A New Perspective ‘In Other Words’

Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words reflects on her love story with the Italian language, something she uprooted her life for, and shifted to Rome to pursue. While the book was a moving read and provided insight on the subject of learning a new language, her story helped me connect at a deeper level, to my mother and her journey with music. I remember the point where Lahiri describes the discouragement she faced from most quarters, and the challenges she had to break through while in Italy. It was then that I felt a wave of realisation go through my body, followed by a strong feeling of compassion for my mother. It felt like I had been reading her words, and that after years of attempts they finally got through to me.

As per family stories, my mother loved music ever since childhood, and so her name ‘Sangeeta’ literally translates to ‘musical’. I’ve grown up with her having a song to sing for every mood and every ocassion, and her painstakingly managing a huge curated collection of cassettes and CDs. About 5–6 years ago she took the decision to pursue music more seriously, and has since been dedicating majority of her time to mastering an ancient Indian classical form of music called ‘Dhrupad’. This decision has meant less time for career, family and friends, and thus discouragement from everybody who has felt neglected and missed her company as a result, often including me. I’ve seen her struggle with the judgements and views of people around her, but she has managed to maintain remarkable discipline with her practice of music, something I felt was paralleled in Lahiri’s narration of her own practice of Italian. Though Lahiri writes a different story, in another time-place and context, her reflections have been a great help in understanding my mother and her particular struggle more deeply.

The most obvious point of parallel between the stories of these two women, is that both these struggles can seem irrational and obsessive from an outsider’s perspective. Both come from lives of relative privilege and have had successful careers that people would expect them to continue pursuing. As children, we have often cribbed that our mother hasn’t given us as much time and attention as she used to before her music classes began, and Lahiri taking her children to Rome, while on her self journey, reminded me of my perspective as a daughter who has felt slightly helpless in the matter. While reading the book, it also crossed my mind that Lahiri was crazy for giving up reading and writing in English completely on her quest to learn Italian. But very 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 has 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 starting off with Dhrupad at a young age. The problems can sound small or inane from the outside, but joining Lahiri on her journey helped me develop a respect for how significant these are for the person on that 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 a challenge for me to understand what drove her to make all this effort. In the book, Lahiri beautifully reflects on how she knows that mastery 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 summarizes what my mother has ocassionally shared about why she is unwilling to give up on her music. While mastery of Dhrupad takes decades, I know there is a feeling of belonging that she experiences with her music community that she can not find amongst those who lack the same appreciation for music. And while she may have sung even before, learning the intricacies of classical music and sound provides her with skills that form the foundation of achieving freedom with music. This insight has eluded me for over half a decade but the moment I grasped Lahiri’s intention, I could see my mothers explanations perfectly fit this sentiment. 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 off me. In the excitement to share this with my mother, I wrote a short note to her on the third page of the book, inviting her to read and accept this book as a companion on her journey. It now lies on her bedside table waiting to be read.