Friday, 4 April 2008

‘Hell-Heaven’ – Story by Zhumpa Lahiri

‘Hell-Heaven’ – Story by Zhumpa Lahiri
Review by Remigius de Souza

Aesthetics of hedonism

Zumpa Lahiri’s “Hell-Heaven”, a short story (from her collection ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is being released in India by Random House on April 4, 2008) was circulated by Hindustan Times last Sunday to its readers.

The story is about Bhadralok – the Elite Bengali – Family migrated to America (in 1970s), and the cross currents and undercurrents between two cultures. The protagonist is Pranab Chakraborty, and the story is told by Usha – the daughter of the family – in first person.

I am not writing about the technique of or critic on the writing. The theme of the story, of course, is love, largely interpreted as ‘sex’ these days.

The story is an excellent documentary, which also includes how Usha grows in the cross cultural environment: First she has crushes, then dates, then she has love affairs that lead to sleeping with different (I suppose American) men, and finally a heartbreak, as the story of Pranab comes to an end. By this time Usha is reaching thirty – her middle age, and sooner may run into menopause; her mother reaches fifty.

By now the mother has accepted (or submitted) to the way of life Usha is going through, and consoles her daughter that she would find another love – as we say here in Hindi: “Tu Nahin, Aur Sahi; Aur Nahin Aur Sahi” (If you are not then another, if not then yet another…).

These are common experiences, now, everywhere, not only among the immigrants in foreign countries but even in India. The wealth, prosperity, the surplus… have their obvious fallout, even among the “have not” as well as the “haves”. Neither the affluent nor the orthodox societies have any answers. The elders have miserably failed them. Meanwhile the young have found their options/ alternatives irrespective of traditional values and /or religious commandments; violence in reality or in virtual reality is not ruled out.

At fifty Usha’s mother has not come off her age; she seems to be still an adolescent.

Reading "HELL-HEAVEN" by Zumpa Lahiri has been most stimulating for me.

© Remigius de Souza, all rights reserved.


  1. I share your views on this masterpiece by jhumpa Lahiri. The style is marvellous and so is the theme. The concept of universal search is within all of us and at no given point do we get satisfaction by what life offers us. Or may be craving for the impossible is what keeps us alive. I get a glimpse of james Joyce and a bleak shadow of Virginia Woolf in Lahiri's writings. She's mastering the art of story writing with the passage of time. Here's to the art of writing...

  2. Thank you Siama for your most balanced comment.
    I generally don’t compare authors of text or graphics or buildings, or persons e.g. my students (in the past).
    I intend to write more on the issue that I have risen in this review.

  3. Yes,I liked the comments and the story. The syory also describes the same events from the point of view of 3 women who have suffered same pain. Tjough Usha's love brake is not clear,the pain between the lines is evident.
    May be Zumpa Lahiri should write a story from Kakus parents side who lost their son who was in search of nowhere.
    Prakash Woburn,MA

  4. How can you call her 'Zumpa Lahiri' if you've read the book? Her name is clearly Jhumpa, whcih is the way it's spelt on the cover!

  5. Thanks.
    I regret the error. However, The New Yorker mentions the name as "Jhumpa Lahiri". and frankly I have not read the book, but only a story.Jhumpa Lahiri is not her real name, though.


  6. its jhumpa lahiri and i believe its her real name.

  7. Hi Trini
    Thanks for showing the error.
    It is not her real name. This time I shall check and let you know.

    I liked your blogs.

  8. Arch, u are right.
    It's not her real name.
    I googled out and found that her real name is Nilanjana Sudeshna.

    Thanx for liking my blogs. :)

  9. I'm not sure you even understood the main thrust of the story. The overarching plot has to do with unrequited love between Pranab and Usha's mother. The mother is clearly in love with the man, and is unable to articulate it due to cultural mores and social expectations. Moreover, she's in a marriage with a comparatively dull husband, and is massively unfulfilled as a woman. Pranab is the one unexpected pleasure, as Lahiri puts it. And it destroys her when he marries an American, although she never admits it. Even though she comes close to committing suicide. The only way this is relevant to Usha is when the mother tells her daughter that as a way of assuaging Usha's broken heart. There is nothing adolescent about such behaviour, in fact its the opposite. According insight to your children about your own life lessons is a very adult, parental thing to do.

    Seriously - not sure you read the same story I did. And how is the Bhadralok aspect even relevant given the context?

  10. @anonymous,
    I thank my birth in Indic land that gave me exposure to many cultural and social sub-groups: a Grand Open University, no fees, no copyright attached, no certificates issued!

    I thank you for your frank views, which of course are predictable. I don't trust any textual authority, od Art for Art's sake. However, your comment helped me to crystallize my thoughts further.

    Many have accessed this post and left quietly, for obvious reasons that I can imagine. No regrets!

    Need I say I don't subscribe to values of any of decadent civil societies? Events and Products – story, cinema, TV, PC, city, architecture or atom bomb – are designed to desired ends. Is the desired end is aesthetics or ethics?

    There are larger issues before whole humanity that is beyond advanced societies, e.g. ‘To Flower the Creativity of All People', than Arts, Sciences, Philosophies, Religions...