Whereabouts begins on a dark note, with its protagonist walking past a plaque, commemorating the death of a 44-year-old man, which she describes in minute detail. The second chapter has her imagining ghostly figures on the bridge she crosses often. Does she have a morbid temperament?
In the third chapter, you get to know a little bit more about her, but it doesn’t make you warm up to her, as she seems like a grouchy, unhappy spinster, even if that sounds politically incorrect: she is a teacher who, inexplicably, finds the lively chatter of her colleagues and students irritating.
Writer Jhumpa Lahiri sketches her protagonist, bit by bit, through a series of short chapters, most of which depict her as an unhappy soul. Whether she is sipping coffee in a trattoria, or attending the baptism celebrations of a friend’s daughter, or participating in a seminar, she doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere, and is not a very likeable sort, to begin with.
But, as the book unfolds, you begin to understand her. She, whose name we never know, has had a dysfunctional childhood. Enviously contrasting her own adolescent years with a 16-year-old’s carefree one, she recalls what she did at that exciting age. While the 16-year-old has had the grit to break off family ties and live life as she chooses to, she had squandered her youth by never rebelling. “I read books and studied. I listened to my parents and did what they asked me to. Even though, in the end, I never made them happy. I didn’t like myself, and something told me I’d end up alone,” she rues.
That’s when you begin to sympathise with her. The burden of guilt her mother inflicted upon her, with her father never coming to her rescue, sat heavy on her shoulders even when she was all of 45. The gulf between her mother and her “taught me what solitude really means.”
Never comfortable in crowded places, swimming seems the only pastime where she is herself. “I am surrounded by an element that restores me...Every time I swim, I feel cleansed as if from within.” Now, you more than sympathise with her.
Constantly trying to run away from her constricting, unhappy childhood, the protagonist is never able to settle down to a pleasurable routine. “I’ve never stayed still, I’ve always been moving...always waiting either to get somewhere or to come back. To escape.” It’s a heart-rending confession.
There are two chapters in the book with the same title: In My Head. No slip-up, this. The demons in her head, planted there by self-centred parents, never let go.
Water and light are recurring images in this elegiac novel; and, towards its end, the reader sees a slender ray of light, with hints of the protagonist finally breaking free. Is her accepting a fellowship in a foreign land, and bidding adieu to her ageing mother and dead father, a closure of her inner battle? Will words she’s always related to, like disoriented, lost, adrift, confused, be left behind in the train that is taking her away from her twisted roots?
The intimacy that has built up between her and the reader, slowly but surely, through the course of this almost-starkly written novel, makes you so deeply want her to, finally, decide her whereabouts!
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Publisher: Penguin Hamish Hamilton
Price: Rs 499