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Jhumpa Lahiri’s Book ‘In Other Words’ Helped Me Understand My Mother Better

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Jhumpa Lahiri’s “In Other Words” reflects on her love affair with the Italian language. It is something she uprooted her life for and moved to Rome to pursue it. The book was a moving read and gave insight on the subject of learning a new language, which made reading it a joy. But I connected with the book and her story at a deeper level, she made me understand my mother and her journey with music. I remember that passage from the book where Lahiri describes the discouragement she faced from most quarters and the challenges she had to overcome while trying to start a new life in Italy. I felt a wave of realisation pass through my body, which translated into a strong feeling of compassion for my mother. It felt like while I had been reading her words I wasn’t understanding them. And only now, after all these years of making those attempts, did they finally get through to me.

According to our family stories, my mother was a music lover since childhood. No wonder she was named ‘Sangeeta’, it literally translates to ‘musical’. My mom has a song for every mood and every occasion. While growing up I saw her painstakingly manage a huge, carefully curated collection of cassettes and CDs. Some six years back she made the decision of pursuing music seriously and has since dedicated the majority of her time mastering the ancient Indian classical form of music called ‘Dhrupad’. This decision has taken away time that would previously be dedicated to career, family, and friends. And so she has faced discouragement from those who felt neglected and missed her company, and I, unfortunately, am one of those people. I’ve seen her struggle with the judgements and views of people around her and has still managed to maintain remarkable discipline with her practice of music. This something I could see in Lahiri’s narration of her practice of Italian. Though Lahiri writes a different story, based in another time, place, and context, her reflections have helped me greatly in understanding my mother and her struggles.

Jhumpa Lahiri and her book In Other Words

The most obvious point of connection between the stories of these two women is that both their struggles can seem irrational and obsessive to an outsider. Both come from lives of relative privilege and have had successful careers that people would expect them to continue pursuing. Since my mother’s journey with music began, I have often complained about not getting enough time with her, the way I used to as a kid. When Lahiri talked about moving her children to Rome, while still on her journey to self-exploration, the passage reminded me of the helplessness I have often felt when it comes to matters relating to my mother. While reading the book, it also crossed my mind that Lahiri was crazy for giving up reading and writing in English completely. But similarly, I have witnessed my mother intentionally ‘unlearn’ the music she had learnt all her life and religiously practice new exercises to avoid falling into old habits.

The struggle to learn a new language or art, particularly as an adult, is another similarity between the two journeys. Lahiri’s challenges brought to mind all those times my mother had come home teary eyed after having had a bad day, unable to hit the right notes. The way Lahiri feels about her husband having it a lot easier than her, while in Italy, is very similar to the way my mother has felt about those who started their musical journey with Dhrupad. The problems can sound small or inane to an outsider, but as I travelled with Lahiri through her book, I developed respect for my mother’s fight and realised how significant these challenges are to her journey.

My mother made it clear from the start that she had no desire of becoming a professional singer and performing for audiences, so it was difficult for me to understand her drive. In the book, Lahiri reflects beautifully on how she knows that mastery of the language will always elude her, yet Italian provides her with a sense of belonging and freedom that she had not experienced with any other language. This perfectly explains why my mother is unwilling to give up on her music. While mastering Dhrupad takes decades, I know there is a feeling of belonging that she experiences with her music community that cannot be found in the company of those who don’t appreciate or understand music. And while she has always been a singer, learning the intricacies of classical music has laid the foundation of that freedom she always sought. This insight eluded me for over half a decade but through Lahiri’s words, I saw my mother and understood her perspective. It all began to make sense.

Completing the book has thus left me feeling lighter. Like a weight of confusion and misunderstanding has been lifted. In the excitement of sharing this with my mother, I dedicated a short note to her on the third page of the book. I invited her to read and accept this book as her companion. It now lies on her bedside table waiting to be read.

Pursuing her passion well into her 50s, my mother has started her own music and travel company Naadyatra, which organises curated musical retreats to help participants reconnect with themselves, through music. Find out more here.

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