Second Person Study, Part 3: Jhumpa Lahiri, “Once in a Lifetime”

"Secret Twins Business" by John Platt

Photo: "Secret Twins Business" by John Platt

I had seen you before, too many times to count, but a farewell that my family threw for yours, at our house in Inman Square, is when I begin to recall your presence in my life. Your parents had decided to leave Cambridge, not for Atlanta or Arizona, as some other Bengalis had, but to move all the way back to India, abandoning the struggle that my parents and their friends had embarked upon. It was 1974. I was six years old. You were nine. What I remember most clearly are the hours before the party, which my mother spent preparing for everyone to arrive: the furniture was polished, the paper plates and napkins set out on the table, the rooms filled with the smell of lamb curry and pullao and the L’Air du Temps my mother used for special occasions…

I loved this story (which is available online) – it is full of little surprises – but I do not think it is technically second person! Again, I have to take a story off my list! I am beginning to wonder if any stories on the original list are second person! But I am not positive. It is, as so many second person issues are, slippery!

The definition given by Richardson (and I am using him as a kind of bible, though I am sure there are other paradigms out there) specifically excludes a “monologue addressed to a real or imaginary homodiegetic [in the story] audience.” The narrator (who turns out to be a girl named Hema) is speaking to Kaushik, the young man in the story. He is not present in much of the story; she narrates what happened to her and her family while he was in India, and then picks up with when he re-entered her life. Who is the story about? I think it is about Hema, and how she is affected by, among other things, Kaushik. And the story is told from a later time, by an older Hema; he does not appear to be present while she is actually recounting the story. So I am not positive, maybe this allows it to be considered second person. I think it reads like first person, though. The “I” is the narrator! The “I” is the main protagonist! “You” is a crucial character, but is present for very little of the actual story. So it could maybe go either way. Maybe she is talking to an older Kaushik, who is not actually in the story any more than the older Hema is in the story. See? Slippery! The “you” voice, whatever it is, is important to the story in any case! Addendum: Two days later, while reading another story, I just realized: this is in past tense! Maybe that is why it feels so distinctly not second person, because most “standard mode” second person is in first! That is not definitive, though. I still think the crux is: whose story is it? And in this case, it is the “I”.

But classifying a story is not as important as enjoying it! I will start with the beginning, a very good place to start… what, you never watched The Sound of Music?

Look at the opening quote – that is the first paragraph. It conveys so much exposition! Time, place, ages, persons, all nailed down in a paragraph. And it is not a boring paragraph at all! A lot is going on, a family is leaving, one is staying behind. And here is something I love: Hema begins to recall his presence in her life on the occasion of his departure from her life! That is downright twisted! But I understand it completely. She was very young, and a slightly older boy who was always around would perhaps not be noticed but a party would call attention to him. I can remember when I was very young, maybe 8 or 9, some of my family was going on and on about a baseball game and I said, “From now on I will watch baseball!” and they told me it was too late, that was the last game of the World Series and I would have to wait until next year (a posture I grew quite familiar with when I lived in Boston in the 70s and 80s). How many of us never paid attention to that old guy who works in Accounts receivable until he retires, or the lady at church who suddenly turns up dead? So I do not find it odd that she notices him as he is leaving, but I do find it poignant.

His family returns seven years later, and now Hema is thirteen and Kaushik is sixteen, a very different thing! He and his family come to live with her family until they find a house, which turns out to take longer than expected. Hema and Kaushik do not speak much. Hema has a crush on him, but of course does not tell him. She is moved from her bedroom to sleep with her parents (which is fine with her, she likes it, she does not understand the American standard of children sleeping in their own rooms) so he can have her room (she is a little resentful) and there is this recurring image: “The bed where you slept was just on the other side of the wall, and if I had been able to stick my hand through it I could have touched you.” That is both distance and closeness! What a feeling for a love-stricken thirteen-year-old! There is something very poignant about this image.

