The first time I read The Namesake, I was 13 years old. Freshly foraying into “adult fiction,” the novel opened up a new world to me. Yes, the characters were all Bengali and had daak naam like me, but unlike me, they lived in America. Bengal – besides home – existed in memory and imagination. I grew up in small towns in western India and somewhat like Gogol, Bengali was only a language I spoke. I could neither write nor read it. Calcutta was a distant city that was visited once a year during summer holidays. The lack of supermarkets and Amazon meant year-long supplies of chanachur and Boroline had to be stocked during the annual visits or parcels would be couriered by thoughtful relatives in Calcutta. I cannot say that my alienation from Bengal was the same as the Gangulis’s but there was indeed a disconnect from the culture and its people.

For a child who grew up on British and American pop culture staples, The Namesake was a revelation. To me, it was the most authentic representation of Bengali life in English writing – and to think it was written by an author who was born in London (to Bengali parents) and who, for all intents and purposes, considers herself an American. This was all redundant information to me – they did not matter one bit. I became a fan for life. I was convinced that if anyone could write “authentically” about Bengali emotions – without being sentimental and melodramatic, as Bengalis themselves are prone to – then it would be her. I soon had Unaccustomed Earth and The Interpreter of Maladies in my possession. The short stories did not disappoint – if anything, her writing was even superior and more precise than it had been in The Namesake. From the dilapidated buildings in Calcutta to the cold unfamiliar Massachusetts in the US, her stories were all about the modern Bengali family. Why and how they leave the country, and why they can never forget home.

A new Lahiri

Back then, I had the wonderful habit of re-reading a book. I must have read each of the aforementioned books at least four or five times, and yet, despite the focus on the US immigrant life, I found it remarkable that Lahiri’s writing never felt tedious or repetitive. With The Lowland, her gaze shifted inwards – the Naxal movement of Bengal, the terrifying lanes of Tollygunge in those times, and the eventual immigration to the US. It seemed as though the Bengali girl had come home and was here to stay. She’d write more stories about my people and I’d relish them as I have always done.

Or so I thought.

Then came Whereabouts. Lahiri had written it in Italian and I was reading a translation. How odd. A quick search on the internet revealed that the author hasd decided to henceforth write only in Italian. It felt like a loss. Will Calcutta no longer be her muse? Will I like the new Jhumpa Lahiri?

Whereabouts was a completely different experience. I was indeed reading a new Jhumpa Lahiri. Calcutta was nowhere to be found, Bengalis were missing but her writing was still deeply humane. And beautiful. Perhaps, even more beautiful than it was in English. Her growth as a writer and translator was evident. I felt proud – as if she was a personal acquaintance who had taken me along on her literary journey which I closely followed and cheered on. She was different now but she was still my own.

While reading her latest book, Roman Stories, the transformation felt even starker. As though she had undergone a moulting – disposed of all excessiveness and sentimentality. There are no elaborate descriptions – names are just initials, no slipping into the mother tongue, no frantic transatlantic calls from home. The only trace of Bengal I found was in “alna” – the Bengali word for a clothesrack. That was all. I was happy to see that she still had kinship with Bengal but it did not matter anymore.

If her earlier works were about Bengalis in the US and Bengalis in Calcutta, the stories in her new book speak to a broader immigrant experience. We get brief descriptions of a person’s foreignness – they wear veils or skirts with long hemlines, the child’s parents do not approve of loitering outside the home after dark. It is difficult to discern their faith or nationalities, but they are in Rome because they have no choice. Sure it’s a beautiful city but only for tourists and “locals”. For the immigrants, it’s a cold, inhospitable substitute for home and the white man’s cruelty trails them wherever they go.

Perhaps times were different or she evaded these issues, but Lahiri’s early works did not speak much about racism or xenophobia. Yes, there was unfamiliarity but it was almost always the immigrant’s doing – after all, don’t we all feel unwanted in a new place? However, in Roman Stories, almost every story tackles these issues head-on – verbal abuse (a middle-aged lady finds chits in her pocket that say “You’re dirty” in a child’s handwriting), explicit threats to go back “home” (the white man says he’s “afraid” of people like the protagonist while the protagonist remembers the indiscriminate bombing on his homeland that killed his grandfather), and being physically harmed for being different (a foreign domestic worker is shot at before some boys tell her to “cover [her] dirty legs”).

As the Romans are

In doing so, she humanises Rome. To most of us, Rome exists in the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain. A modern Rome – with cell phones, high-rises, and hate crimes – jeopardises its ancient, glorious past. How many of us, including the most knowledgeable tourists, can claim to know the Romans? In Lahiri’s Rome, the architectural marvels are simply a part of the city’s skyline. She’s interested in those who inhabit the city – professors, journalists, domestic workers, children. Rome is not a figment of a tourist’s romanticised imagination but simply a sprawling city – as deserving of a resident’s fondness and admiration as it is of criticism and distaste. “This city is shit. But so damn beautiful.” After all, isn’t this how each one of us loves our own city and country?

As with her earlier works of fiction, Roman Stories also engages with each generation’s understanding of home and alienness. If the parents feel strange in a new country and in a new language, the children feel alienated because of how they look or the house rules that are imposed on them. The new generation speaks the new language with ease (“he spoke our language perfectly well, and even had a touch of our city’s language”) and in many cases are citizens of the new country and yet the difficulties that bog down the parents put the children in a limbo where they belong in neither culture.

Roman Stories is a work of deep contemplation. Every time I think I have read the best that Lahiri has to offer, she reinvents herself and writes something even more extraordinary, more sublime. She has always written with precision and Italian seems to allow even more exactness. The sparse, composed writing (and translation) is a testament to Lahiri’s stories literally and figuratively crossing linguistic and cultural boundaries to convey a simple idea: Here is a city. Here are its residents. And these are their stories.

Of the nine stories in the collection, three are translated by Todd Portnowitz. Both Lahiri and Portnowitz’s voices are consistent and complement each other’s. I’d have never known who’s translated what had I not read the Acknowledgements.

As I made a note of the final sentence in the book, I realised how incredibly lucky I was as a reader to witness this transformation of one of her favourite writers in real-time. Calcutta. Massachusetts. Rome. Lahiri is on an incredible journey and I get to travel with her. Through words, cities, and languages. And fleeting memories (and mentions) of Bengal.

Roman Stories, Jhumpa Lahiri, translated from the Italian by the author with Todd Portnowitz, Penguin Hamish Hamilton.