While Jhumpa Lahiri’s work might be thought of as one of the most emblematic instances of the popularity of today’s Indian-American diasporic literature, it remains that its hyper-visibility coincides with an odd form of critical invisibility. This is not to say that critical interventions on Lahiri’s three books have been nonexistent, nor could they have been in view of the fact that the author won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for her first collection of short-stories, Interpreter of Maladies. But the vast majority of these readings takes as its premise that view that cultural assimilation and hybridity are still valid notions to investigate narratives focusing on members of the second generation, even as these descendants of migrants consider themselves Indian simply by virtue of their parents, so that they can only claim a second-hand knowledge of migration. Ignoring the difference between first and second-generation Indian-American diasporic experiences – and, what is more, overlooking the fact that the offspring of migrants, unlike their parents, “[do] not really have any other place [than the U.S.] to call home” (Lahiri) – such critical consensus ignores important aspects of Gogol’s complex trajectory in The Namesake. Worse, it proves highly unsatisfactory when it comes to discussing Lahiri’s recent collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, in which the second generation’s accession to early middle age calls into question various preconceptions on heritage and transmission. Can it be then that what is passed on from one generation to the next organizes itself less around positive, than negative entities, that is, around categories such as the gap, the absent, and the unsaid?
Taking its cue from Vijay Mishra’s understanding of the diasporic subjectivity in terms of an impossible mourning, my dissertation examines the ways in which Lahiri redefines the notions of belonging and arrival as regards the Indian-American second generation not in terms of cultural assimilation – which would hardly make sense for characters who were born in the U.S. in the first place – but in terms of a re-symbolization of the gaps in the parents’ migrant narratives, more particularly in terms of the “phantom loss” haunting transgenerational relationships between migrants and their offspring. While investigating the figures of emptiness, spectrality, and the message, my dissertation takes various psychoanalytic theories by Sigmund Freud, Julia Kristeva, Nicolas Abraham, Maria Torok and Jean Laplanche, among others, as its major methodological tools. As against a critical consensus that overemphasizes matters of culture, such theoretical framework aims to revaluate the power of the literary in Lahiri’s work.
Although this dissertation extends, at times, to Lahiri’s three books, its four chapters boil down to a close reading of the three texts constituting the “Hema and Kaushik” trilogy, which also form part 2 of Lahiri’s 2008 collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth. Through these three narratives, which all traffic with the dead-mother metaphor, Lahiri can be seen to inscribe the dimension of mourning at the heart of her approach to “generational arrival.” The three short stories of “Hema and Kaushik” indeed bring to the fore some unacknowledged facets of the much-idealized diasporic experience, which forces us to revise the cultural scenarios through which today’s contemporary world constructs, even essentializes, the figure of the migrant as an emblem of ultimate freedom.
My close reading of “Hema and Kaushik” falls into four parts. Part 1 looks at “Once in a Lifetime,” the first text of Lahiri’s trilogy, with a view to showing how the apostrophic form of the text opens up a space of mourning which might blur the boundaries between absence and presence, return and arrival, self and other, but also positions Kaushik, for Hema, as a transitionary figure whose absence might well prove crucial in letting Hema-as-narrator acquire her own generational voice. Part 2 is devoted to “Year’s End,” and investigates the ways in which Lahiri employs the Gothic to represent the second generation as being haunted by its own belatedness in relation to the first generation’s experiences. The psychoanalytic theories of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, among others, will help me clarify how the dead-mother metaphor, in “Hema and Kaushik,” proves tightly interweaved with notions of transgenerational transmission, connection, and infiltration. Calling into question the possible unity of the “I” in the second text of the trilogy, Part 3 tracks the mole, so to speak, and bears witness to aspects of Lahiri’s work that are not all “in the words,” but “among the words,” to borrow Marcel Proust’s suggestive phrase, notably by revisiting aspects of “Once in a Lifetime” and “Years’ End” that are given a new significance through the interplay of the three texts of the trilogy. Relying on André Green’s concept of the “dead mother,” I will then propose an alternative reading of Lahiri’s trilogy in which Hema’s and Kaushik’s romance is only a surface-plot, enlisted to give representability to “the great unspeakable” of Hema’s life. In Part 4, Jean Laplanche’s description of the formation of the ego and the unconscious in relation to “early messages of the m/other” will allow me to look behind the curtain of transgenerational forms of melancholia, to that place where infinite longing is shown to organize itself not around any “real thing” but around a phantom entity whose idealization covers up the necessity to grapple with one’s involvement in a history of loss, which is also a history of guilt.