Lahiri probes the immigrant identity in her first novel
Much has happened in the life of Jhumpa Lahiri since she was awarded the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for her first book, Interpreter of Maladies, an exquisite collection of short stories whose central characters are Indian immigrants to America.
In early 2001, Lahiri married Alberto Vourvoulias Bush, a journalist with Time magazine, in a traditional Bengali wedding ceremony in Kolkata (or Calcutta). A little more than a year later, the couple had their first child, a son. And shortly after that, Lahiri received a Guggenheim fellowship and completed work on her fine first novel, The Namesake, which is being released this month.
So maybe it's no surprise that Lahiri says winning the Pulitzer has had no real impact on her. "It doesn't affect what I do," she says during a call to her home in New York. "It doesn't really affect how I work." She says she continues to maintain her long-time practice of writing in the mornings. "Having recently had a child has made things a little more challenging," she says. "But things are working out pretty well and my life has moved smoothly into this new phase of motherhood.
"In conversation, Lahiri is poised, friendly, self-deprecating and slightly reserved. "I'm not a very good close reader of my own work," she demurs when asked to explain the meaning of an incident near the end of The Namesake. "I look for meaning in other people's work, not my own."
This probably isn't as startling as it first sounds. After all, the experience of writing fiction is certainly different from the experience of reading it. And Lahiri says writing is always "very hard" for her. "There are other things that I think of as pleasures in my life, like eating a good meal, being with someone I love, or seeing a beautiful piece of art. Writing is work. I tend to doubt it all the way through. But I know that if I don't write, I feel like something is not right inside of me and with the world. Writing is a vital part of my existence and the way I think about and experience life. It's all very connected to my well-being as a person."
None of Lahiri's doubts and difficulties with writing are evident in The Namesake, a remarkably assured first novel. Readers will find here the same elegant, deceptively simple prose that garnered so much praise for her short stories. Here too are many of the familiar themes - alienation, loss, connection, regeneration - that Lahiri explored so deftly and with such subtlety and clear-sighted compassion in her story collection. But in The Namesake, Lahiri has "more room to poke around in the lives of the characters and their backgrounds." The result is a seemingly quiet, almost undramatic novel whose characters and incidents continue to leap freshly to mind weeks after reading it.
The Namesake tells the story of Gogol Ganguli, the American-born son of Ashoke Ganguli, who arrives in Massachusetts from India in the late 1960s as an engineering student, and Ashima, Ashoke's wife through an arranged marriage. Gogol, named by his father in honor of the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, struggles to transform himself and escape the traditions of his family and the community of Indian immigrants to which his family belongs. Part of Gogol's escape plan involves changing his name.
"The original spark for the novel was to write about a boy with a peculiar name, a name that sort of plagued him," Lahiri says. "In the process of writing the book, I realized that it was important and inevitable for him to accept his name, to realize that there is never a way to shed what is given to you by your parents. The book isn't so much about names per se. It's more about what we inherit from our parents - certain ideas, certain values, certain genes - the whole complex set of things that everyone gets from their parents and the way that, no matter how much we create our own lives and choose what we want out of life, it's very difficult to escape our origins."
Gogol and the other characters of The Namesake come fully to life through the slow accretion of detail. As readers of her short stories know, Lahiri is an exceptional observer of human behavior. She writes, for example, with remarkable insight about something as seemingly routine as people preparing and eating food.
"I like cooking and eating all different kinds of food," Lahiri says. "And I come from a very food-oriented family. Like most children of immigrants, I'm aware of how important food becomes for foreigners who are trying to deal with life in a new world. Food is a very deep part of people's lives and it has incredible meaning beyond the obvious nutritional aspects. My parents have given up so many basic things coming here from the life they once knew - family, love, connections - and food is one thing that they've really held onto."
Lahiri was born in London and raised in Rhode Island. Her father, a university librarian, and her mother, a school teacher, are originally from Kolkata. "A lot of the novel rose out of my experience of growing up," Lahiri says, "and while The Namesake is not explicitly autobiographical, it sticks pretty closely to the general way I was raised. I drew not only from my own experiences but more widely from experiences of the children of my parents' Bengali friends in creating Gogol's character."
But Lahiri resists any idea that she's "representing a group. I would never claim to be doing that. These characters are a very few examples of the range of experience out there. I find it gratifying just to work with words, with language, to work through memories, experiences, observations, imagined things and situations, all of that combined, to try to make things come to life on the page."
Which is exactly what Jhumpa Lahiri succeeds in doing in The Namesake.
Alden Mudge is a writer in Oakland, California.