Bidding Adieu

For Jhumpa Lahiri, the gifted writer, everything that comes to her mill, ordinary or otherwise, is material for writing. Her newest work Whereabouts (Penguin Hamish Hamilton 202I) which is more an auto-fiction (her protagonist is an unnamed female storyteller) than a novel is testimony to that.

Throughout the book, she sketches scenes from a city that readers of all hues will identify with. What makes the book memo­rable is her extraordinary depth of feeling that imbues each word. I’m an avid reader of Jhumpa’s poignant prose. And I often remember the great prose of Virginia Woolf’s psychological fiction whenever I read her work.

It’s a book she originally wrote in Italian (the city she writes about might well be Rome), and then translated herself into Eng­lish. It’s about the life of an unknown narrator in an unknown city for a year before she leaves on an assignment for another place. There is not much that happens in the book except the observation of the immediate out­side world with complete concentration. Every little chapter is a story, independent of other chapters. And yet, you realize at the very end that a thread is running through­out the book suturing many different strands into a coherent whole.

The narrator here does what the third person omniscient narrator in Mrs. Dalloway, a novel by Virginia Woolf, who records what happens during the course of a single day, did. Jhumpa spreads her novel over several months and 46 short chapters, each a snap­shot of what attracts her attention on a given day, thereby making it easier for the reader to take each scene as it comes, without being concerned about what happens before or after.

As I neared the end of this wonderful book (chapter 44 titled “Up Ahead”), I real­ized I had an affinity with the narrator who, when taking leave of the city, gets nostalgic, and mentally bids goodbye to little objects that surround her, not only the apartment where she spent quality time, but also its vicinity which she often passed through.

This is exactly what I did while meeting interesting people in interesting places. I too was in the habit of treating the hotel room where I stayed, and the view around, as if they were living beings, flesh and blood characters.

At the end of our visit to Dooars before the pandemic set in, we put up at Malbazar Tourist Lodge (Jalpaiguri), behind which there’s a clear view of a lush sprawling mead­ow (beautiful Malbazar park). Among other greeneries, there’s a litchi tree, leafy and full of partly ripened fruit that I befriended, and longed to treat as my confidant. I didn’t want to get back immediately and thought of post­poning the return by a few days. But alas, that was not to be. There’s a cute balcony at this wooden cottage. Whenever I sat there communing with the tree, my earthly trou­bles faded away, only to crowd back the moment I had to embrace the everyday quo­tidian routine!

I easily get attached to places and take root after just a few days’ stay. When it’s time to take leave, I fold my hands and bid farewell to everything and everyone around, and then wrench myself away, always hoping to come back, but never do, for destiny leads me else­where. But I carry within me the impressions of people I meet, and the insights that I might later turn into a story. Every visit is a piece of life, never to occur again. So, wherever I go and stay, I live as if it’s my last outing, and never forget to bid adieu to whoever and whatever crosses my path.

First published in The Statesman

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