In Other Words in my words

I recently finished the book In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri and I’m left still processing my feelings and thoughts on it.

I have been a fan of Lahiri’s work for years. I have read and own all her other books and loved reading all of them. I think the obvious reason I’m so pulled into her writing is because much of what she writes about is relatable to me. In The Namesake I felt exactly as the protagonist, Gogol.

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Her latest book, In Other Words, is a short book that’s autobiographical (her first) and translated from Italian. Lahiri learned Italian and the book shares her journey in learning this language and being able to speak it fluently without losing who she already is.  She learned Italian here in the States, took lessons, recalls her love of the language from her past (even doing her doctoral on Italian architecture and its influence on English playwright) and then she traveled to Italy and decided to write in Italian.

She reflects on how hard it is to learn a new language and then still hold true to your mother tongue and this resonated with me throughout the entire book.

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My sister and I in India before we moved to the States

Some of you may know that I wasn’t born here in the US. I was born in New Delhi and moved to America when I was 3 years old. At the time it didn’t really mean anything, but as I grew up here, it was hard!

I spoke Hindi and Telugu apparently all the time. My parents spoke Telugu at home, but my mom told me that she and my dad were told by teachers that if I had any chance of “succeeding” in this country, I would need to learn English. The school encouraged them to speak English at home so I was exposed to it, and in turn, and unfortunately, I lost my ability to speak it. I still understand it 100%, but I can’t speak a word of it or conjugate a sentence.

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Me, age 5 or 6, when visiting our uncle in Seattle

Imagine seeing family and not being able to communicate with them in that language. Sure, everyone speaks English, but it’s a part of me I totally get discouraged about and makes me feel like a total outsider. Even at work. There are many people who speak Telugu at my office, and with each other, but when I’m there, they switch to English. I’ve told them they can continue speaking it if they want, since I understand, but I think that makes them feel awkward and they just nervously laugh and continue in English.

I took a class in college where I learned about W.E.B. Du Bois and his idea of double consciousness. It’s an idea where you are aware of who you are, but you sometimes still feel disenfranchised from two communities.

One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife – this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa.

Growing up, I felt like this. I didn’t quite fit in with the American kids since it was new and something my parents and I had to learn, and at home and with family, I felt like an outsider within the Indian community too.

I sometimes still do. I try to immerse myself within my culture because I’m proud of it and my heritage, but I totally have this fear for when REB and I visit India (which we hope to do within the next few years). I know things are totally different in India now, but I’m almost scared to go just us because I can’t speak a lick of Hindi anymore and feel like this will be a language barrier. Maybe it won’t be, but if I go to India, I don’t want to only see the big tourist cities and what not. I want to see my family, have him meet them, and it would be pretty cool if I could speak with them, and not just in English. I know they won’t be offended if that’s all I speak, since again, India is totally different not. Almost everyone speaks English, but maybe part of me feels like it would be “self worth” to be able to speak in Telegu or even Hindi with them.

At our wedding, which was a south Indian ceremony

At our wedding, which was a south Indian ceremony

My sister and I were talking about this and she said something that really stood out: “we’re all trying so hard to stay in touch with our ‘roots’, but what does that mean anymore?” She said we live in America where it’s all about being a melting pot and embrace unity, but we’re still so focused on ourselves. It’s scary to feel lost in a crowd so you’re holding onto those roots so we know who we were because we’re looking for meaning.

I know she’s right, but I also know I don’t want to let it go. I’ve even thought about re-learning HIndi, as if I’m a toddler learning to speak, but I just haven’t gotten around to it. That’s not an excuse, I realize, but I maybe I should try. So how do I identify myself? I’m an American, but I was born in India. I’m happy to have two cultures in my life and even though I want to try to be better at being in touch with my “roots”, I’m setting up new roots here in America and that’s more than OK. I won’t ever forget where I’ve come from, and I will embrace it as best I can.

Yikes – I got off on a terrible tangent – I hope you’re all still with me!

Regardless, I highly recommend reading In Other Words and all of Lahiri’s other books. She’s an amazing writer and has a beautiful way with words! Even if you can’t relate to what she’s writing, she has the ability to make you stop and think about what you’re reading. Even if it’s a work of fiction. So definitely add this to your reading list this year!

Have any books ever stood out to you on a personal level?

 

15 thoughts on “In Other Words in my words

  1. Amber

    Growing up, we were taught Canada is different than America because of it’s cultural mosaic. America is a melting pot like you said, where cultures blend together and everyone assimilates (you losing your native tongue for example) but Canada is more like mosaic, a million different pieces that fit together and form a diverse landscape. Nothing is melted away in a mosaic, not if you look closely… I’m not sure I know where I’m going with this, other than your diversity – who you are TODAY not who you could have been if you kept your native language – deserves to be celebrated. Just like you said, you’re an American who was born in India and that is beautiful. That is your root. #BBS.

