“Once in a Lifetime,” by Jhumpa Lahiri

The short story I have selected for our June reading, Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Once in a Lifetime,” provides us with a pleasant read and a neat synthesis of many of the themes we have been discussing as a group throughout the year. First published in The New Yorker in 2006 and later included in Lahiri’s 2008 collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth, “Once in a Lifetime” is, formally speaking, a relatively unproblematic narrative that tells the story of Kaushik Choudhuri and his parents as witnessed by Hema and her parents. Hema is the narrator, and the narrative she transmits is directed to Kaushik, using a glaring you as a way of transposing reader and listener. What we as readers don’t know, however, is why these memories are being related to one of their protagonists. (Here’s a hint: there are two more Hema-Kaushik stories). Lahiri, in my opinion, has a certain gift for storytelling, and if I can momentarily ignore the rather conventional crush motif, these gifts are easier to discern and appreciate. But more on this at our Reading Circle meeting.

I’d like to return for a moment to a casual comment I made earlier. When I use the term “synthesis” to refer to the story’s relationship to the unifying concept of this year’s Reading Circle, I am simply referring to the fact that in the foreground is the experience of a child of Bengali immigrants to the United States, an experience profoundly marked by contradictory desires: to be different (American? Indian?) and the same (with a united identity). More than their parents, Hema and Kaushik embody this difficult territory to navigate – that no man’s land of belonging to neither the native culture, nor to the culture of one’s elders. Our culture collector will surely be able to extract a decent number of examples from the story to illustrate how this conflicted and conflicting consciousness plays out in the lives of these characters, whether the examples are of hospitality, food, drink, language, traditions, manners, childrearing, clothes, or class. At the root of the particular examples present in “Once in a lifetime,” I think there is a grain of truth for most immigrant peoples from any country to any country. On a related note, and as always, I encourage you to think about the story’s readers, or about those who read Lahiri’s fiction in general. We can speak more about this topic at our meeting, but I’ll just say for now that I suspect there is at least a bit of Orientalism at work here – probably not as far as the author is concerned (her interviews don’t give that impression), but in the imaginary of the readers who catapult her work to the top of fiction bestseller lists. Sorry, sorry – I digress. In any case, we can see clearly illustrated in this month’s story the idea I wanted to bring to the Reading Circle this year: that these contradictions are also the typical American experience, even if they have not yet been canonized as American literature.

One of the stylistic elements that pleasantly surprised me was the description of bodies. If we pay close attention to Lahiri’s many descriptive passages in the story, many of them paint a portrait and then focus the reader on an image of a person through his or her body. On the first page, there are the party preparations, complete with vivid descriptions of Hena’s bath, dressing, and application of perfume. Later on, this scene:

I was ushered into the fitting room, your mother watching approvingly as I took off my coat and sweater and tried on the bra. She adjusted the straps and attached the hook at the back. She tried things on as well, topless beside me without shame, though it embarrassed me to see her large, plumcolored nipples, the surprising droop of her breasts, the dark patches of underarm hair that gave off a faintly acrid but not altogether unpleasant smell. “Perfect,” your mother said, running her finger below the elastic, along my skin, adding, “I hope you know that you’re going to be very beautiful one day.”

And then there is the moment when Kaushik goes out into the snow with Hema, “touching the snow with your bare hands, studying it, looking happy for the first time since you arrived.” Passages such as these fill the story, and surely they are part of what makes the story enjoyable and generally easy to identify with.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and impressions. The only thing I would ask you to briefly consider in preparation for our meeting is the relationship between “Once in a Lifetime” and the theme that has implicitly or explicitly united all of the stories we have read together this year, that of the border between cultural belonging and cultural exclusion, and how this border is not fixed. Having come full circle, you could even relate it back to the first story we read, Junot Díaz’s “Miss Lora.” Remember? Happy reading, and I hope to see you at the last meeting of the (school) year of our English Reading Circle.

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