With a Pulitzer Prize, international sex appeal and a national tour to pump her new novel, Jhumpa Lahiri has gotten used to seeing her name in the limelight. Her award-winning debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, catapulted this one-time Cambridge resident into literary stardom, and not surprisingly, generated no small amount of buzz among a First Parish Church crowd last week.
The Namesake, Lahiri’s much anticipated sophomore effort and first novel, tells the story of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, newlyweds from Calcutta who immigrate to Cambridge in the sixties and begin life anew. When their son is born, the couple anxiously awaits a letter from a grandmother that will decide the infant’s name, but the letter never arrives.
Unexpectedly, the couple must decide on a name quickly, and settle on Gogol, the surname of Nikolai Gogol, a Russian author whose work Ashoke is convinced saved his own life years earlier. Gogol Ganguli is born into a world of multicultural sensibilities, his name an indication of his own hybrid existence.
When asked about the origins of the novel, Lahiri said that it began with the name. A neighborhood boy in Calcutta, whom she had never actually met, was named Gogol, and she “filed [it] away” in her mind.
She said she was fascinated with the idea of how “certain names are accepted in one place and not others.”
For all the acclaim and acceptance in the literary world Lahiri has garnered, her presence seems to belie it. After being introduced by Wordsworth Books’ William Corbett, Lahiri walked onstage with the quiet poise that is so common in her writing. Before reading an excerpt from Namesake, she commented on her own experience in Cambridge so many years ago.
“[The Namesake] is very much about people living two lives,” she said, something she could relate to, having been born in London and raised in Rhode Island and Cambridge by Indian immigrants.
Though most of the novel takes place in New York, Lahiri noted that it was “born in an apartment on Comm. Ave.” Many of the stories in Maladies also involve Indian-Americans living in Cambridge.
The dichotomy between opposing cultures is striking in The Namesake as well as Maladies.
In the former, Ashoke and Ashima live in a “fully furnished apartment 10 minutes by foot to Harvard, 20 to MIT.”
Their landlords, a Harvard sociology professor and his wife, embrace lifestyles the Bengali couple cannot fathom; they leave their two young daughters, Amber and Clover, home alone without concern, and own a Volkswagen decorated with anti-authoritarian bumper-stickers.
When Ashima visits their apartment once, to take care of Amber and Clover, and winds up sitting on Alan and Judy’s mattress, she “[cries] out, falling clumsily backward, startled to discover that it was filled with water.”
This outcry is common in Lahiri’s work. For so many of her characters, the difficulty of acclimating to a new lifestyle, so different in attitude and custom from their own, is troubling. Thus naming Gogol in The Namesake becomes all-important; without his grandmother’s name, the child will be truly cut from his Bengali roots.
When the compiler of hospital birth-certificates, Mr. Wilcox, suggests naming “him after yourself, or one of your ancestors,” the parents are horrified. “This tradition doesn’t exist for Bengalis…this sign of respect in America and Europe…would be ridiculed in India.”
When asked if her own name was difficult to cope with and whether she had “found” her own identity, Lahiri said that she didn’t think identity could ever be found, but that her own two worlds were not always compatible. In her opinion, her two worlds don’t always “sit side by side smoothly,” and in this respect, much of the novel draws upon her own experiences as the daughter of Indian immigrants.
Nor does Lahiri think it’s possible to create an identity. “There is no end point,” she said. Instead people are constantly “adding and editing” and becoming more comfortable with the contradictions of their lives and backgrounds—a process Lahiri said she has found for herself in her writing as well.