    Reply
    1. Aparna B. Post author

      You are right. It is and always will be my roots, but it was hard growing up! No denying that!! Also, using #BBS totally made my day ;) <3

      Reply
  2. Liz @ I Heart Vegetables

    That sounds like such a great book! I’ve definitely read tons of books that have impacted me (I love reading non-fiction so a lot of them are around psychology, how our brain works, etc. ) Those things are fascinating!

    As a side note, my husband is traveling to India later this year and it’ll be his first time there! I can’t wait to see his pictures when he comes back :)

    Reply
    1. Aparna B. Post author

      That is so exciting he’s going to India! Whereabouts will his travels take him? It’s so crazy to me that either a piece of non-fiction or fiction could truly impact how you view things in life! I wish I had the ability to write that way. …or you know, write. full stop. haha.

      Reply
  3. diana @ veggienextdoor

    I loved the namesake too, especially the movie! It may be hard but is also so special to be a part of two cultures and is still amazing that you can understand the languages after moving here at just 3!!

    And…those socks!!! Amazing!!!

    Reply
    1. Aparna B. Post author

      You know what, you’re totally right! It is pretty cool that I can at least still understand the language. I probably would feel a lot more discouraged if I couldn’t even do that. So I can at least embrace that <3 I know some American-born Indians who can’t even do that which might not seem so bad now, but when they’re older it might make them feel sad or something. Thanks for commenting! And that picture always makes me laugh. I was so awkward as a kid! LOL

      Reply
  4. Parita @ myinnershakti

    I love this post for so many reason, but mainly because it’s so honest and real. Thanks for that!

    We grew up surrounded by tons of family, so both my sister and I speak Gujarati. But Vishnu’s in the same boat as you. He understands Malayalee but doesn’t really speak it. I saw him struggle at times when we went to India a few years ago. Even though everyone speaks English, he felt like an outsider at times.

    We don’t have kids yet, but one of my biggest fears is not passing our culture down to them. I know it’s not possible to give them the exact childhood we did, but I fear that they won’t really understand their roots and where they come from.

    Reply
    1. Aparna B. Post author

      My sister and I actually talked about my nephew and if she had fears about raising him and him losing touch with his roots. And she said she was probably more stressed than she should be. She doesn’t want to define him as “indian” or “polish” or “finnish”. But simply, to say he’s American and he has a variety of backgrounds, which he’ll be exposed to. Such a diplomatic answer! I’m with you. I’d be terrified if my kids somehow lost touch with who we are!

      Reply
  5. Lakshmi

    “La’s Orchestra Saves the World” by Alexander McCall Smith touched me deeply. I have read the book so many times. Wrote up a post about it too – http://therichvegetarian.com/homebodyinspired-las-orchestra/.

    I like many of his books but I particularly adore his series featuring Isabel Dalhousie, the moral philosopher and “fact-finder” who lives in Edinburgh. I think I have all the books from the series.

    I really like what you wrote about your experience trying to reconnect with Hindi/Telugu. Your sister is right too. You live in this country, and this is the truth of your experience. I know that that realization does not exactly help in assuaging your guilt/conflict, but really… our identities are increasingly becoming hybrid and mixed. I’d love to speak Marathi and Gujarati too (I grew up hearing these languages, and I understand them very well too) but I don’t. Yes, it pinches a little… But c’est la vie.

    Reply
  6. dixya | food, pleasure, and health

    i love her books too..i will definitely be adding this on my list of things to read. i am half way done with the other book, a window opens (im a slow reader)….i was born and raised in Nepal and I am fluent in my language, but my boyfriend is exactly on the same page as you are. He does understand Hindi/Urdu/Bengali a little bit but when it comes to speaking, he does not. I think he did try Rosetta Stone and still does want to learn some of his language but its hard! He was born and raised here and didnt really realize how one can lose an ability to speak while growing up..I see that happen with my cousins who grow up here too..for most parents, they are worried that their kids will feel left out in the school if they dont know english..but they forget that kids are forgetting their own language and sometimes its too late.

    Reply
    1. Aparna B. Post author

      That sucks your boyfriend does feel the same way. It’s a weird feeling, that’s for sure. And you’re right! Good to learn English, sure, but then you’re also letting go of something. Especially in this day an age where it’s encouraged to know more than just English!

      Reply
  7. Valerie

    Just one more reason why you are one of my best friends. You are such an incredible person, and whether you realize it or not you have taught me so much about Indian culture that I would never know if it wasn’t for you, and I am so grateful for that. I know that I don’t understand this internal struggle that you have but I do want you to know that I see you living your culture in so many ways, even just by the way you love and take care of your family. I love that you and REB are going to be able to make your desire to go to India a reality sooner than later, and I hope that once you are there and set your feet on the soil, that whether you are speaking Hindi or English that you feel connected to your past, your present and your future. I love you.

    Reply
    1. Aparna B. Post author

      Thank you for the incredibly kind words and for commenting! It’s not so much an “internal struggle” more than just something that crosses my mind from time to time. My sister is right though> why DO we get hung up on the “roots’ thing. Our roots can be whatever want them to be! It’s just ironic that when I grew up, speaking Hindi and Telegu more than English was frowned upon, but now kids are encouraged to learn more than one language!

      Reply

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