – detachment. Read it if you love languages, or have ever passionately sought to learn something new. Most importantly, read it keeping in mind the fact that this whole book was originally written in Italian and the writer’s efforts and loyalty to the language cannot be missed.
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