The Second Person Study, part 6: Jhumpa Lahiri: “Year’s End” and “Going Ashore” from Unaccustomed Earth

I wanted to ask my father what on earth had possessed him to marry an old-fashioned girl half his age.

I think I am finally beginning to really understand the connection between voice and distance, and the effect it can have on a story, on a reader.

These two stories are the second and third parts of the trio I began as part of the Second Person Project; the first piece was “Once in a Lifetime” and we met Hema and Kaushik and followed them up to the death of his mother. “Year’s End” picks up with Kaushik in college. He comes home for Christmas vacation to learn he has a stepmother and two stepsisters now! I found this story a lot less engaging than the first, and I think that is because it is much less intimate. It is in first person, with only two places where he addresses “you,” Hema. At first I was not even sure it was Hema he was addressing! He mixes in a very brief references to “your family” or “your house” but there is nothing like the sustained “you” from the first story, when Hema was talking to him. This is how they are different.

That does not mean there is not a great deal of emotion here! It is a big-brother emotion, not a thirteen-year-old-girl-with-a-crush emotion. He takes his stepsisters for donuts, and it is a lovely scene. He wonders about their father, if they miss him. And then at the end, he is baby sitting them and discovers them looking through photographs of his mother, they were stored in a shoebox in his room where they are staying. He is outraged they would look at those pictures! The pictures were put away after his mother died! He is quite cruel to them, and I wondered if they were too young to perceive just how cruel he was being, but no, they get it. He storms out of the house, leaving them alone (they have been taught the world is full of danger) and drives up to Maine.

He calls his father the next day and is scolded for leaving without saying goodbye. Kaushik does not get scolded for yelling at the girls; he realizes they did not tell! More girls keeping secrets! And they were in his room, just like Hema had to give up her room for him over that time when his family came back.

Here he goes into a more extensive “you” section, and remembers: “But I remembered you not much older than Rupa, and I remembered a day after a snowstorm, when something I’d said caused you, like Rupa and Piu, to cry.” I am not sure what this means – maybe he does not remember what he said! He’d said “something” – does he not remember he told Hema the secret about his mother being sick at that time? Or maybe he does remember and he is just skirting around it. He is extremely fragile when it comes to his mother and her death, this would be plausible too. I do not know! But it is a link, making girls cry, snow, borrowed rooms, Hema, and it peaks here in this very intimate, if very brief, passage, using person-and-a-half voice.

The third story is mostly in third person. Hema catches us up. She is in Rome twenty years later. She is a professor of classics. She is to marry Navin. It is an arranged marriage. She has just had her heart broken by a married man who was stringing her along, and she is quite shut down. We switch to Kaushik, still in third person, but his pov. Kaushik is a photojournalist (the photos, they are very important, see?). He and Hema meet. They spend about six weeks travelling around Italy researching those darn Etruscans (if you do not watch Jeopardy, you will not understand that, but never mind) and having an affair. She falls in love. He falls in love, too, as much as he can. He even asks her… not to marry Navin. To come with him to Hong Kong, his next destination. Hema notices this is not a marriage proposal and it does not allow her to continue her work. So they part. He is angry! What does he have to be angry about?! Hema goes to India for her wedding, and as she leaves Italy she forgets a bangle bracelet in security at the airport – it can not be retrieved in time so she leaves it behind.

And then he goes to Thailand for a little break, where he finally swims, as his mother loved to do – another thread that weaves these stories together. And it is Christmas. Well, I lost track of the exact timeline, but it seems it is 2004 (for some reason I thought it was the late 1990s but I guess not). Get it? As soon as I saw Phuket and swimming in the same story I knew what was coming.

For the last few paragraphs of this part of the trilogy she switches back to that very intimate Hema person-and-a-half voice. Hema is in India, preparing for her wedding, and she sees the tsunami from her viewpoint, not that she is in danger, but as it affected much of India. She knows “you” are in Thailand but not really where. Months later:

“A small obituary ran in the New York Times. By then I needed no proof of your absence from this world. I felt it as plainly and implacably as the cells that were gathering themselves in my body….It might have been your child but this was not the case. We had been careful, and you had left nothing behind.”

The return to this intimate, whispered, “through the wall” voice makes this all the more heartbreaking! I have been reading for years about how voice and distance work and this is the first time I have read a story and thought, “Oh, now I see!” But it is distance between characters, not between narrator/character and reader!

And I understand better the use of person-and-a-half in the first part as well, I understand why she is telling this now (I said I thought there would be some tragedy), it makes much more sense to me now – it is a funeral prayer, a memorial service! This is a lovely trilogy!

One response to “The Second Person Study, part 6: Jhumpa Lahiri: “Year’s End” and “Going Ashore” from Unaccustomed Earth

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

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