Leaving no remains: Death among the Bengalis in Jhumpa Lahiri's fiction

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


The obsession with remains in the wake of a devastated human century has been taken up in the work of European philosophers like Walter Benjamin, Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jacqueline Rose and theorists like Marianne Hirsch and Kaja Silverman. That the Jewish Holocaust looms large over these theorizations and that the graphemic (both inscribed and visual) presides over these discourses on remains is undeniable, but these animadversions also open the door to other kinds of unmoorings and unravelings. This specter of spectacular death that haunts our historical moment is rendered suspect in IndoAmerican writer Jhumpa Lahiri s work; instead, in her deathly preoccupation with the realm of the intimate and the domestic, she offers an unspeakably private contradistinction to public forms and forums of clamorous mourning. I understand Lahiri s work as first and foremost offering an ethics of mourning and a poetics of remembrance, where the death scene is made the literal representation of the in absentia remains of a model diaspora. The death scenes perform the function of witnessing the otherwise uncataloged lives of a specific migrant community she writes about, the Hindu Bengalis from the Indian subcontinent. In Lahiri s fiction, death in the adopted land becomes a site for fixing and rooting the migrant into his or her adopted country, a claim final and irrefutable. The deeply personal nature of her strokes brings our attention back to the domestic and quotidian aspects of common death scenes in a century embroiled in the spectacularity of death. Lahiri captures the ways in which death scenes necessitate a deeply involved and intricate processing of remains, a processing that calls on us to marshal all that is contextual in the human socius. This is not to suggest that the private and the personal are not the political; to the contrary, it is precisely in her refusal to proclaim publicity for her death scenes along with a relentless pursuit of that which remains (and not) that Lahiri critiques the politicized vulgarization of death in our times. (C) 2011 Duke University Press.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)813 - 829
Number of pages17
JournalSouth Atlantic Quarterly
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2011
Externally publishedYes

Cite this