Jhumpa Lahiri on Unaccustomed Earth


JhumpaThe author explains how months or years can elapse between a story’s conception and its construction (The Guardian Book Club)

Many of the stories were abandoned for several years before I returned to them. The first to be conceived, and among the last to be written, was “Once in a Lifetime”. I began working with the characters and situation – two families living for a time under the same roof – in 1998, the year before my first collection, Interpreter of Maladies, was published. Initially I thought the ingredients of the story might yield a novel. But after introducing the premise, and establishing a tension between Kaushik and Hema, the two principal characters, I was unable to move forward. The story was narrated in the third person then, and though the characters felt alive and specific to me, the structure was feeble and the narration felt flat, without heat or dimension. I set it aside and went on to draft The Namesake, my first novel.

After The Namesake was published in 2003, I decided to work on short stories again. I didn’t touch the pages about Hema and Kaushik. Instead, I struggled to resurrect another half-realised idea, which ultimately became “Hell-Heaven”. Some years before, I had set up the situation of the story, only to stall after a handful of pages. The first important change I made was to shift the point of view from the third person to the first.

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