The Social Laboratory of Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Whereabouts’

Nidhi Mahajan
May 11 · 2 min read

Jhumpa Lahiri’s new ‘novel’, Whereabouts— a tour of the cityscape and mindscape inhabited by a woman trying to understand her place in the world — provides unlikely company during the pandemic’s prescriptive isolation.

On the one hand, it squarely places you in rooms, cafes, and conversations with people — inspiring shades of nostalgia — and on the other, it claims to be a manual on solitude. The narrator says,

“Solitude: it’s become my trade… it’s a condition I try to perfect.”

With a currently limited attention span, one can begin and abandon this vignette-ed work/world with little guilt and without too much commitment, though both guilt and commitment appear in guises throughout the novel. One can flit from chapter to chapter, each of which reads like an abandoned beginning to a larger story where one may play a part, “albeit as an extra”.

The fragmented storytelling is a testament to the relentlessness of being and the necessity of expression. As Lahiri writes,

“I’m amazed at our impulse to express ourselves, explain ourselves, tell stories to one another.”

and

“In the stark summer desert, this oasis of objects, this ongoing flow of goods, reminds me that everything vanishes, and also reminds me of the banal, stubborn residue of life.”

Lahiri’s first novel written in Italian, translated into English by the author herself, Whereabouts is a thought experiment. As the narrator comments on a friend who likes to host dinners,

“He runs a sort of social laboratory that lasts for a few hours and seldom repeats itself.”

Lahiri’s novel, too, allows entry, for a few hours, into this social laboratory of her mind’s making.

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