Jhumpa Lahiri’s parents had migrated from India first to Britain, and then to America, and she grew up in Rhode Island in the 1970s. The initial struggle of a migrant’s life may have bruised her parents’ experiences, but only inspired Lahiri’s stories. Her literary fame began with the runaway success of her debut short story collection Interpreter of Maladies that won the Pulitzer Prize, and grew with her subsequent books. In a surprise move, she left with her family for Italy in 2012 to write in Italian, to explore a new culture, and more importantly, to reinvent herself, migration being her inheritance. Once on the road, journeys become a way of life. Her father, a university librarian, was a constant reminder of life left behind. And her mother, usually dressed in a sari, gave the daughter an idea of home thousands of miles away in India. Between the two generations, this was the third stretch of migration, but very different from the earlier two.
The woman protagonist of Whereabouts, a university teacher in an unnamed city in Italy, despite sharing many traits of the characters in Lahiri’s previous books, is a very different person. Full of self-assurance, the city her home, this single woman, with married men among her lovers, does not have any memory of migration. She goes to the swimming pool her mother first took her to, and observes the swimmers in the other lanes with an amused curiosity. The elderly woman who walks with a limp and leans on a cane swims in the next lane, “her face above water”. In the locker room where the women of different ages “take their showers, take off their swimsuits, shave their legs and armpits and groins in awkward, contorted poses”, she listens to “terrible stories, brutal information”. A woman in her eighties, while leaving, asks her if she would take some of the dresses from her younger days, for she had lost her waist decades ago.