NEA Literature Fellowships

Jhumpa Lahiri

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(2006 - Prose)

From the short story "Hell-Heaven"

Outings in the Volkswagen now involved the four of us, Deborah in the front, her hand over Pranab Kaku's while it rested on the gearshift, my mother and I in the back. Soon, my mother began coming up with reasons to excuse herself, headaches and incipient colds, and so I became part of a new triangle. To my surprise, my mother allowed me to go with them, to the Museum of Fine Arts and the Public Garden and the aquarium. She was waiting for the affair to end, for Deborah to break Pranab Kaku's heart and for him to return to us, scarred and penitent. I saw no sign of their relationship foundering. Their open affection for each other, their easily expressed happiness, was a new and romantic thing to me. Having me in the back seat allowed Pranab Kaku and Deborah to practice for the future, to try on the idea of a family of their own. Countless photographs were taken of me and Deborah, of me sitting on Deborah's lap, holding her hand, kissing her on the cheek. We exchanged what I believed were secret smiles, and in those moments I felt that she understood me better than anyone else in the world. Anyone would have said that Deborah would make an excellent mother one day. But my mother refused to acknowledge such a thing. I did not know at the time that my mother allowed me to go off with Pranab Kaku and Deborah because she was pregnant for the fifth time since my birth, and was so sick and exhausted and fearful of losing another baby that she slept most of the day. After ten weeks, she miscarried once again, and was advised by her doctor to stop trying.

By summer, there was a diamond on Deborah's left hand, something my mother had never been given. Because his own family lived so far away, Pranab Kaku came to the house alone one day, to ask for my parents' blessing before giving her the ring. He showed us the box, opening it and taking out the diamond nestled inside. "I want to see how it looks on someone," he said, urging my mother to try it on, but she refused. I was the one who stuck out my hand, feeling the weight of the ring suspended at the base of my finger. Then he asked for a second thing: he wanted my parents to write to his parents, saying that they had met Deborah and that they thought highly of her. He was nervous, naturally, about telling his family that he intended to marry an American girl. He had told his parents all about us, and at one point my parents had received a letter from them, expressing appreciation for taking such good care of their son and for giving him a proper home in America. "It needn't be long," Pranab Kaku said. "Just a few lines. They'll accept it more easily if it comes from you." My father thought neither ill nor well of Deborah, never commenting or criticizing as my mother did, but he assured Pranab Kaku that a letter of endorsement would be on its way to Calcutta by the end of the week. My mother nodded her assent, but the following day I saw the teacup Pranab Kaku had used all this time as an ashtray in the kitchen garbage can, in pieces, and three Band-Aids taped to my mother's hand.

Jhumpa Lahiri is the author of Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, both from Houghton Mifflin. She was born in 1967 in London, England, and was raised in Rhode Island. She obtained a BA in English literature from Barnard College, an MA in English, an MFA in Creative Writing, an MA in Comparative Studies in Literature and the Arts, and a PhD in Renaissance Studies from Boston University. Her work has received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the PEN/Hemingway Award, the American Academy of Arts & Letters Addison M. Metcalf Award, and a Best Debut of the Year by The New Yorker. She has been a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 2002. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children.

Photo by Marion Ettlinger

Author's Statement

I am enormously grateful for the honor of an NEA fellowship, which comes at a most valuable time in my life. I am currently at work on a collection of short stories. I am also the mother of two young children and, needless to say, the time and energy I devote to them in the course of each day is considerable. The fellowship is a gift in two ways. First, it will allow me to finance childcare, making it logistically possible for me to write. Second, in a period when my creative life often threatens to vanish behind the responsibilities of motherhood, my grant will remind me that I am also a writer, and that as compromised as the hours at the desk may be, they are necessary and vital. This belief is essential for a writer at any stage of his or her career. Without it one is unmoored. No amount of prior accomplishment makes facing the empty page any easier; what anchors us is the conviction that we must work even when it feels impossible or inconsequential. This is the root of making art, the source that allows the imagination to thrive.