By Sonali Mukherjee
Sometimes, the stories that are the simplest are the ones that draw the most emotion from its audience. The one story that truly ties the American people together is the quintessential story of immigration: the movement of people and their lives from one comfortable place to another possibly unfriendly and unfamiliar one. Perhaps this is the reason why students, teachers, and fiction enthusiasts alike packed 10-250 Thursday night to listen to a reading by the 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, Jhumpa Lahiri.
Dressed in a grey turtleneck and a black skirt, with her hair neatly tied back as in the picture on her Pulitzer Prize winning book Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri eloquently addressed the huge audience with the style of a writer well versed in communication. In a quiet, graceful voice supported by a confidence of steel, Lahiri began the lecture by speaking of her connections with MIT, the first college in the Boston area that has asked her to do a reading.
Her father worked at the Institute in 1969 when her family first came here from India, and she mentions the Institute several times in her book. Interpreter of Maladies is actually a collection of short stories, and Lahiri read one of these entitled “This Blessed House.”
The reading, sponsored by the Program for Writing and Humanistic Studies and the Center for Bilingual/Bicultural Studies, drew such a tremendous crowd that people were leaning against the podium at which Lahiri was speaking.
William Corbett, a professor in the Program for Writing and Humanistic studies, who introduced Lahiri, was impressed by the turnout. “She gave a terrific reading. This is a great audience,” he enthusiastically announced afterwards. Corbett first met Lahiri when his daughter and she worked together at a Wordsworth bookstore one summer. Lahiri, who studied at Boston University for her masters and Ph.D., often visited him and his family for dinner, as she described at the beginning of the lecture.
Lahiri’s stories mainly deal with the cultural situations of people with ethnic links to India living the United States. Her style of writing, however, is so simple and understandable to the reader that it delivers a sweet charm to the story.
“This Blessed House” was the tale of an Indian couple both raised in America who are moving into a new house. The house holds many hidden Christian artifacts that the previous owners left behind. The story that Lahiri spins is a tale that examines and juxtaposes the characters of the husband and wife.
The couple is Hindu, but the wife’s whimsical desire to keep the artifacts and prominently display them in their new house unnerves the husband. Lahiri skillfully and observantly took the audience on a journey through the eyes of the husband, describing his internal conflict between the desire to never be alone and the discomforting thoughts he has about his marriage whenever his wife finds a new treasure.
The story, like all her others, humorously blends two different cultures and elicited many laughs from the audience. By far, the most amusing moment of the night was Lahiri’s description of the husband, who attended MIT, compulsively and precisely “arranging his engineering texts” on a bookshelf in the new house.
By far, it is Lahiri’s exquisite attention to the minuscule details that make her an amazing writer. She leaves no description out, making the smallest details seem like they are of greatest consequence. From describing the wife smoking a cigarette, to making the audience hear the symphonies the husband listened to, to creating imagery of the Indian dinners the couple eats, Lahiri never failed to effortlessly immerse the reader in her stories.
The description of the housewarming party the couple throws is absolutely complete, down to the traditional clothing of salwars and saris, the incense burning, and the Indian food served in foil trays. This description was in several ways very personal because, being the child of first generation Indian parents, the parties my parents have are also very similar in manner, and they were a familiar part of my childhood.
Professor Stephen Senturia, a teacher in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department, and his wife Peg, had Lahiri as a tenant in his house in Brookline in 1990 while she was studying at BU. “We were so surprised when we saw her [short stories appear] in the New Yorker,” an enthusiastic Senturia explained after the lecture, while Lahiri was signing books and posters. He also described her creativity as a tenant that also shows in her writing. “She painted her room green!” he said.
Corbett described the mystique of Lahiri’s writing in this manner: “It is that old story where you have to find your way ... [and] find your own identity.” It is this innate attraction that drew so many people last night to hear her read.
Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London in 1967 and grew up in Rhode Island. She received her B.A. in English Literature from Barnard College, and she received an M.A in English, Comparative Literature and Arts, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies from Boston University. Three of her short stories have been published in The New Yorker. Interpreter of Maladies is her first collection of short stories. It is the recipient not only of the Pulitzer Prize, but also the O. Henry Award, the Pen/Hemingway Award, was included in The Best American Short Stories, and won New Yorker Debut of the Year Award.