In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri is a beautiful read that explores the relationship between a writer, language and the nature of the self. The book explores the writer’s relationship with Italian, a language she had heard and was consumed by when she travelled to Italy as a grad student and her later engagement with it as an academic and a writer who moves to Rome for a year to bury herself in the experience of the language.
I have never read anything by Lahiri before and was not, in many ways, prepared for the ways in which she handled language in itself. This book, written in Italian, mirrors our relationship with language and the learning of it. The book is beautifully composed – where it moves from short, crisp sentences until it opens up and begins to squeeze the language of every nuance and character it possesses. Lahiri’s sentences stand like metaphors for her own struggles with the learning of a new language: “Yet it’s not sufficient, or even satisfying, merely to collect words in my notebook. I want to use them. I want to draw on them when I need them. I want to be in contact with them. I want them to become part of me.”
The essay explores Lahiri’s relationship with languages that are outside her. Her identity as an Indian in America, whose parents held on their language roots of Bengali, while Lahiri filled herself with English. Standing between two worlds, worlds that she explores in her other writing. Her foray into Italian becomes, in many ways, her rebirth, her re-creation of her self through language. And this becomes the central argument of the essay – of being able to (to borrow from her metaphor) swim the periphery of a vast lake, aching to be in the centre and on the other side.