And these visitors: “Bombay had made them more American than Cambridge had, my mother said, something she hadn’t anticipated and didn’t understand. There were remarks concerning your mother’s short hair, her slacks, the Johnnie Walker she and your father had continued to drink after the meal was finished, taking it with them from the dining room to the living room.” They are much more well-off; they flew first-class, a “once-in-a-lifetime” luxury, because it was her forty-eighth birthday! They are very fussy and demanding about the house they want: it must have a pool or room for one, water view, be elegant, and so on. Nothing is good enough! And they are still visiting, it is getting tiring! Kaushik seems like a typical teenager, disdainful of everything. But on one day he and Hema go into the woods behind her house (where she has been forbidden to go) and he shows her an old graveyard there, and tells her a secret: his mother came back to America because she has breast cancer and is probably going to die and she wanted to be here: “It was not so much for treatment as it was to be left alone. In India people knew she was dying…”, that is what this is all about! No one knows except Hema! It is such an intimate secret, and it is full of so much, his fear for his mother, his resentment at having been moved around, his isolation. Hema keeps his secret, does not tell her parents, who continue to complain about these people living in their house and being less than friendly, and after they find a house they do not stay in touch!

For a time my mother and father continued to complain, feeling snubbed. “After all we did for them,” they said before drifting off to sleep. But I was back in my own room by then, on the other side of the wall, in the bed where you had slept, no longer hearing them.

This continues this image of the wall, of not being able to talk to whoever is on the other side (now it is her parents and the secret is different), it is so beautiful here in this last sentence of the story!

To me, the use of “you” here is like she is talking through the wall – she is whispering, “Here, Kaushik, this is how it was for me, how I had such a crush on you and you were so distant, and your parents were not the same as when we knew them before they went to Bombay. Here, Kaushik, you told me a secret back then, and I kept it, and now I will tell you a secret, through the wall, and I can reach through the wall.”

Now, I wonder: why is this story being written now – why has Hema chosen this time, some years after all the events have passed, to talk to Kaushik? I do not think this would be such an issue she addressed him as “him”. Many stories are told in that “memoir voice” which is the term Marko used for it in his article, and they do not make me wonder, well, why are you telling me this now? Because here, we have a narrator is is actually talking to someone. Not just a story! A conversation! Why now? It sounds like the sort of thing she would have done after his family left and she was alone with her secret and then his mother died and she started telling him this (if this were a Hollywood picture, the opening scene would be her at the funeral), but that is not the case, it is much later than that! I do not know, but I understand this is the first in a trilogy of stories that are included in her collection Unaccustomed Earth and when I read the other two stories, maybe I will understand! This story with its “you” draws me into the suspense! I suspect the relationship between Hema and Kaushik deepens at some point as they encounter each other again in a later time, and something tragic happens between them that starts this entire recollection.

But why not just use “I” and “he”? Because that would lose the quality of telling secrets back and forth! The more I think about this element, the more important it is, more important than the issues of clashing immigrant cultures that really are central to the story, such as:

Whatever the reason you were coming, I gathered from my parents’ talk that it was regarded as a wavering, a weakness. “They should have known it’s impossible to go back,” they said to their friends, condemning your parents for having failed at both ends. We had stuck it out as immigrants while you had fled; had we been the ones to go back to India, my parents seemed to suggest, we would have stuck it out there as well.

But in the end, when I think of this story, it is not this cultural issue, or the differences between the families, that I remember. It is very interesting that one couple has Americanized in Bombay and the other has preserved their Bengali culture in Cambridge. The tension as they share a house is built up wonderfully! These are two very interesting families! But I end up remembering a young girl, touching the wall that isolates her and finally speaking through it. And I think that is because she uses “you”.

But I still do not think it is technically a second-person story!

5 responses to “Second Person Study, Part 3: Jhumpa Lahiri, “Once in a Lifetime”

  1. Pingback: The Second Person Study, part 6: Jhumpa Lahiri: “Year’s End” and “Going Ashore” from Unaccustomed Earth « A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: The Second Person Study, Part 12: Writers Speak For Themselves – Marko Fong, Thomas Kearnes « A Just Recompense

  3. Pingback: The Second Person Study, Part 14: Wrestling with Monika Fludernik « A Just Recompense

  4. Pingback: The Second Person Study, Part 17: “Apostrophe” by Randall Brown « A Just Recompense

  5. Pingback: The Second Person Study, Part 1: “Boys” by Rick Moody | A Just Recompense

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