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Unfurling Rome in Nine Stories

Express News Service

If Lahiri’s 1999-Pulitzer winning short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, and her most recent novel, Whereabouts, were to have a lovechild, it would be Roman Stories. In these nine stories, readers are let into the intimate, debilitating world of her characters as place and time define the many internal conflicts upsetting them.

Divided into three parts with four stories at either end, and a long one in between, the pieces were first written in Italian and then translated into English by Lahiri and editor and poet Todd Portnowitz, with each tale unfurling a new way of being in Rome.

Each story features unnamed characters. Lahiri uses anonymity to peel layers off Rome’s character through its inhabitants. Take the first story, ‘The Boundary’, for instance. Here, a father-daughter duo are taking care of a vacation home, away from the city. A family of four arrives, gets used to the home, and then celebrates a birthday with a cake bought from a shop in the city. The father, who comes from “much farther away than anyone who vacations here”, rejects the cake. Lahiri captures Rome in that slice of cake. The layers glueing the cake together are like the Italian capital’s spatial fabric, comprising a piazza with everything from a “pleasant” flower shop to an “emergency room”.

For the author, understanding a person’s ideology is integral to really knowing the space they occupy, and she makes a concerted effort towards this end through the collection; more specifically in ‘The Reentry’ and ‘Notes’. In both, she has let her middle-aged women characters encounter childhood in its basest forms. In the former, it’s a university professor with “dark hair” who’s wondering why Rome treats her differently even though it’s here she feels most “at home”. In the latter, a Bengali tailor, who enjoys watching the city from buses, questions why it wants to wipe her away like scraping “away the excess”.

Lahiri discovers these Roman experiences of belongingness, alienation and ethnocentric discrimination by tracing the origins of the city’s ideologies to its inhabitants’ childhoods. The children of Rome, she contends, grow to spread “shattered glass” and “perch on the steps like flies”, and are unforgiving to such women. The stories bring to mind the author’s portrait of the protagonist in Whereabouts, besides British novelist Rachel Cusk’s rendering of flustered womanhood in Outline, where the space of a city morphs with its patriarchal, xenophobic beliefs. Roman Stories offers a stunning contrast to the idealised version of global cities, where cultures tend to absorb each other without resistance, or where women are said to be truly free.

Like Rome, her stories ‘Dante Alighieri’, ‘P’s Parties’, ‘Well-Lit House’, and ‘The Procession’, are steeped in historical memories of—both the city’s and the character’s—grief. Unrequited love, betrayal, violence, death and long unresolved sadness anchor these tales, where the characters hate and love Rome. Dante’s Rome “switches between heaven and hell” for a woman once loved by a boy who called himself Dante Alighieri. In another story, a Muslim man finds his wife’s presence in the city scarier than her unfair absence.

By the end of the nine stories, Lahiri manages to evoke a riot of reactions towards Rome among the readers. ‘The Steps’ and ‘The Delivery’, for instance, spark anger as stories of the city’s denizens spiral in ways that churn the character’s melancholy into rage. The uneven, moss-coated steps in Rome are urban infrastructures of both power and resistance, and Lahiri gives an account of how the steps connecting different neighbourhoods make everyday possible. In the next story, we find a woman, who does household chores for an architect, feeling a stab of envy knowing how the city is no more hers, but of the young people.

With sentences strung together in Lahiri’s familiar rhythm, the book is a masterpiece. That people may come and go, but a city that floats around in popular proverb goes on living forever, is reiterated. The collection is not simply an ode to Rome, but a bittersweet worship of a space, which has defined the author’s associations with the Italian language. Rome, in her stories, is not just about the people it contains and pushes out, but also the nooks and crannies that have kept the city alive.

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