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Jhumpa comes of age with The Namesake
- From short stories to novel

“Beyond surprise” is the way Jhumpa Lahiri describes her response to the phone call she received three years ago, informing her she had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Her astonishment was well-earned. After all, she was 33 years old and up against the veteran Annie Proulx for the coveted award. Her book, The Interpreter of Maladies, was not only her first but a collection of stories rather than a novel.

But the gracefully written and haunting stories, set in India and the US, connected with readers. After a first printing of 17,500, the book went on to sell 600,000 copies. “The extreme delicacy of the way the emotion was handled was admirable,” said Wendy Lesser, one of the Pulitzer judges. “She’s really terrific.”

It goes without saying that Lahiri’s second book — and first novel — has been eagerly anticipated.

In a telephone conversation from Brooklyn, where she lives with her journalist-husband and their 16-month-old son, Lahiri speaks thoughtfully and carefully about her work but clearly isn’t comfortable with the celebrity that has come with being a hot — and highly photogenic — new writer. Her 2001 wedding in Calcutta turned into something of a media frenzy, much to Lahiri’s dismay. She’s happy about winning the Pulitzer, but said she tried to put it out of her mind when she was working on The Namesake.

“It’s not like the prize helps you to write the new thing, the next thing. It’s something that very much reflects the past and not the future.”

She began writing The Namesake in 1997 and worked on it off and on in the following years as The Interpreter of Maladies made its way into print. The novel began with a name, Gogol, attached to a Bengali boy. Though by no means a common practice, it isn’t unknown for Indian parents to name a son after the 19th-century Russian writer best known for mordantly comic short stories like The Nose and The Overcoat and for his novel Dead Souls.

Lahiri had a cousin named Gogol. She wanted to explore how a boy so named dealt with it — “or didn’t deal, as is more the case”, the author said, laughing.

Memories of a long-ago catastrophe in India prompt Gogol Ganguli’s parents to lay that moniker on him. The novel begins in the late 1960s with the newly married Ashoke and Ashima trying to settle into their new life in the Boston area, where Ashoke is to pursue an engineering degree. Ashima, eight-and-half-months pregnant, stands in the kitchen of her small apartment “combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl” when the labour pains arrive, heralding Gogol’s arrival.

The book is a coming-of-age novel, but a coming-of-age for the entire family, Lahiri has said. Along the way The Namesake visits familiar themes of immigrant literature — difficulties of assimilation, divided cultural loyalties, the tug between old country and new, strife between older and younger generations.

For Lahiri the book is about “learning to accept who you are, learning to accept your circumstances in life, learning to accept that life brings you to certain places you may not necessarily like, that may not necessarily make sense, and learning to live with that”. It’s a journey that not only Gogol but also other characters in the book must make.

Though not autobiographical, the novel has some parallels to her family’s experience. Her parents emigrated to England, where Lahiri was born. When she was three the family moved to Rhode Island, where her father worked as a cataloguer at the University of Rhode Island and her mother worked as a teacher’s assistant.

In India, she was neither tourist nor native. In the US, she never knew how to answer the question: “Where are you from'”

“If I say I’m from Rhode Island, people are seldom satisfied…. They want to know more, based on such things as my name, my appearance, etc. Alternatively, if I say I’m from India, a place where I was not born and have never lived, this is also inaccurate. It bothers me less now. But it bothered me growing up, the feeling that there was no single place to which I fully belonged.”

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