It all started with E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India and The Jewel in the Crown series on TV: stories about India and Indians. I got hooked. The first books I read – by Scott and Kipling and Masters – were by westerners. Then I went on to works by Indians: Naipaul and Narayan and Mistry and, most recently Jhumpa Lahiri. It’s a big world out there, with lots of Indians in it, many of whom want to tell us about it.
Lahiri was born in London of Begali parents and gew up in Rhode Island, so she is a second-generation immigrant. Years ago when the Irish and the Italians and the eastern-European Jews came, they mostly came to stay. Submerged in American life, whether they liked it or not, they couldn’t afford to go back, not often and maybe not at all if it was dangerous. With today’s phone cards and air travel, educated immigrants can maintain ties to their former homes. In Lahiri’s stories, the parents take their American children back to Calcutta or Delhi during summer break, to stay with their grandparents and play with their cousins. The parents may even yo-yo back and forth between jobs in India and Boston. In both places, their expectations for their children are high. Sometimes the children rebel, Indian style.
Sudha had waited until college to disobey her parents. Before then she had lived according to their expectations, her persona scholarly, her social life limited to other demure girls in her class, if only to ensure that one day she would be set free. Out of sight in Philadelphia she studied diligently, double-majoring in economics and math, but on weekends she learned to let loose, going to parties and allowing boys into her bed.
Mostly these stories are about the second generation and their gentle rebellions. They want to be set free — free of the annual trips to India, free to stop studying, free not to marry the person chosen. These stories are full of the pain and resourcefulness of those who, mostly, try to make it in both worlds.