Italian is a language I lost. Its speaker and I parted ways, and he took with him its rich, rounded sounds, its abundant theatricality, and sudden soft gentleness. For months I couldn’t bear to hear the language. I couldn’t watch Italian movies. If things are never just ‘things’, bearing with them all the sentiments of various (lost) associations, then languages too are never just languages. They are worlds you step into, homelands you glimpse. They mean newer ways of understanding yourself and others. Which is why I picked up Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words with some trepidation. After all, here she was, writing about a language she has recently gained, and been betrothed to for many years.
In Other Words is a literary autobiography in perhaps the most fundamental of ways. It is about a writer and language. About the tricky spaces within which this relationship operates. Lahiri might be obsessed with learning and mastering Italian, but the connection is never quite that unilateral. In fact, her journey forces her to re-evaluate her relationship with Bengali, the estranged mother tongue, laden with all the poignancy of exile, migration, otherness, family, and English, the foreign ‘stepmother’ at which she is dextrous, skilled, dominant. Italian, on the other hand, is liberating. The arrival of this stranger creates a triangle, a “complex structure, a dynamic figure”. It is a language that comes not from anything or anywhere else but herself. It’s a flight from the long clash between English and Bengali, and also a rejection of both.